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Ministry of snowdrops at St Raphael’s, on Dartmoor

12 February 2021

CASSIE LONG

SNOWDROPS are a ministry in themselves at St Raphael’s Chapel, Huccaby, on Dartmoor. Raphael, the archangel, whose name means “God has healed”, is associated with healing, but also considered a patron of travellers.

In normal times, the snowdrops attract 2000 visitors during the weeks between Candlemas and Mothering Sunday. St Raphael’s, which is part of the Ashburton and Moorland Team Ministry, in Exeter diocese, cannot encourage visitors this year to what has become a place of pilgrimage; but the deputy churchwarden, Tony Parker, is potting up snowdrops for people to take away or have delivered after the restrictions are lifted.

He has potted 600 so far, has another 180 on order, and expects a take-up of about 1300. Such is the attraction of the snowdrops, donations made over the past six years have been enough to fund the maintenance and refurbishment of the chapel.

Mr Parker, a former police detective, moved here from his native Sunderland on retirement eight years ago. “The chapel appeared closed, uncared for,” he remembers. “They’d been planning to do something with it for several years, but, being in the National Park, there were a lot of things that couldn’t be done. We thought a car park, though, would help to draw people here.”

A small digger — with an archaeologist present because the chapel stands on the footprint of a Devon longhouse — unearthed 400 snowdrop bulbs. Mr Parker nurtured them all in his own garden and greenhouse, and the bulbs flourished, ready to be grown on at the chapel.

CASSIE LONG Tony Parker at Huccaby

He loves snowdrops for the way they “puncture their way through the frost and ice. They’re a sign of hope,” he says. “Farmers used to say the second of February was the start of the lambing season. Just given the last months of lockdown, it’s of special importance to celebrate the snowdrop, because no matter how fragile it looks, it’s hardy. There’s hope there for the future; hopefully we can see the light at the end of the tunnel this year.”

He likes to remember the legend surrounding snowdrops. As the disgraced Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden amid the snow of winter, the Angel takes pity on their state and reaches out to gather a handful of snowflakes. These he breathes on, transforming them to soft, pearly flowers. “Take these little flowers as a sign of hope,” he tells the couple, casting the flowers into a halo that carries the blessing of hope out into the world beyond.

Since the car park has been in place, the ministry to visitors has grown. There is a composting lavatory, and there are scooper-bags on hand for dog-walkers, and puncture-repair help for cyclists. Local people and visitors have also got used to seeing what the Priest-in Charge, the Rt Revd Mark Rylands, refers to as Mr Parker’s “wayside pulpit”.

Bishop Rylands resigned as Area Bishop of Shrewsbury in Lichfield diocese in 2018 to return to parish ministry and his rural roots in Devon, and appreciates the humour of the signs outside the church, intended to make people think. This week, with St Valentine’s Day in the offing, it reads, “Be my Valentine. Love, God.” For Easter, it will read, “Snow Drops. Jesus Raises.”

The chapel, warmed by a wood-burning stove, is open every day of the year for private prayer, and has remained open throughout the lockdown. Mr Parker has just introduced a prayer tree, which he has made from a fallen pine. He has had to order another 180 prayer cards, as it is already full. “The prayers are wonderful, especially at a time when people are seeking support and hope,” he says.

Local people can reserve snowdrops by emailing straphaels1868@gmail.com.

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