St Andrew's Church, Portland

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Not to be confused with Avalanche Memorial Church.
The ruins of St. Andrew's Church in 1995.

St Andrews Church is a ruined church on the Isle of Portland, Dorset, England. The church is situated on the east side of the island, above the Church Ope Cove beach, near Wakeham village. It is found close to the ruins of Rufus Castle and the private Gothic Revival mansion Pennsylvania Castle, including John Penn's Bath. St Andrew's Church was Portland's first parish church and one of the island's prime historical sites.[1] It remained the parish church of the island until the mid-18th century.[2]

St. Andrews Church is Portland's oldest part-surviving building and has been a Grade II* Listed Building since January 1951.[3] The southern retaining wall of the churchyard has been Grade II Listed since September 1978. The wall is partly medieval, and occasionally repaired and overgrown, stepping down the cliff-side.[4] The three remaining churchyard monuments, approx 7 metres south of the church, have been Grade II Listed since May 1993. This comprises two chest tombs and a headstone, dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.[5]


Through archaeology, it has been discovered that the site was occupied from Saxon period, dating 1500 years ago. The church structure reveals the foundations of an earlier Saxon church, where the older structure was of much better masonry than the newer one. Edward the Confessor, the son of the exiled Ethelred the Unready had bestowed Portland to the Benedictine Monks of St. Swithin of Winchester in 1042 who in turn built a new church over the old Saxon foundations in 1100. In January 1340 French raiders landed at Church Ope Cove and torched St. Andrews and again in 1404, where each time the tiny church was rebuilt.[6]

Around 1470-1475 a tower was added and the church was dedicated to St. Andrew, during the reign of Edward IV. In 1625 a wall was built to shore up the land after a landslip had damaged the church, and threatened half of the cemetery to collapse onto the beach below. Another major landslip in 1675 caused considerable damage, whilst the church continued to suffer from an unstable site and various invasions of French pirates.[7] The church was abandoned after it was in danger of falling over the cliff after a second massive landslip around 1734-1735, known as The Great Southwell Landslip which remains Britain's second largest recorded historical landslide. This event caused a large section of the graveyard to slip down the cliff.[6] Following the 1734 landslip, a decision was made, with a survey of the old church finding that repairs would be at least half the cost of a new building. This led to the church being closed and partly demolished in July 1756. Much of the stone was taken for use in local domestic dwellings.[2] St George's Church was soon built at Reforne between 1754 and 1766, near Easton village, to replace the church. Between 1800 and 1822, John Penn, owner of the nearby Pennsylvania Castle, had enclosed both Rufus Castle and the ruins of St Andrew's Church, which caused great objection from local people who were used to freely visiting the site. The Court Leet, acting as the people's representatives, strongly protested, but were unsuccessful. This resulted in lengthy legal battles which were not settled until 1822 after the Court Leet agreed that Mr. Penn should be allowed to keep the land he enclosed in return for an annual payment of five shillings.[8]

In the John Hutchins book "History of Dorset", the church was described as a "large, ancient, but, rude fabric, situated at the Southern extremity of the Island, so near the sea that, to prevent it from encroachments, the islanders were obliged to wall the banks to an incredible height. It consisted of a chancel and body very low and tiled, which seemed to have been built at different times. The tower was plain and moderately high, but had no bell in it and was detached nearly a yard from the body. The inconvenience of its situation was owing to a pretended want of depth of earth elsewhere." The churchyard has been the subject of numerous fables and unfounded stories, including one that it was anciently the centre of the Island which extended to the Shambles.[9] There are no longer any trace remains of the "steppes of stone" that were referred to in Gorse's Antiquities and Coker's Dorset; the steps connected Rufus Castle and the church.[10]

During the second world war, the graveyard and monuments were damaged by bombing.[11] The site was excavated by J. Merrick Head in 1898.[3] The church ruins were expertly cleared and consolidated by the Portland Field Research Group in 1968-1973, and again in 1978-1982. During the latter renovations, archeologists discovered statues that were similar to the ones found at Old Sarum, a Bronze Age hill fort in Salisbury. Another discovery also found was that the original church was of very high quality construction as there were remaining columns of a Purbeck marble altar and an old well outside the west wall that predated the church filled with old masonry rubble with several human skeletons above it.[6] The well is believed to be of Saxon origin. The original church was of very high quality construction including columns of Purbeck marble.

Modern state[edit]

The archway of the detached bell tower.

Following the second world war, the church was carefully secured by archeologists.[12] Today, the barest ruins now remain of the church, whilst some of the original stones are in the garden of Portland Museum.[1] The church's arch entrance remains in good condition, and leads into the rare feature of a woodland on the island, which in turn leads up past Pennsylvania Castle and into Wakeham, close to Portland Museum.

A few gravestones of respectable citizens of Portland remain. Before much of the monuments were lost, crossbones, skulls, hour-glasses, trumpets, the rose, and the thistle, were favourite ornamentations, and some of the epitaphs often very quaint. In one area south of the church ruins are the three remaining monuments. One particular tombstone has a skull and crossbones emblem, and is often mistaken as a relation to pirates (hence the churchyard often being called a pirates' graveyard), however the symbol was once common on tombstones to represent death.[7] The monuments are also built of Portland stone, and no inscriptions or dates remain legible, except the headstone, which commemorates "Pearce aged 58, died 1745." The Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England had recorded various other monuments, but these have either disappeared or are overgrown.[13]

The site is owned by the Church Commissioners, whilst English Heritage hold some responsibility for the site as it is a Listed Building and Scheduled Ancient Monument. Numerous interesting carvings and artifacts have been found on the site, some of which are now in the nearby Portland Museum. The site had a major clearance in 1980 by the Manpower Services, when these pieces were donated to the museum during 1979/1980 by the volunteers. They had also renovated the site, and in the interest of safety of the donated pieces they were stored in the museum's garden where they remain to date.

The continuous problems caused by prolific overgrowth has led to various well-meaning individuals to attempt a clearance, but English Heritage rules prohibit any unauthorised work which may unwittingly damage the delicate remains. In 1992, the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers built a wooden handrail and restored the overgrown and damaged steps that lead from the old church down to Church Ope Cove's beach. In Autumn 2003, there was great consternation from the island's locals when a bonfire had been lit in the graveyard as part of a party.[7]


  1. ^ a b "History and Heritage of Portland in Dorset". Retrieved 2012-11-15. 
  2. ^ a b Anthony Houghton. "Church Ope Cove and Penn's Weare - Information & Photographs". Strolling Guides. Retrieved 2012-11-15. 
  3. ^ a b "The National Heritage List for England | English Heritage". 1951-01-16. Retrieved 2013-02-12. 
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b c Free Portland News. December 2012.  Missing or empty |title= (help);
  7. ^ a b c "Pennsylvania Castle and Church Ope, Portland". 2003-04-03. Retrieved 2012-11-15. 
  8. ^ "Penn". Retrieved 2013-02-12. 
  9. ^ Paul Benyon. "Portland Churches, Buildings and Views". Retrieved 2012-11-15. 
  10. ^ Portland Urban District Council (Late 1950s). Isle of Portland Official Guide. Ed. J. Burrow & Co. Ltd., Publishers - Chelternham and London. p. 21.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  11. ^ Morris, Stuart (1990). Portland Camera. Dovecote Press. pp. Photo 14. ISBN 978-0946159796. 
  12. ^ Morris, Stuart (1990). Portland Camera. Dovecote Press. pp. Photo 15. ISBN 978-0946159796. 
  13. ^

Coordinates: 50°32′20″N 2°25′45″W / 50.5390°N 2.4292°W / 50.5390; -2.4292