A photograph of St Stephen's Chapel through the netting of the surrounding building site.

July's Poem of the Month takes us to the north of Portsmouth, where we visit the memory of a very special chapel.

  • 25 July 2022
  • 5 min read

Following on from last month’s Poem of the Month – which shared poet Denise Bennett’s insight into the Jewish Cemetery in Fawcett Road, Southsea – this month’s selection takes us to the north of the City, where we visit the memory of a very special chapel.

St Stephen’s Church:

Established in 1899, St Stephen’s Church on Kingston Road survived for almost fifty years before it was destroyed in the Blitz. Only the chapel remained standing, and its tale from that point onward has been lovingly recounted by local poet Michael Perryment, who has a personal connection to the place.

With Michael’s permission, we have included the poem here.

It was nearly five years after D-Day,

the twelfth of February 1949;

they gathered at the small chapel

in sight of the bombed-out ruin

of St Stephen’s Church.

 

Nobody had a camera,

the image of my newly-wed parents

was never captured.

 

The high arched doorway

with its floral terracotta tiling

framed the happy couple

as they took their first steps

into the brave new world.

 

In time, the chapel was abandoned,

lost, and built over

by a 1950s department store

where it slept in the darkness

behind plasterboard panels

and bricked-up doors.

 

Until 2004,

when for a brief month

it was revealed

when the shopfront was torn away

for redevelopment.

 

As the glass and plastic crumbled,

the plaster and brick bulldozed

into clouds of dust,

St Stephen’s Chapel emerged.

 

With my camera I framed the image:

the high proud roof,

the frieze of brickwork that bands the wall

and the archway

and the tiles

still bright and neat above the door.

 

St Stephen’s Chapel

survived the blitz to span three centuries,

clung to life for a few short weeks

as its fate was decreed:

to follow the bomb ravaged

mother church, its body savaged

by machines.

 

I walked away

with a heart as heavy

as the dusty terracotta flower

that I cradled in my hands.


A photograph of the terracotta arch on St Stephen's Chapel.

Photograph of the terracotta flower arch of St Stephen’s Chapel, taken by Michael Perryment on the day of its destruction.

Salvaged Memories

There’s something unbearably tender about the image Michael Perryment relays for us here, of the chapel emerging from the cocoon of brick dust and debris. The glimpse of something old and deeply important. Through his words, we are connecting with a small and precious fragment of Portsmouth’s human history. The people who lived here before us, whose stories are trod into the foundations, who deserve to have their histories preserved even as Portsmouth continues to shapeshift and evolve.

A black and white photograph of Michael Perryment's parents.

A photograph of Michael’s parents in 1969, included at the request of Michael Perryment.

The Poet: Michael Perryment

Michael Perryment was born in Arthur Street, Buckland in 1949, and has remained local to Portsmouth and its surrounding areas since. A passionate defender of animal rights, he has been vegan for over 45 years, and the shop he had in Fawcett Road (Time for Change) was one of the earliest known completely vegan shops in the world.

In 2006, he won the Tongues and Grooves poetry competition with Rag and Bone Man. This poem – alongside four others, including The Surprise, which also discusses his childhood – are featured in This Island City: Portsmouth in Poetry. Perryment has also self-published a small booklet of his poetry, titled Terracotta Flower, and is looking into publishing a more extensive collection in future. So if you’ve enjoyed reading his work, be sure to keep an eye out!

Of his work, he says:

I started writing as a teenager just for myself and it was only in the 1990s that I shared my poetry after attending one of Denise Bennett’s creative writing courses. I then became part of the Portsmouth Poetry Wordshop with Denise, Pauline Hawkesworth and Brian Wells and others, this continued until I moved to Gosport. I was encouraged to submit my poems to South poetry magazine and have several poems included over the years. Copies 36, 35, 31, 30, 28, 27, 24, 21 will find me. Also The Dawntreader the more nature based publication has taken quite a few of my poems, issues 53, 39, 32, 26, 21 will find some of them.

Michael Perryment, Local Poet

Holly Kybett Smith is a research assistant at the Portsmouth Literature Map. She writes Gothic stories and more of her articles can be found on tor.com.

If you would like to get in touch with us about our poetry selections – to make us aware of yourself as a Portsmouth poet, or perhaps to recommend to us a poem you especially like – please do. We can be reached at Margaret.Bowers@port.ac.uk and Mark.Frost@port.ac.uk