Portchester – St Mary’s

It is surprising that neither of us had ever been to Portchester, particularly in the case of BQ who has lived in the area for over 30 years.  It is an interesting and rather beautiful place situated at the tip of a promontory within Portsmouth Harbour and it has a long and unsettled history.

The main feature is the Roman fort built between 250 and 350ad, just one of a series of coastal forts constructed to meet the threat from Saxon pirates who were raiding the south coast of Roman Britain.  When the Roman occupation ended the fort became a place of refuge for the Saxons who, by the 10th century were plagued by increasing attacks by Viking raiders.

The castle, constructed within the walls of the fort, was built during the first half of the 12th century and, at that time, most of the remaining ground was used for farming.   Between 1665 and 1814 the fort assumed a new role, that of a prison.  At its peak the prison population stood at 8,000.  The inmates were of many different nationalities and backgrounds, including a group of 2,000 rebellious slaves brought from the Caribbean in 1796.

The object of our interest however, St. Mary’s Church, is tucked away within the fort walls in the southern corner and it seems remarkable that it has survived relatively unscathed for almost 900 years, despite all of the turmoil that must have surrounded it.

I have to say that I was not particularly impressed with the church interior which I found rather stark and devoid of atmosphere.  BQ disagreed, probably because he judges our visits from a rather more spiritual point of view.   MW

St. Mary’s Church surrounded by the waters of Portsmouth Harbour
Portchester Fort, Church and Castle, and in the background, Porchester village
The rather plain nave with its severity of design gives an impression of height and narrowness.  The church was originally built in cruciform shape, but sadly the south transept fell into disrepair and was demolished in the 16th century


The surviving north transept.

The font is genuine Norman, one of the oldest in the county and is made from Caen stone.  The carving depicts spirals of flowers, birds, serpents and cherubs and is said to represent the Garden of Eden.  One can only guess at the number of infants baptised in this beautiful creation over the past 900 years.
pulpit and alter area
The Victorian oak pulpit and, in the background, part of the recently designed ‘alter area’, the oak rail and carpet being installed as recently as 2015.
The earliest of the two magnificent wall panels.  This one, on the south wall bears the arms of Elizabeth I and shows the date 1577.  It was erected to commemorate a restoration that was carried out in her name by Sir Thomas Cornwallis.
Queen Ann Bounty
The panel on the north wall, erected some 130 years later, is more elaborate and has an interesting background story.  Over the centuries Portchester fort with its high perimeter wall was used for housing prisoners on several occasions .  In 1653 it was the turn of the Dutch. They were captured in the English Channel by Admiral Blake and were held in such harsh conditions that they finally protested by setting fire to the church. Arranging for repairs and restoration to be carried out took a very long time indeed and it wasn’t until 1710 that the church was finally reopened following a petition from the parishioners to Queen Ann.  The £400 pound cost included £3.10s “for a hogshead of strong beer to drink the Queen’s health” during the opening celebrations and the occasion was recorded by this remarkable panel.


The west door is a wonderful example of Norman stonework with its variety of patterns. Only the keenest eye will detect the small carved figure just above the right capital which depicts Sagittarius, half horse, half archer – the arms of King Stephen who usurped the throne on the death of Henry I.

Church ext
As with our previous two church visits, St Mary’s Church has an adjacent substantial yew tree, nowhere near as old as the others, but it does have a well recorded provenance. In the early 19th century, the fort was home to a large numbers of French prisoners captured  during the various Napoleonic Wars. Before being evacuated back to France they were put to work restoring the church, whitewashing the walls and painting the pews. Unfortunately the fumes from their kitchen fire destroyed an earlier yew tree and in 1813 a replacement (the one we see today) was planted. The cost, which was charged to the prisoners, was one shilling and three pence, then quite a considerable sum.
Sally and Jan
Our visit to St. Marys was made the more pleasurable by meeting two charming sisters, Sally and Jan who arrived  at the church at the same time as us. They had travelled from opposite ends of the country, Yorkshire and Dorset, for a nostalgic return to their birthplace.  Over coffee in the church tearoom they explained that they had been born nearby and both had been baptised and married in St Mary’s.  This was their first return to Portchester for over 30 years.


The Cormorant




In times past there were many pubs in the vicinity of Portchester Castle, now there is just one, The Cormorant.  The deeds show the premises to have been a public house in 1814 and it seems likely that it first opened its doors a little before that.   In the nineteenth century it had a dubious reputation with connections to the infamous Wicor smuggling gang and was also known as a place where cock and rat fighting took place in the bars.  By contrast it is now a busy family pub equally renowned for its good food as well as a congenial atmosphere.

old pub

After months of our church visits the difference between MW and myself is self evident, even down to our favourite tipple at lunch and with regards to St. Mary’s here to I have to disagree with his comments. I have seldom been to an ancient seat of worship where the Christian sense of community was stronger.  The tea room, added recently, was so hospitable with its cheerful volunteer staff, and five star trip advisor comments.
All this attached to a cruciform Norman church, a miracle of survival hardly altered except for the loss of the south transept and north chapel.
Originally an Augustinian Priory, the monks moved after ten years to Southwick (which we visited earlier in this series) so perhaps the mixture of military and devotional did not sit well together.
Still visible is the blocked up entrance to the cloisters, but the real star is the crossing piers with their decorative capitals.
They have a wide variety of carved patterns and some particularly exotic examples in the north transept would appear to be of a later date.
It is interesting to note that the present Anglican Church in true ecumenical spirit allows the local Roman Catholics to celebrate Mass every Saturday.
This courtesy was granted after their own modern church fell down; so much for progress!
The Cormorant public house could not be handier and was very popular with its dining facilities fully occupied, a sure sign of of its quality and attentive service.
My fish and chips rounded off a memorable visit.   BQ

Our lunch

  • Traditional Fish and Chips      BQ
  • Lemon Sole and Asparagus Fishcakes with Boiled Potatoes and Salad   MW
  • Pino Grigio – San Valentino, Italy     BQ &  MW




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