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  • Claire Vorster

Kingsbridge Cathedral: Now You See It, Now You Don't

An intriguing mystery is unfolding in the beautiful, ancient market town of Kingsbridge in Devon. People are on the look out for a C12th Cathedral, which does not exist. Kingsbridge Tourist Information and local residents confirm that people often come to Kingsbridge looking for its Cathedral. Helen Jean Tillot is the manager of local restaurant The Shambles, which itself dates back to Tudor times. She was made aware of the mystery cathedral by an American tourist. Another local resident recounts a time in the Pyrenees, when a French doctor became very animated on the subject of the putative Cathedral.

So why do tourists as far away as America and France think that Kingsbridge Cathedral exists?

The answer has everything to do with the bestselling book, Pillars of the Earth, by popular suspense author, Ken Follett. Follett's sweeping novel pitches the reader into the cold, damp, difficult lives of central character Tom Builder as he tries to keep starvation from the door of his family. Although penniless, Tom harbours a life-long dream. He yearns to put his talent for building to work on the most ambitious project available to a man of his time - the building of a cathedral. The location for this cathedral? Kingsbridge, Follett’s semi-fictional town set in a beautiful corner of South West England.

This book has captured international imagination to the extent that filming of an eight hour television adaptation is well underway. The series will be produced in association with Ridley and Tony Scott; responsible for epic movies such as Nottingham, Gladiator and Enemy of the State. British actor Ian McShane is slated to play the villain of the piece. He is no stranger to sinister roles. The cast includes Donald Sutherland, Matthew Macfadyen and Sarah Parish - with a wealth of intriguing, heroic and duplicitous characters for the actors to enjoy.

In real life, the modern town of Kingsbridge is made up of two medieval towns - Kingsbridge and Dodbrooke - originally a quarter of a mile apart. Kingsbridge and the lands around it passed into the possession of the Abbot of Buckfast Abbey some time after the Norman Conquest. The Abbot of Buckfast was granted the right to hold a market in Kingsbridge in 1219, his monks selling their produce of honey, fruit, vegetables and thick cream, and so began the tradition of Kingsbridge as a market town, which continues to this day.

Thankfully, visitors to Kingsbridge and the surrounding area have a wide choice of churches with historical significance to explore. St. Thomas of Canterbury, Dodbrooke is one fine example, itself in the town of Kingsbridge. St Thomas, also featured in Follett’s story. He is a colourful, tragic figure who personifies the Mediaeval battle between church and state in many ways.

There are many wonderful churches throughout Devon that speak of the grit and courage of ordinary people. People just like Tom Builder, Follett’s fictional stone mason. These men and women left us their stories among the stones. Why not visit one of Devon’s many historic local churches, abbeys or the Cathedral at Exeter? Take some well-earned time out to enjoy what they built for us - the most extraordinary monuments to their faith.

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