Our oceans abound with myth and legend, some of them mainstream and others obscure. But if there is one thing that can be said with any certainty, it is that mariners throughout the ages have been highly superstitious, and often very religious, types. Here we take a look at a selection of fisherman’s chapels where mariners would pray before venturing out on the ocean waves.
Gustave Doré’s depiction of events unfolding in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner shows nautical folk at their most superstitious – and apparently with good reason! On the right, the Ancient Mariner (looking quite young at this stage of the poem) clings to the mast in the midst of a storm. On the left, a fearful crew backs away from the albatross, and ultimately change their view of the bird depending on the weather.
Little wonder then that so many of them prayed – and continue to pray – before leaving the harbour. The ancient chapel of St Nicholas (above) is arguably the quintessential fisherman’s chapel – so much so that it is dedicated, appropriately, to the patron saint of fishermen himself. Its build date is uncertain although there has been a chapel on the site since the 15th century. Partially destroyed by the War Office in 1904, it was restored in 1911 by Sir Edward Hain for the coronation of King George V. The chapel of St Nicholas stands on a lonely headland overlooking the old fishing town of St Ives, Cornwall.
Nestling beneath a narrow lane leading down to Tenby’s beach is St Julian’s Chapel. Built in 1873, this fisherman’s chapel is ideally located on the sand, allowing anxious fishermen a last minute prayer opportunity before venturing out into the inhospitable British waters.
St Leonard’s is a tiny fisherman’s chapel on Smeatons Pier in St Ives. Smaller and more austere than nearby St Nicholas’ chapel, its construction date is uncertain although records show repairs carried out as long ago as 1577. A large bronze plaque records the names of all the St Ives fishermen lost at sea. St Leonard’s Chapel was restored in 1971 and houses a museum and memorial dedicated to the fishermen of old St Ives.
The Mariners’ Chapel located within the Gloucester Docks was built in 1849 during a time of localised missionary zeal. A sea captain had complained of a lack of spiritual comforts onboard ship, and the cause was taken up by several local businessmen trading with the Docks. The Mariners’ Chapel remains in use to this day, with a loyal congregation. It also capitalises on tourists visiting the Docks. And while many of the old fishermen may have gone, nearby warehouses have been converted into homes, bringing new faces into the longstanding congregation.
The Fisherman’s Chapel is the official name of a small chapel adjacent to St Brelade’s Church in Jersey, at the western end of St Brelade’s Bay. It is one of the few remaining monastic chapels on the Channel Islands, most of which were destroyed by the 16th century Reformers.
The Fisherman’s Chapel appears far more ancient than the parish church of St Brelade’s, although it is actually more modern. That said, a painting of The Annunciation discovered beneath the plaster dates to about 1310-1315 A.D, so “modern” is perhaps the wrong word! Other Medieval depictions include the Resurrection and the Last Judgement, a painted rendition King Herod and an image called “The Scourging of Christ”. The 1980s saw the floor restored to its original Medieval level, which had been raised up in recent years, giving the Fisherman’s Chapel a somwhat squat appearance prior to refurbishment.