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St Mary, Portbury, Somerset

(51°28′31″N, 2°43′1″W)
ST 503 754
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Somerset
now North Somerset
medieval Wells
now Bath & Wells
  • Robin Downes
  • Robin Downes

23 March 2009

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Portbury lies at the northern tip of Somerset by the river Avon and was a Roman port for exporting silver and lead from the Mendips. In early medieval times, it was a large estate dominating the land immediately S of the mouth of the Avon comprising the six manors of Portbury, Portishead, Clapton-in-Gordano, Easton-in-Gordano, Walton-in-Gordano and Walton-in-Gordano. It may have been even larger; its influence seems to have been very considerable, according to recent research by Stephen Rippon. Portbury village lies mostly on Mercia Mudstone (formerly Keuper Marl) cuddled up to Black Nore Sandstone (Lower Old Red Sandstone) separated by Portishead Beds of Upper Old Red Sandstone from the Carboniferous Limestone ridge which extends from Clevedon to the south-west to Pill immediately north-east, where the rock is cut by the Avon, which river is 2.5kms from the village at its nearest. Now in North Somerset, Portbury was from 1974 to 1996 in the county of Avon.

The church of St Mary rests at an altitude of just over 10m OD on Mercia Mudstone above Head and Alluvium. The church is Grade 1 listed and comprises work from the 12th, 13th and 15thc with a restoration c.1870. It comprises a W tower, nave, north and south aisles, south porch, chancel and chantry chapels. There is a Romanesque S doorway, font and chancel arch amongst other features.


In common with much land in this part of the county, in 1086 the manor belonged to the Bishop of Coutances: Godwin held it before 1066. In the 12thc the reeve of Bristol, Robert Fitzharding, was rewarded with the Manor of Portbury (Robinson). He purchased other local manors and moved between them with his entourage of upwards of 200 people. He was made the first Earl of Berkeley. It is said that his wife Eva never left Portbury after moving there, and subsequent Berkeley heirs were brought up there before Berkeley castle was made a comfortable home. Robert Fitzharding gave the advoswon of the church to St Augustine’s Abbey, Bristol in the 1150s.


Exterior Features


Interior Features



Vaulting/Roof Supports


Interior Decoration




Loose Sculpture


S doorway

One oddity which the author cannot explain: the string of lozenges in the third order runs along a pair of rolls on either side (the lozenge apexes cutting right across the rolls). On the seventh voussoir from the W the rolls give way to very finely executed pellets: four one each side, the lozenge apexes neatly dividing them into pairs. This seems an arbitrary variation: perhaps there was an experiment to alternate between roll and pellet and it was abandoned. There is no sign elsewhere of variation from rolls.

As previously indicated, the hood-mould has been removed. Perhaps there were label-stops? The author has seen nothing elsewhere in the church which could have had an original life as a S doorway hood-mould label-stop. There is a nice balance between the angular, rectangular, forms of the decoration in the second order and the more fluid motions of the lozenges — liveliness further enhanced by the fleurons, themselves strongly individualised. It gives pleasure that the arch decoration has been so finely executed.


Overall, the very well preserved font presents a fine and balanced profile, the mass and design elaborations of the base matching those of the bowl. As it is, it loses little by the sharp cutting off of the sides of bowl and base; however, the church guide asserts (without evidence) that the bowl once had carved decoration: ‘. . . removed possibly during the Commonwealth . . .’ The font's shallowness is no problem aesthetically since it accords well with the shape of the bowl as a whole.

Chancel arch

The presence of keel mouldings may indicate a date of around 1190.


The corbels reveal the presence of at least one or two 'craft hands' at work. The two in the chancel could perhaps be apprentice pieces.


The medieval status of this church suggests that one should look for evidence of a pre-Conquest building. As the (anonymous and undated) church guide puts it: ‘The Parish Church of Portbury dates from the early 12thc, about 1100 to 1150 A.D. but there is strong evidence that a Saxon church was on this site and that a small part of this original building still forms part of the present Chancel.’

  1. F. Arnold-Forster, Studies in Church Dedications (London, 1899), III, 228.

Historic England listing 1311826

  1. N. Pevsner, The Buildings of England: North Somerset and Bristol (Harmondsworth, 1958), 244.

S. Rippon, Landscape, Community and Colonisation: the North Somerset Levels during the 1st to 2nd millennia AD, CBA Research Report 156 (2006).

W.J. Robinson, West Country Churches (Bristol, 1915), 125–131.