Author: Alex Woodcock

Writer and stonecarver

Lost Doorways

Midday in Rye, East Sussex, and it’s started to rain. Late-season tourists are reaching for their waterproofs and heading for indoors, leaving the churchyard that only a few moments ago was packed, a guided tour in full swing. I’ve just noticed the outline of part of a Romanesque doorway, less visible than its similarly blocked later medieval neighbour, for the most part destroyed when an enormous fifteenth-century window was inserted into the south transept. The closer I look the easier it is to see the remains of not one but two doorways, a once substantial Romanesque portal, each with a pointed gable and carved decoration. Most of the remains are weathered back into the stones but some stand proud: a column, a section of gable, part of a capital, all measuring the centuries of rain with their absent forms. Some carved stones are reused as masonry. Before the decision was taken to chop most of it out to make way for the base of the window it was – if you follow the lines still just about visible – clearly impressive, and if of the same period as the nave arcades inside, with their gentle pointed arches and dogtooth ornament, just on the cusp of the Gothic proper. The trees are still, the air clean, with a mild taste of the sea. With the sun now gone, the low grey clouds set a chill and the outlines of the door almost disappear.


Doorways are destroyed, bricked up, lost, otherwise blocked, altering paths and routes through and around buildings, changing how that building has been experienced or understood through the centuries. Spaces are estranged, at once lost and made new at the same time. It’s interesting to think of the shadows of these now unused routes, the forced alterations of habits that a new door or a blocked door causes, a different way in or out, a new perspective.

The excitement of finding a blocked and forgotten doorway is something I can attest to. Repairing a monument a few years ago in Exeter Cathedral we had to remove a number of stones to get to an iron cramp that had rusted, expanded, and because of this, was pushing part of the wall out of alignment. As we dismantled the ashlar it quickly became apparent that behind them, there was a change of infill material; the familiar stone gave way to brick. We’d found one edge of a former doorway, the door that once led from the north aisle to the Treasurer’s House on the cathedral green, itself long since destroyed. A doorway had been bricked up and the monument, placed there in the early nineteenth century, now covered its position.

Old buildings, though, are symphonies of loss. This doorway in front of me, a whispered farewell to the Romanesque, destroyed by the work of later centuries and now remaining solely as a shadow on the stones, is a prime example. These gradual or sometimes dramatic changes must all find a new equilibrium with each other, must settle in, find new means of coexisting.

Thinking about this I realise that conservation is about finding this equilibrium. In a sense the work of the conservator is really that of an intermediary between absence and presence, the job a means of anchoring the present to the past and to those who have come before. The repair of historic buildings then isn’t an unnecessary ‘extra’, an empty duty, or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s about sustaining and nourishing ourselves, of establishing a connection with place and the people who have made that place. It’s more than just a mark of respect for lost narratives and forgotten stories: it is material for new ones.

Dark stars on Dartmoor


It has to count as the best thing I’ve pulled out of a skip: a piece of Irish limestone, a slab about three feet by one foot by three inches thick. There are no rough surfaces – it’s sawn on six sides – though there are a few chipped edges. Admittedly this is high-end skip-diving, at a monumental mason’s yard, having asked for permission to go through their offcuts – plenty of broken marble and Portland, but only one piece of Kilkenny. It takes a fair amount of shifting of the overburden to reach it, the single pale grey corner that initially caught my eye gradually increasing in size as I get closer. I have to gradually walk it up the spoil to get it out. I can just about lift it. It’s not a perfect rectangle, one of the ends is at a slant and there is a vent along one side, presumably the reason why it was discarded in the first place. Otherwise it’s a good find.


Northeye Liminal

It’s a warm July afternoon on the southeast coast, the sun bright off the sea. I’m walking across a field in a train of people on a guided tour, bouncing on thick grasses combed flat by the wind. We’re  heading towards a marker post in the distance, a post painted mustard yellow, easily visible against its backdrop of velvet hedgerows and even darker trees. Though patchy sections of grass reveal parched earth, a clay soil cracked by the heat, this is a landscape defined by water, a marsh now drained and criss-crossed by ditches. On the horizon is a gentle rise crowned by a patch of nettles. This is the site of the deserted medieval village of Northeye, East Sussex. (more…)

Star Patterns and Stonemasons: West Chelborough, Dorset

‘West Chelborough is a village so far from the haunts of men’, wrote the eminent surgeon and author, Frederick Treves, ‘that the visit of a stranger causes some unrest’. Treves authored one of the most popular books on the county, Highways and Byways in Dorset, first published in 1906 and reprinted numerous times throughout the twentieth century. Having gained fame and fortune as Royal Surgeon to Edward VII, operating on his appendix and saving his life just two days before the planned date of the King’s coronation, Treves retired aged fifty and turned his hand to travel and memoir writing. As the reprints suggest, at this too he was a success. He cycled over 2000 miles around the county to research his book. It says much about his pioneering spirit that in the early years of the 1900s one of the most famous men in the British Empire might be found negotiating a rough chalk track deep in the Dorset countryside on a bicycle, in order to visit remote stretches of coast and largely undisturbed villages. (more…)

Missing: The Romanesque Tympanum from East Teignmouth

(I wrote this post last year and have updated it accordingly)

A significant piece of Romanesque sculpture, moved from East Teignmouth church in the 1820s to the garden of a house in Dawlish, Devon, is still missing.

Fig. 1

This was it in November 2011 when I visited to research an article, published in last year’s Transactions of the Devonshire Association.* The twelfth-century tympanum, originally above the north door at St Michael’s, East Teignmouth, had occupied this position in the grounds of Shell Cove House in Dawlish since the early 1820s. During the first wave of restoration of the medieval church, between 1821 and 1823, the sculpture was moved here by the Reverend Charles Phillot, curate of the church from 1811 and developer of the house (then known as Clevelands). (more…)

Ancient and Modern in Toller Fratrum and Stoke Canon

There are two signs tucked into the hedge at the side of the A356. One says Toller Fratrum, the other indicates that the road that will take us there is a dead end. We turn left onto a single-track lane bounded on each side by a wire and post fence and bump along into the gentle valley, underneath a railway bridge and over a narrow river, then up the other side. I’d heard that the manor house had burnt down and here it is, where the road ends in mud, cloaked in scaffolding, emitting occasional groans and squeaks as the wind catches in its roof of plastic sheeting. Adjacent and serene is the church of St Basil, the path to it through the churchyard lit by daffodils. It is a simple building with a commanding view across soft, pale green hills fringed with smudges of trees. (more…)

Sculpture at Hartland

I’m out on the north-westerly tip of Devon at Hartland. At Hartland Point grey cliffs erupt from white water hundreds of feet below, monumental sections of slate themselves folded into waves, syncline and anticline, by earth movements millions of years ago. Look west and it’s an uninterrupted view towards America. The tower of the church of St Nectan at East Stoke, inland by about a mile and the tallest in North Devon at around 130ft, is swallowed up by the vast sky. (more…)