The whole cliff formation along here is formed of ‘Teignmouth Breccia’ created during the Permian period, about 250 million years ago, when this land was desert lying close to the equator.
There appears to be some disagreement about which rock formations are actually the Parson and Clerk. The Ordnance Survey map shows them as being two of the cliff stacks on the far side of the Holcombe headland. The rock stack standing close to them in the sea is named ‘Shag Rock’. However, there are also references to ‘Shag Rock’ being called the ‘Clerk’. Between Shag Rock and the Parson and Clerk are the caves used by smugglers in bygone times
According to the 1848 Legend of the Parson and Clerk the description of the two cliff stacks seems most accurate; it also says that the Clerk stack was significantly damaged and reduced in 1824.
So what’s the history behind the name of the rocks? There is a legend.
Many versions of the story exist. Robert Hunt (in 1881) and Sarah Hewett (1900) relate that a certain Bishop of Exeter fell ill and came to Dawlish to restore his health. However, an ambitious local priest aimed to succeed to the See in the event of his superior’s demise.
The priest’s guide was his clerk, and they often made the journey to check on the condition of the bishop. One night, in a terrible storm, whilst crossing Haldon moor they lost their way and found themselves miles from the correct path. The priest in his frustration abused his clerk with the words I would rather have the Devil himself, than you, for a guide. At that moment a horseman rode by and volunteered to be their guide.
After a few miles they came across a brilliantly lighted mansion and were invited by their guide to enter and partake of his hospitality. They enjoyed a sumptuous repast and in the midst of the merriment the news arrived that the bishop was dead. Eager to secure his chance for promotion the priest prepared to leave, together with the clerk and the guide; however the horses refused to move. After liberal use of his whip and spurs the priest cried Devil take the brutes, upon which the guide exclaimed Thank you, sir and shouted Gee up. The horses galloped over the cliff, carrying the parson and the clerk with them. The Devil turned them both to stone, facing forever seaward, monuments to greed and disappointed ambition.
For other re-tellings of the story look at: