Two boats to get there: Falmouth to St Mawes, St Mawes to Place. The water is clear, the wind cool. The pontoon at Place, constructed from interlocking grey plastic squares, wobbles as I step out of the ferry. Lumps of dark bladderwrack line the exposed rocks. Concrete steps, themselves partially extruded from the earthen bank, guide the handful of visitors upward; a path worn into the grass turns to the right and I follow without thinking, assuming that the church is next to the house. It is. I’ve come here for the Romanesque door, a door that I’ve read about and seen pictures of over the years but never visited. It’s already worth it just for the journey, but the doorway itself is one of Cornwall’s best.
Like the south door at Morwenstow, also in Cornwall, the one here has been moved from its original location. Also like Morwenstow it is of a high quality, though less weathered and perhaps more coherent in terms of the overall design. Three orders of arches, the central one supported by columns with scallop capitals. Outermost is chevron, double, on unequally-sized voussoirs. The middle and the inner order are unusual in that they work together: middle is a a kind of tracery forming nine semicircles and two quarters, the inner order fills these spaces with what are essentially miniature carved tympana. Each of these features a unique design. Eight are leaf shapes, tendrils, rolling fronds and foliage. One is interlaced blind arcading, a motif firmly established in southwest Romanesque carving, appearing in the Devon churches on doorways at Bondleigh, Shebbear, Buckland Brewer and Woolsery (mostly on abaci to capitals), on the font at Alphington near Exeter, and at Morwenstow. It’s inclusion here, the only geometric motif within a sweep of foliate designs, is noteworthy.
And then there is another carving, the one most immediate within this grouping, off centre and alone upon the stones forming the arch of the doorway itself: a circle containing the Agnus Dei. There are numerous similarities between this image and the one on the tympanum at Egloskerry, for example the right foreleg bent to hold the base of the cross, the creature’s heavy-looking head. The setting to the left of the top of the door, contingent upon the position of the voussoir blocks and, I imagine, unintentional, attracts the eye nonetheless. Adding an asymmetrical twist to an otherwise ordered and symmetrical frame, the effect is unusual and compelling.
The stone of the door is not native to Cornwall. Buff-coloured, weathering to pale grey, fine-grained, massive (in geological speak) and of good quality. It looks like Caen stone from Normandy, and I later read that it is. If the carving hadn’t already suggested high status, or wealthy patronage then this – one of the best carving stones in the medieval world, on what was essentially a small church of Augustinian monks at the edge of the land, a cell dependent upon Plympton Priory in Devon – certainly does.