THE HERITAGE CENTRE
The Portbury Historical Association, PHA archives are now stored in the small 14th century Priest Room which is above the porch and reached via a narrow door and a spiral stone staircase. It was built probably as a store room for the church to keep their valuables or perhaps for the priest to entertain guests. It was often used as a school and has been used by St Marys as a Sunday School venue as late as the 1980’s.
Since 2016 the Portbury village archives have been stored in the room. There is a large collection of documents, photographs and maps depicting all aspects of the village history over a thousand years
St Mary's has a unique setting which accentuates its heritage and importance. It stands surrounded by fields on the outskirts of the village, alongside St Mary's V.A School and the Portbury Standing Stone, in one of the most sacred and historic areas in North Somerset. The ancient tower and yew trees can be seen from all approaches to the village, a factor that is as important as the church is beautiful.
The ancient Manor of Portbury was in existence long before Portishead and Bristol and was a Roman port for exporting silver & lead from the Mendips. The Grade I listed 12th century church of St Mary the Virgin is probably much older since it stands on ground that has been sacred for many centuries which explains the discovery and re-erection of the Neolithic Standing Stone nearby in 1987. A Romano British burial site was discovered during archaeological excavations for the new school opposite the church in 1972 and further Saxon burials discovered in a further dig for a school extension in 2005. The skeletal remains of men, women and children, Christian and pre-Christian, are held at Bristol University.
St. Mary's church has had links with Bristol Cathedral since 1150's when it was given the patronage of St Augustine’s Abbey built in 1148 by Robert Fitzharding. (later to become Bristol Cathedral ). Fitzharding was given the title Lord Berkeley by Henry II. The Lords of Berkeley continued their patronage of St Marys for almost three hundred years. They were responsible for the building of the Berkeley Chapel, widening of the church and creating the crypt where Lady Eva de la Zouche, Baroness Berkeley, was buried in 1314. They built a large manor house in the village in addition to their main residence of Berkeley Castle.
Churchyard and Tombs
St Mary's has some of the oldest tomb stones in the country. The oldest which was a former altar stone dates back to 1584 and was for William Godwin of Woolcombe (the present Oakham Farm) who died aged 95. Others from the early 1600's are kept within the church itself. The churchyard still has many ancient yew trees which have been included in the national study. There are several Grade II listed table tombs and the inscriptions match the memorials inside the church, particularly those of the maritime Ballard family.
The Tower & Bells
The stone tower was built on the site of an older Saxon one probably in middle1400's by the Berkeley’s. It houses six bells at two levels with the oldest dating to 1610. The bells are still fully functional and are rung regularly echoing down the Gordano valley. The Sanctus bell has only just been renovated and re-installed on the gable roof above the chancel where it had sat in a stone bell cote since the 1600's.
The Organ and Clock
Our organ was manufactured by Vowles of Bristol who refurbished the organ at St Mary Redcliffe Church and Bristol Cathedral. It is mid Victorian and dates from approximately the 1860’s. It has recently been repaired and is finally working again after about fifteen years of silence. The tower clock was donated by villagers to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 and the chimes were added in 1897 to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee.
The Victorians renovated the church about 1874 and added a new pine roof in the nave, new pews, a heating system, lecterns and pulpits, together with pointing the stone walls and generally saving the fabric of the church. We are fortunate that we still have a full complement of Victorian pews in the nave and late Elizabethan pews and crypt in the Berkeley chapel. There are some exciting things to find in the church like the Norman door entrance, the remnants of medieval window glass, a Norman font and an Elizabethan coffer to add to the historic splendour plus look for the ancient pew damaged by a war time incendiary bomb.