Tuesday, 20 July 2010


This is from the Exmouth Journal of 19th June 2009 with the somewhat bizarre original punctuation. (All those commas!!!) This is,however, the best telling that I have found of this rather silly ‘legend’ and now that it is over a hundred years old I suppose it must be considered a genuine antique. It is, at the least, much better told here than in the late Llywelyn Maddock’s ‘West Country Folk Tales.’

“A curious legend attaches to the Parson and Clerk Rock,. It runs as follows:-

The Rector of Dunchideock was a parson of the old type; he loved wine, he loved good living, and he loved the Chase. He had ambition, too, and thought that the Bishopric of Exeter was not out of his reach. In both his serious and lighter purposes his clerk was always present, and shared all his carouses, as well as his clerical duties. Dunchideock lies at the foot of Haldon, the hills separating the Exe from the Teign, and here runs the road between Holcolmbe and Dawlish. On a dark night it was difficult to keep the track, but the parson and clerk knew every foot of the road between Exeter and the Warren. The Bishop of Exeter was dying in Dawlish and three days in every week the horses were saddled at Dunchideock, and the parson, with his faithful clerk, galloped over the heath to Dawlish.

One afternoon the news reached them that the Bishop had suddenly become worse, and was on the point of death. “Hurrah!” roared the parson, and he and his clerk set off to be, as they said, “in at the death,” and “I’ll be Bishop of Exeter.” The horses were brought and the parson and clerk rode off. “Confound it”, said the former, “it will be dark in half an hour.” As he spoke thick, dark clouds rose up over the moor. The mist rose from the Exe, and hid the valley. The clouds spread murky blackness, and a moan came from the moor. Again they cursed the darkness, and drops of rain fell. The parson beat his horse; the clerk did likewise. The wind howled and the darkness increased. In vain they endeavoured to find their way; the lightning flashed, the thunder re-echoed, and the air was black as pitch. “May Satan take us to Dawlish,” cried both the riders, “for we shall never get there by ourselves.” A furious roar of thunder followed this expression, followed by the galloping of a horse. The parson and clerk reined in their horses – they were plucky fellows – and waited for the rider, who came up close to them, but so black were both that they could hardly be distinguished from the blackness of the night. The parson roared out his trouble, and asked the way to Dawlish.

The black stranger told him to follow the sound of his horse, and trotted off. The parson and clerk followed close behind. On they rode unril they could hear the sea dashing against the cliffs, and judged they were near. Suddenly their guide stopped before a large house, and invited them to enter. When they had done so they found a brilliantly-lighted saloon, and a splendid supper laid out, and a large queer-looking party assembled. Thanking their host they sat down, without noticing the grins and leers of the other guests. Black-jacks began to circulate freely. The parson sang songs with decidedly profane choruses. The night wore away in revelry, when one of the party said that the old Bishop was dead. Up jumped the parson and clerk, with many curses, and called for their horses. They went out. The waves were dashing furiously against the cliff, and the very ground shook with the violence of the wind and sea. They mounted their horses, and the supper party gave a diabolical shout of laughter.

The parson struck his horse, but it would not move. The horses of clerk and parson stood motionless. At last they gave one fearful plunge. The house disappeared; the guests dashed away with yells of mirth; there was a dreadful shock, and neither parson nor clerk were again seen alive. The good people of Dawlish, coming out next morning early to see what damage had been done by the storm, saw that the sea had dashed down part of their red cliff, which had broken in two as it fell; on the larger portion the dead body of the parson was found, on the smaller that of the clerk.”


  1. now that it is over a hundred years old I suppose it must be considered a genuine antique

    Oh, we can take it back further than that ; in Notes & Queries in 1868, someone mentions - here - reading it in a book called Legends of Devon they bought in 1853 ... but rightly speculating to what extent these legends were invented by the authors who anthologised them.

  2. Thanks for pushing the 'legend' back half a century. I first met it in Nummits and Crummits (1900?) but I like the splayed dead bodies at the end of the EJ version much better than 'parsons turned to stone.' I must say that I find the story horribly contrived and annoying, largely because its begetter, and I feel sure it was a sole one, seems to want us to ignore the wonderful fun of the name for the rocks which, especially from the sea, look just like parson and clerk of a Sunday in a double decker pulpit in a Devon church. I shall blog it further one day.

  3. PS I just investigated some more and I think I've tracked it to source, a weird little 1848 privately-published anthology called Legends of Devon: see Parsons unknown. I had server trouble and haven't got them at this instant, but there are older references to the rocks having the name: but, as you say, they refer to the physical resemblance, not some complicated backstory.