Eight West Dorset Church Porches by Alison Bunning and Virginia Astley

 

In spring 2020 during the first Covid-19 lockdown, while churches were generally closed their porches remained open. Alison and Virginia, an architect and a poet, discovered how people were using these liminal spaces between the sacred and profane in new and varied ways: providing bedding for homeless people, foodbanks, enterprising flower arrangements or newspaper drop off/collection points.

‘This made us think about the porches historically and architecturally and the purpose they have been serving at this time. There was something about the restrictions and living within limitations that felt emphasized as we sat writing and drawing through the changing seasons. We continue to visit the porches, and hope that our work will document this time and draw attention to these often neglected, but frequently beautiful places.’ Alison and Virginia, April 2021

 

 

 

 Church of the Cerne Abbas Giant

 

All is quiet today

and although it’s November and cold

something about the blue sky

 

takes me to last year, the jackdaw nesting

next to the flint porch

in the mouth of an oversized gargoyle.

 

I remember that July night too –

Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time

played by candlelight, the audience silent:

 

the fifth movement

Louange à l’Eternité de Jésus –

the high cello, the slow piano chords.

 

Today, beneath the battlements

the church is shut, but opposite the defibrillator

is a stack of parish mags,

 

with ads for logs, mobile foot clinic

and the South West Outdoor Club

suggesting we too give naturism a go.

 

 

 

Frome St Quintin

 

A minimal score, unrehearsed

plays out in this green auditorium

 

while I sit at the back, in the porch

behind a row of dogwood and hazel

 

as the sun dims

and each sound fills the stillness:

 

the attack of the dog’s bark

the sustain of the cow lowing

 

the fade of a women’s lilting call

against the echo of the hammer reverberating.

 

Offstage a small child is laughing

a mist is sweeping the valley.

 

Days and years pass

like irretrievable perfomances

 

recorded on some long-lost format

no longer playable.

 

 

 

Pugin’s Porch

 

identical windows on opposite walls –

a breathing space, somewhere half-way

 

between two baby-blue doors

which we negotiate – it’s second nature –

 

finding places to write and draw

away from the rain.

 

The church door is locked

a rose light glowing beyond the keyhole

 

but in this liminal place

rubbing against another time

 

we are silent, content.

We are practised in this –

 

something we mastered long ago

in our nine months, sharing.

 

 

 

Monkton Wyld

 

The spire is visible for miles,

the entrance harder to find

folded away off a twisting uphill lane –

 

dank and filled with beech mast –

where a gap in the holly and laurel

leads up a tapering path edged

 

with lopped Irish yews, like goblets

to a wooden porch with slender columns

and trefoiled tracery, poised

 

as an elegant hostess waiting

to greet us out in the rain.

Wind hollers through the open sides

 

and as my sister starts to sketch

I unscrew a flask and wonder how it was

in our silent spring

 

to hear the oak stir

without the burr of the A35

under an unblemished sky.

 

 

 

All Saints, Nether Cerne

  

How was it to start here

jostling in feather-lined caked mud

squeezed in the angle between two rafters

beneath the clay tiles?

Were your first sounds

Ouzel the spaniel barking

from across the grass, or the beat

of your parents’ wings

in their precise flight over

the spikes and finials

between the orange-lichened jambs?

Was it the scent of wild fennel

blowing in from the path

or was it the damp rising

from the fossil-filled limestone

that told you what you needed to know?

Did your eyes see

the gravestones lining the path

or the hurricane lamp rusted beyond repair?

And while the robin and the thrush

chattered from the whitebeam

how did it feel to make your first flight,

to swoop below the arch

over the threshold into somewhere other?

 

 

 

Stockwood

 

Outside a brick farmhouse

on the far side of Bubb Down, tucked under a hill

 

while wagtails skitter beside the stream

and faraway a buzzard mews

 

a small tot is playing

next door to the little church of St Edwold.

 

Above the graves

from the outstretched arm of an overbearing yew

 

a baby swing hangs.

The sycamore is turning

 

its colours repeated in the Hamstone

and lichen of the porch.

 

Its kneeler stones support the gable

where a datestone proclaims: W.B. 1636

 

and its uppermost courses of limestone slabs –

the farewells – catch the late sun.

 

Stepping over the threshold, the A37 lulls,

the air is warmer.

 

No boards of vicars’ names, no safe-guarding policies

only empty space. And you think

 

of all those who have bedded down

on the stone benches

 

and of St Edwold, offering his night prayers

as the stars found their places.

 

 

South Perrott

 

A gate, a lantern swings,

sudden gusts, sideways rain. A woodpecker

makes its low pass over graves

 

to the motte-and-bailey.

Skewbald ponies wait

stranded on higher ground.

 

Wind scours an apple tree

tossing its matted mistletoe cap

before snatching at

 

the porch’s chain curtain.

The security light snaps off

and with it all warmth.

 

On hamstone benches,

an abandoned Christmas:

gilded wheat, colourless hydrangeas,

 

pine cones; a basket of primula,

shrivelled holly and bay.

Here in the thirteenth century

 

I remember a summer long ago –

tea in a walled garden

when anything seemed possible.

 

 

 

The Cathedral of the Vale

 

Weary pilgrims walking since first light

the spokes of their paths fusing

among the rain-pocked graves,

the sky above a white-grey marl.

 

Stepping between diagonal buttresses

they climb the lichened steps

below the swallows’ nests and crenellations

to the shrine of St Wite.

 

Perhaps they wonder

at the tiny fossils set in the floor

run their fingers along the dog-toothed

Norman arch. Perhaps,

 

funnelling under the apex beak-head

they turn at the flutter of water to hear

the blackbird’s fluid cadenza,

the squabbling rooks,

 

the wood dove’s breathy call

As dusk gathers the weary pilgrims

scatter in the stillness, the scent of furze

intensified by night.

 

 

***

 

Virginia Astley is a musician and poet. Her pamphlet The Curative Harp won Ireland’s Fool for Poetry competition in 2015 and was published by Southword Editions. Her first book-length collection, The English River; a journey down the Thames in poems and photographs was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2018. Her ground-breaking album, From Gardens Where We Feel Secure has recently been re-issued on Bandcamp. Alongside the West Dorset Porch Project she is currently working on a song-cycle, Night-Visiting Songs, based on the upper reaches of the Thames.

 

Alison is a registered architect with some 30 years’ experience, specialising in work on historic buildings. Her early work in London included five years as project architect for the conversion of Somerset House for the Courtauld Institute of Art. Sixteen years ago she set up her own conservation practice based in mid-Devon.  Her work includes the award winning scheme at Kestle Barton on the Lizard in Cornwall, which received the RIBA Conservation Award . She is on the DAC lists of approved Inspecting Architects for both the Diocese of Exeter and also Bath & Wells. She currently looks after some 30 churches in the West Country. Alison still likes to draw by hand, and finds that this is often the best way to gain a proper understanding of a building. Find out more on her website.

 

Alison and Virginia are twin sisters.

 

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