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
The surviving north transept.
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.
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.
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
- Traditional Fish and Chips BQ
- Lemon Sole and Asparagus Fishcakes with Boiled Potatoes and Salad MW
- Pino Grigio – San Valentino, Italy BQ & MW