My family have been holidaying on the coast of Exmoor every year for nearly a decade now, and we still find new and fascinating things to see and places to visit. One such site is this marvelous church, St Dubricius, in Porlock. We frequently drive through the village or Porlock to get to its even smaller neighbour, the harbour village of Porlock Weir, but it was only on our last trip that we stopped in Porlock itself, with the express purpose of making a visit to this unusually dedicated and oddly-spired church.
St Dubricius was a sixth century Celt, born in the Kingdom of Ergin, and became a highly influential scholar in the areas around Herefordshire, Brecon, and Glamorgan. His Welsh name is Dyffrig, and it was to Wales, and the Cathedral of Llandaff, that his remains were brought on the 23rd May 1120 (he of course died some time earlier!), having lived out his last days as a hermit on the island of Bardsley, where he retired having set up a school at Henlland (Hentland) on the Wye, and a monastic college at Llanfrawthir (Llanwith Major). It might seem odd that this church in Somerset should be dedicated to a saint who spent most of his life in Wales, but it is thought that he may have passed through Porlock on his travels, possibly even founding an earlier incarnation of the current church. Our modern, Rome-centric view of pre-Reformation Christianity also distracts us from the fact that Christianity came to the West Country via Wales, from Ireland, so a Welsh facing, as it were, church is quite understandable, and indeed common in this region.
The most striking quality of the exterior of the church is its bizarrely truncated spire. The majority of the body of the current church dates from some time between 1180 and 1280, but the tower itself may have elements from earlier than this. The spire itself is likely thirteenth century, and is covered with oak shales, giving it a pleasingly Scandinavian feel. The truncation itself is thought to not be by design, but rather the result of damage inflicted by the Great Gale of 1703. This seems to have been left, without any attempt to add a point to the spire again. Considerable work was done to the church in the fifteenth century, which was also when the fine polychrome chapel was added (which I believe was the Harrington Chantry Chapel – see below), a slightly odd decorative addition to the otherwise sturdy and robust façade.
The substantial porch now contains one of a pair of tombs left by the Will of Alive Hensley, in 1527. Carved in nearby Dunster, the tomb in the porch commemorates her and her mother, while the other to the left of the altar, commemorates the burial place of her husband, who, according to the aforementioned will, died in Porlock. These are two of the several noteworthy tombs in the church. The south aisle contains a monument to a knight, likely of the thirteenth century, locally called the ‘Crusader’, due to his cross-footed pose. It is locally thought to represent Sit Simon Fitz-Roges, who died in 1306, and whose family held the manor of Porlock. It has clearly suffered some alterations; the recess in which it sits is probably fourteenth century, and made for a different figure, and in order to fit the knight effigy into it at a later date, he has suffered the indignity of having his feet cut off.
The other tomb, which alone would make the church well worth a visit, commemorates John, 4th Lord Harrington, and his wife Elizabeth Courtenay. This impressive alabaster memorial contains two finely carved figures, of a standard worthy of a cathedral, let alone this small country parish church. In his will Lord Harrington left instructions for a chantry to be set up, with two associated priests. In this pre-Reformation period this was commonplace amongst the aristocracy and those who could afford it. The priests would say masses for the deceased founder’s soul (and any other specified in his will, deceased or still living, probably including past and present members of his family, his children, and such), in order to reduce the soul’s time spent in Purgatory. The founder would have left money not only to pay for the building of the chapel, but also to pay the priests to perform these masses. In some cases this may have involved promising them, say, the rent from certain properties or land, as well as simpler sums of money. The memorial is no longer in its original position, as it would have been in the chantry itself. Nothing was done to act on Harrington’s will until 1474, about three years after the death of his widow Elizabeth. He himself had died in 1417, on expedition in France with Henry V. The monument probably dates from 1474 or thereabouts. The priests were usually chosen from the nearby Cleeve Abbey (on which I will probably write a blog post), and lived in what is at least now called Chantry Cottage, which stands next to the church wall. Though the memorial has lost the polychromy and gilding which would have made it even more spectacular many beautifully carved details remain, including Lord Harrington’s garland of roses and leaves, and the ornate netting of Elizabeth’s hairpiece. The stiff folds of her dress make little attempt to imitate a real lying figure, looking more like the deep flutes of a column, but they pleasingly fold to demonstrate the presence of her pointed feet, in line with the armour clad feet of her husband. Both their heads lie on cushions supported by angels. It is thought that the canopy above them, with its dense tracery patterns, is slightly later in date than the figures themselves, perhaps suggestive of even further delays in the creation of the chantry and its monument.
Other interesting features inside the church include the font, which dates from the fifteenth century reconstruction. Its pattern of tracery, foliate forms and shields is pleasingly proportioned, and it is likely that the shields themselves would have once been painted to contain the arms of locally significant families. The church also contains the remains of an early fifteenth century clock, which was apparently in use until Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Without face and hands, it would have struck the tenor bell in the bell tower. The bells are also of note (no pun intended), with a ring of six, the earliest of which dates from 1617. They are rung from a gallery, constructed in 1987, which overlooks the north aisle.
One of the more recent additions to the church is the reredos, sitting behind the altar, dedicated in April, 1931. It contains numerous images, sculpted and painted, of figures and saints connected to the church including, alongside an image of the Resurrection, St Olave, the patron saint of the nearby chapel at Porlock Weir, Alan Bellendon, Bishop of Aberdeen and Chancellor of Aberdeen University, and rector at Porlock between 1642 and 1647, as well as St Petroc, St Cranoc, St Bridget, St Brendon, and of course, St Dubricius himself. It is medievalising in style, looking more like a product of the Arts and Crafts Movement than the 1930s but makes an interesting focal point in the church.
The overall impression of the interior is of it being slightly cluttered, quite full, especially compared to the relative sternness of the exterior. It is however a church full of interest, and it more than repays a visit. I was unfortunately not able to see all of its marvels, as it also contains a Chapel of the High Cross, built as the Parvise Chamber in the fifteenth century, and eventually restored as a chapel in 1985, but it was sadly, on this occasion, locked.
The churchyard also boasts a yew tree, rather stunted and looking slightly worse for wear, claimed to be over 1000 years old. All in all this church lives up to the beautiful and rugged landscape which surrounds the village, and would make a worthy stopping point for anyone finding themselves in this wonderful corner of the West Country.
I am as ever indebted to the compilers of the little guide book available for sale in the church (a rather fine colour-printed affair), for information on the church and its history, the proceeds of which go towards the maintenance of the church. Information about the church and service times can be found here, and the current rector is, I believe, Bill Lemmey.