4th November 1140
The original Torteval church was consecrated
Torteval has one of the most distinctive churches on Guernsey. Its round tower is unique, and it has both crenellations and a spire. That’s not a bad claim for the smallest parish on the island.
However, the current church hasn’t always been the focus of its residents’ worship. It is actually built on the site of an earlier church, for which the date of its consecration is disputed. The Strangers’ Guide to the Islands of Guernsey and Jersey by JE Collins (1833) puts it on 1 November; the History of Guernsey by Jonathan Duncan (1841) says 4 November. The one thing they both agree on is the year: 1140.
The original church, dedicated to St Philip, “appears to have consisted of a chancel, nave, south aisle and porch, and a low square tower, pinnacled and surrounded by an octagonal spire at the west end of the nave,” according to Duncan’s History of Guernsey.
The Strangers’ Guide delves into its founding:
It is said to have been built by Philip de Carteret, a native of the island of Jersey, who encountering a dreadful storm at sea made a vow, that if Providence should spare his life, he would build a church on the first land to which he came. The vessel miraculously made the harbour in Rocquaine Bay, about midnight on the thirteenth day of September 1129, and he accordingly performed his vow by erecting the church; this edifice falling to decay, a new church has been recently erected: it is a neat building in the gothic style, with a tower and lofty spire, a part of the latter was blown down, but will be shortly replaced.
The original church had fallen into disrepair, so was demolished in 1816 to make way for its replacement.
The “new” building was designed by Cumbria-born John Wilson who is responsible for several other buildings on Guernsey, including St James, Castle Carey, Elizabeth College, Fountain Street, the meat market and Town Church.
He had arrived on the island in 1813 to supervise the building of the local garrison’s barracks, as well as barracks on neighbouring Alderney. His work on the current Torteval church was therefore one of his earlier jobs on Guernsey.
Changes in Torteval
The present Torteval church has the tallest steeple on the island, containing Guernsey’s oldest bell. Indeed, the steeple is so tall that it was previously used as a navigation aid for mariners.
The Hampshire Chronicle in 1820 published a description of Guernsey from the sea. It warned that its appearance had changed since the erection of the church and the rebuilding of the Doyle monument. The steeple would, it said, “appear very lofty and remarkable – so that mariners will never be deceived… by taking Guernsey for the Land’s End or the Scilly Isles”.
It was even suggested that a light should be installed at the top of the steeple to make it an official navigation point. However, Trinity House, the British lighthouse authority, discounted this idea after conducting its own survey.