Walk - St Aldhelm's Chapel

Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2022. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.

Route Description

  1. Coming out of the car park just to the south of Renscombe Farm turn right and follow the track southwards (seawards).
  2. Ignoring the path crossing yours a short while later, carry on past the quarry on your right.

The quarries around Worth Matravers were particularly exploited in the past for their yield of 'Purbeck Marble', actually a limestone and not a marble at all, but it will polish up to look like one. It has been quarried in the area since Roman times, although the first known use of it was even earlier, in a cist at Langton Matravers in the Bronze Age. In medieval times it was widely used for building cathedrals, and features in Westminster Abbey, as well as in cathedrals in Salisbury, Exeter, Ely, Norwich and Chichester, among others.

The limestone quarries around Purbeck are important to geologists because many of them show how the layers of limestone were laid down. The Swanworth Quarries, just to the north of Worth Matravers, show the most complete section of the different rocks on the Isle of Purbeck, from the Portland Sand on the quarry floor, to the Lower Purbeck Beds at the top (see the Corfe Castle Walk).

  1. Stay with the track a little further on as it veers right towards the coastguard cottages, but bear left at the path to the cottages, instead of taking the path that leads to St Anselm's Chapel and the National Coastwatch Institution lookout beyond it.

The headland is known as both St Alban's Head and St Aldhelm's Head. St Alban was a Roman martyr who in the third century was executed for his faith, and he had no known connections with either Purbeck or Dorset as a whole.

Seventh-century St Aldhelm was Abbot of Malmesbury and later Bishop of Sherborne. He was a scholar of international standing and was particularly noted for his Latin poetry and his knowledge of Anglo-Saxon literature. His most famous work, sent in a letter to Aldfrith, King of Northumbria, consisted of 101 riddles, each of them a complete picture in itself and one of them running to 83 lines long. He was also known for his tact and diplomacy, and another of his well-known letters was to King Geraint of Dumnonia after a synod from the church in Wessex asked him to sort out the rebellious Celtic Christians who, led by the British king, insisted on dating Easter according to their own calculations.

He was also a famed showman and finding the local population a little reluctant to attend the church he was often said to stand on a bridge to sing songs of his own composition in their own Old English tongue. When a crowd gathered to listen he would preach to them, still in song, on a variety of sacred subjects.

St Aldhelm’s Chapel, on the headland, was first built in the thirteenth century within the remains of a low circular earthwork which was probably the site of a very early Christian hermitage from several centuries before. It may also have served as a beacon for passing ships, and a watchtower for Corfe Castle (see the Corfe Castle Walk).

In 1957 a man ploughing a field some 400 metres away uncovered a slab of Purbeck stone, carved with a Celtic-style cross, now in the porch of St Nicholas's Church in Worth Matravers. Below the slab was a grave containing the skeleton of a woman with her arms crossed, buried inside a row of upright stones, and the grave was dated to the late thirteenth century. Nearby the foundations of a building 2 metres square were also uncovered.

By the end of the eighteenth century the chapel had been abandoned and fell into disrepair, but a century later local landowners arranged for it to be restored, and it reopened for services in 1874. With a vaulted stone ceiling and thick stone buttresses, the chapel is noted for both its square shape and its unusual alignment. Instead of its walls facing the four points of the compass, its corners do.

The first coastguards in the area, based at Chapman's Pool, were naval personnel charged with patrolling the Coast Path. They were supplied by sea, and the boat used to bring supplies ashore was based in a small boathouse on the slipway, both of which are still on the shoreline below.

The coastguard lookout and the four cottages housing its officers were subsequently built up here on the cliffs in 1895. Coastguard families living here found them too remote, however, and more were built in Weston, just outside the village. With one person always on watch at the lookout (usually a member of the Auxiliary Coastguard Service, who shared duties with the Coastguards), another was always on standby in Weston and was summoned by a bell (later by phone).

The present lookout, overlooking the notorious St Alban's Race, was built in the 1970s but was returned to the Encombe Estate, as were the cottages, when the Coastguard Service stopped visual lookout duties in 1994. But when two fishermen died on the Lizard that same year, within sight of the newly-closed Coastguard Lookout, local people decided to restore the visual watch by means of volunteers. The idea spread from there, and today there are 49 National Coastwatch Institution stations around the coastline of England and Wales, with more planned. On St Aldhelm's Head, the NCI leases the old lookout building at a modest rent of 'one crab per annum if demanded'.

  1. On the South West Coast Path turn right and follow it around the headland. The path travels along the edge of a high flat plateau as it heads inland above the eastern shores of the scooped-out bay of Chapman's Pool.

From here there are dramatic views along the coastline looking west, with a series of scarred white cliffs rising vertically from the thick vegetation growing in the slumped undercliffs The rock around the bowl of Chapman's Pool is Kimmeridge Clay Shale, a versatile rock which has been exploited for its many manufacturing uses since the Iron Age. Like other local limestones, it is also full of fossils (see the Priest's Way Walk). The cliffs above, however, are Portland limestone, laid down on top of the shale in a later period, before erosion and other processes reshaped the local landscape.

  1. Very soon steps descend into a steep-sided valley, and a footpath heads off to the right. Ignore this side path and carry on up the steps out of the valley.

People have been farming, fishing and quarrying in the Purbeck area for many thousands of years (see the Kimmeridge Bay walk), and evidence has been found of human habitation right back to Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) times. On the top of Emmett's Hill, above the cliffs to your right, as you leave the point and start to walk inland, there are several burial mounds, or tumuli, from the Bronze Age (around 1000 BC). Much more recently, the flat area on the top of the cliffs was the nerve centre of UK radar development from 1940-1942, when top radar scientists were working on systems with a longer range and aircraft navigation systems. The first rotating aerial and map display was built here.

  1. A number of tiny paths travel over the undercliffs on your right. After you have passed the end of Chapman's Pool a slightly bigger path zigzags up the hillside from the boathouse, crossing the Coast Path to continue inland. Turn right onto this path and follow it through two fields, back to the car park at the start of the walk.

Nearby refreshments

The Square & Compass in Worth Matravers

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