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.
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.
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?
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.
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.