The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

This week, let's make an entrance '“ and think about porches. Not, perhaps, something you often consider; you pass through '“ perhaps having paused to shake your umbrella or clomp the snow from your boots, before entering the main body of wherever it is you're visiting. But porches can be important in their own right '“ or even transformative.

Sunday, 18th March 2018, 1:37 pm
The Galilee at Durham Cathedral stretches west beneath the two towers. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Soon, subject to planning approval, there will be a new porch attached to one of Ripon’s important buildings, St Wilfrid’s Church.

Plans have been submitted as part of the congregation’s ambitious scheme for upgrading and reordering to make a new main entrance to the church, designed by the York architect Joseph Hansom.

The Trigge Library in the room above the porch at St Wulframs Church, Grantham. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

The plans, with intriguing circularity, have been drawn up by the York office of the architectural practice Purcell. The new ‘Welcome Porch’ will be on the south side of the church and, as the Design, Accessibility and Heritage Statement that was submitted with the planning application says, ‘enhances the approach to create a warmer and more welcoming invitation to all who visit’, as well as allowing access for disabled people.

The new porch – the details of which are still being finalised; the illustration is of a version that has been slightly altered since it was drawn – will be made of green oak, with oak benches and window frames that are sympathetic to the Gothic style, of the 1862 church.

The oak framing and open look of the new porch also refer back to medieval oak church porches, and to the freestanding lychgates that were built to receive the coffin as it was brought to church for a funeral – ‘lych’ means corpse (the same as ‘lyke, as in the Lyke Wake dirge and walk). There’s a good example of a lychgate as the entrance to the cemetery at Greenhow, near Pateley Bridge, the work of ‘Mousy’ Thompson at the beginning of the 20th century; it has the appropriate inscription ‘I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help’.

Although there are many wooden church porches, they are far outnumbered by stone ones.

Lychgate at Greenhow Cemetery, made by Mousy Thompson. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Some are very simple – a gabled addition to the side (most often the south side) of the nave, sheltering the main doorway.

Sometimes, though, they can be much more elaborate, finely carved with gargoyles and panelling or, in East Anglia especially, covered with the decorative flint patterns called flushwork.

In the areas of the country that were especially rich in the Middle Ages, porches can be impressive two-storied affairs – the Cotswold churches of Northleach and Cirencester have such porches.

The room above the porch could be used as a schoolroom, as the base for a night-watchman or as a library; one such library still exists in the room above the south porch of St Wulfram’s church in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Founded by Francis Trigge in 1598, it is said to be England’s first public reference library.

The Trigge Library in the room above the porch at St Wulframs Church, Grantham. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Even earlier, many Anglo-Saxon churches had rectangular west porches, though very few have survived.

The impetus for all such church porches was threefold; the obvious one of shelter, the need for space to carry out the early parts of certain church services – especially baptism, marriage and funerals – that the missal or the prayer book required to be carried out at the church door, and a recollection of the layout of the Temple of Solomon, with its impressive porch.

In the biblical First Book of Kings we read that Solomon ‘made a porch of pillars; the length thereof was fifty cubits, and the breadth thereof thirty cubits: and the porch was before them: and the other pillars and the thick beam were before them.

Then he made a porch for the throne where he might judge, even the porch of judgment: and it was covered with cedar from one side of the floor to the other.’

Lychgate at Greenhow Cemetery, made by Mousy Thompson. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Something of this grandeur was replicated in English medieval cathedrals, where ‘Galilee Porches’ were built – Lincoln, Ely and Durham have impressive examples.

A typical position for a Galilee porch was on the south side of the building, though it could be at the west end, as at Durham and, possibly, at Fountains Abbey.

Why was it called a Galilee? The evidence is sparse. It may have been from St Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus departs for ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’; from this came the idea that a separate porch for those considered outside the main church group was useful.

So it might have been used by penitents awaiting confession and penance, or by women visiting monks to whom they were related.

From these often-impressive and architecturally splendid porches, let us turn to consider the domestic porch.

Some Elizabethan houses had them, but the purity of neo-classical design tended not to allow them.

They really came into their own in the Victorian era, when many middle-class houses were built with small projecting porches.

Even the revolutionary Red House, designed for William Morris by his architect friend Philip Webb, had its open porch, known to the residents as ‘The Traveller’s Rest.’

These days porches are, perhaps, less popular.

Modern house builders might provide a minimalist canopy over a front door, possibly, if aiming for grandeur, supported by a couple of pseudo-Tuscan columns.

But there is still the possibility of adding your own porch. In most places a new porch will not need planning permission as it’s covered by permitted development rights – though if you are planning one, it’s wise to check with the planning authority as rules vary according to location – especially if you’re in a Conservation Area.

Such rights won’t allow you to build anything approaching the size of Solomon’s Porch, or of a medieval Galilee.

But you’d be in a long line of porch constructors – and it may inspire you to take more notice of other porches as your travel around.