17 February 2012
The best time to visit the stark magnificence of the churchyard at St George, Portland containing Thomas Gilbert’s Wren inspired church, is between the hours of noon and two pm.
Then the angle of the sun is most oblique to the face of the gravestones in this wild and rambling place. The delicately carved stones bear testimony to the ruthless power of the sea, which features on many stones as arbitrary and wilful. Personal stories are etched in the smooth white limestone with dismaying sincerity. William Hansford was killed ‘by the sea’ when it overflowed the village. His leg was broken in the attempt to escape and the house ‘fell on him’.
Nearby the testament to history, the stone dedicated to Mary Way, shot by the Press Gang as she fled when they rampaged through the island, collecting hapless men, and that to William Lano, who was ‘wantonly’ shot by the same.
The church, consecrated in 1766, stands impressively in the vast, treeless churchyard which covers one and a half acres. It contains thousands of stones to the Portland people, alongside sailors from foreign lands and those unwittingly caught up in the maelstrom of history.
Angels, anchors, cherubs and babies adorn the stones along with carved flora and fauna, all displaying the talents of local people across the centuries.
This year the Churches Conservation Trust, with assistance from the Heritage Lottery Fund, is undertaking a large conservation, archaeological and interpretive project which aims to reveal the church’s treasure trove of tales to public view.
Post by Kim Thompson, Development Officer, Dorset & West Wiltshire, The Churches Conservation Trust.
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