Tag Archives: Interpretation

Widger’s Dig

James Lyon Widger was born in Broadhempston village, Devon and spent 20 years excavating the karst limestone caves in Torbryan. He dug alone in the dark to discover a sequence of British wildlife stretching back for 200,000 years. He began in 1865 just as the debate over the age of the world intensified.

His finds tell a story that he himself could not have imagined. His own story is part of the long battle between old ideas and new that are evidenced in the church of Holy Trinity in Torbryan. Working for The Churches Conservation Trust, I developed interpretation to tell that story of change from medieval devotion through Reformation iconoclasm, and we also created this cabinet about Widger’s Dig. It is the next stage in the tale.

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We needed something that would not take over the view from the altar to the tower, as some religious services are still held in Holy Trinity. That something had to convey a sense of mystery to encourage visitors to discover the story for themselves.  Smith & Jones Design created this cube cabinet, and we layered in information and activities for adults and children. I ran a project with Denbury Primary School for six weeks and the children got to grips with the Ice Age and spotted hyenas through Widger. They gave ideas for the cabinet.

The pull-up panels tell James Lyon Widger’s story in brief. The top drawer is about the caves and how far the Ice Age glacial sheet extended over Europe. Then the drawers open as the dig, going downwards and back through time.

Second drawer – showing animals Widger found back to 11,700 BP The Holocene Epoch

Third drawer – Into the Ice Age – to 70,000 BP The Devensian Glacial. Included woolly rhinos, cave lions and hyenas.

Fourth drawer – Warming Up – to 128,000 BP The Ipswichian Interglacial. Included hippos, hyenas and straight-tusked elephants all living around Torbryan.

Fifth drawer – Freezing – to 200,000 BP The Wolstonian Glacial. More woolly rhinos, mammoths, cave lions, and lots of brown bears, clawless otters and wolverines. Layers with different little lemmings, each a specialist herbivore revealing the plants that grew and so the conditions.

Sixth Drawer – Spotted Hyenas. Widger found the remains of 600 hyenas in the caves. The school children studied their behaviour and habitats in Tanzania, realising how the climate had changed around Torbryan; before we went to Torbay Museum and learnt about the Ice Age.

NB No access to the caves, a protected SSSI, on private land, dangerous.


Interpretation & Learning

Creating interpretation – some of the projects

Torbryan Holy Trinity 1450-70.Torbryan Holy Trinity 15th Century Church stands in a tiny Devon village, with its old church house inn still selling beers beyond the lych-gate. This is not a chance relationship. The pub is older than the present church, and built for the purpose of brewing church ales over the almighty hearth to raise money so that the villagers could pay for the upkeep of the nave and tower. Partying was the economic way of devotion and the beers were strong.

Open the weighty door of Holy Trinity and step down onto the stone flags of the church, and rows of 18th century box pews lead to a russet and gilded roodscreen still standing from the 1470s. Better still the screen is faced with painted saints that have mysteriously survived the ravages of the Protestant Reformation. In 2013 two saints were stolen by thieves, who discovered that selling rare medieval art is near impossible. After futile attempts they put them on eBay to be instantly recognised, and now the Saints are back in the screen and the vandals in the clink.

If I were inclined to think as a 15th century inhabitant of Torbryan, I would credit the panels’ miraculous recovery to St Margaret of Antioch, with her dragon, and St Vincent with his millstone.Torbryan right St. Vincent & St Margaret of Antioch

Now there was a 12th C Siva, stolen from a temple site in Tamil Nadu, which was seized by the British police when he/it passed through London en route to the collection of a Canadian oil magnate. The oil magnate and the state of Tamil Nadu sued the police, who had to interplead between the contesting parties. As a consecrated idol, Siva was a sacred being with specific powers and rights, and under Indian law had to plead his own case; there being no statute there for the recovery of cultural property.

The English courts however, could not recognise a God as a plaintiff, as he would be ‘at best, Almighty God, or at worst, a piece of stone’. Eventually a compromise was found and the temple in Tamil Nadu pleaded and recovered the Siva.

It may be that St. Margaret of Antioch had a hand in her recovery, as this remarkable lady was regurgitated from the stomach of a dragon after she tickled his throat with her cross, but I know St. Vincent of Marseilles did not. His claim to sainthood was his refusal to worship all idols. When the authorties insisted that he burn incense before Jupiter, this Roman soldier kicked the statue over, so they flattened him with the millstone.

Considering which, we chose a new alarm, and set to stimulate support for the church by creating interpretation, schools projects and events with HLF funding. The interpretation theme is the battle between old ideas and new.


There is neither lighting nor heating. The  Georgians added box pews, building them over the oak medieval benches. In the early 19th century a very careful restoration was undertaken, changing little.  In Holy Trinity you really do step back in time.

Not intruding on that experience was crucial to the design of the interpretation. Chris Jones of Smith & Jones Design installed dark furniture echoing the square panels of the pews and the colour of the Jacobean font cover. He wrapped a free standing framework around the corners of the tower to minimise its impact in the nave.

I sourced illuminations from medieval manuscripts in the British and Bodleian Libraries, and from the Ranworth Antiphoner in Norfolk, to immerse visitors in the imagery of the time. Artwork they rarely have the chance to see. The text I wrote as story-telling, in varied layers; and created interactive elements, through local school projects to ensure a good fit for their interests and curriculum.

The history of a church is essentially an abstract account of changing ideas ferociously fought over the centuries. The material evidence is there in paint, wood and stone, but it was what people thought that created and damaged the fabric. Few of the public today have any grasp of its complexity. The exhibition in Holy Trinity church tells that story as it was acted out through Torbryan and South Devon.


Widger’s Dig

The story of the Battle between Old Ideas and New in Holy Trinity begins with the medieval village and how the villagers used the roodscreen. Then the furious fires of the Reformation take hold and while someone there was protecting the roodscreen saints, everything changed. No more were painted pictures venerated and the words of the Bible became all. The next upheaveal was when mammoths emerged from the permafrost and dinosaur mania took hold of everyone’s imagination in the 19th century. Again a local man in Torbryan was right in the heart of the debate, and his discoveries form the subject of Widger’s Dig.

Widger’s Dig