One of my special places in Dorset (although to be fair there are a few), is Worth Matravers with the famous Square and Compass pub, wonderful local stone houses, stunning coastal scenery and wildlife. It also has fascinating hidden history important to this country that I will reveal.
My blog focuses on the small, isolated and uplifting St Aldhelm’s chapel. It is one of Britains oldest surviving churches and has defiantly withstood the elements for over 800 years on this prominent headland, atop 100m high cliffs.
From here you can look east along the coastline to Durlston Castle and on towards Hengistbury Head. To the west are spectacular views across Chapman’s Pool towards Kimmeridge and beyond to Weymouth and Portland .
Peering over the cliffs it can be seen from the crumbling face just how precarious the chapel’s future may be although a coast guard station, within spitting distance from the chapel and even nearer the edge gives some comfort that the situation is being monitored and there are no notices displayed suggesting there is any immediate concerns so fingers crossed.
Anyway, the church can be reached via an easy 1.5 mile walk from the nearest car park, passing a stone quarry nestling into the valley with an interesting viewpoint as you pass where you can spy the activity. There is a beautiful terrace of white painted cottages as you near the chapel that enjoy views out to sea and also back towards Chapman’s Pool and the dramatic coastline stretching for miles.
It is apparantly uncertain whether the chapel was built for that purpose and the cross sitting on a crude stone pediment at it’s crest is certainly not original. It’s square shape with 7.70m sides, each facing the main compass points is unique given that other ecclesiastical structures are generally built with their outer angles targeting the traditional cardinal points of the compass. I had assumed that the Square and Compas pub – a couple of miles away, had some masonic association and perhaps it does but would now seem to me more likely named after this building.
The beautiful vaulting of the 12th century roof, the existence of medieval graves outside it’s walls and its position within a circular earthworks good does seem to suggest it was built as a place of worship and perhaps an important one.
The chapel is said originally to have been a chantry with a priest giving mass for the safety of passing sailors and that it also served as a resting place by kings who frequently hunted across the Purbecks. King John was in records a regular visitor. A local legend says that in 1140 a young bride and groom were drowned when a boat they were in capsized during a storm. The event being watched by her father from the cliffs. The desolate father is said to have built a chapel at this spot in their memory and with a beacon light to warn sailors of this perilous spot. It could be that the beacon was above the chapel where the cross now sits and repairs to the roof revealed that to be possible.
The building and the whole area surrounding it and the hround below was listed as an Ancient Monument in millennium year and described as an early Christian enclosure. This is rare class of monument and interestingly a similar Christian enclosure has been identified beneath Old Sherborne Castle strengthening links with the 7th century first Bishop of Sherborne, At Aldhelm.
Rev. Robert Watton Rector from 1991 to 2003, researched the origins of the chapel and believes that it also served as a first line of defense for Corfe Castle, on this vulnerable section of coastline with unusual construction within its walls replicated at the castle.
The chapel has over the centuries been neglected from time to time but the impressive grafitti on the stone pillars show it was regularly visited. It was used as a wishing chapel with a hole in a central pier used by young girls to insert pins and wish. No doubt for a husband. This the remains of a tradition of making an offering to the priest for prayer for the safety of friends at sea.
In the 19th century the villagers of Worth would celebrate Whit Thursday at the chapel with music and dance, presumably outside as there isn’t much room inside. It was decorated with flowers.
During the 2nd world war the chapel was used for worship but a more important piece of history is that during that war over 2000 people worked at St Aldhelm’s Head on radar and electronics in laboratories and workshops as part of a secret and vital operations.
Their remarkable achievements contributing significantly to ensurein Britain’s freedom and paying the foundations of the electronic age in which we live. Scientists including Professor Sir Bernard Lovell developed the first map like radar display used in most of today’s radars based on work done here. In the Worth fields the first ever high powered microwave radar tests were carried out using the chapel as the radar target.
Lovell- later of Jodrell Bank fame, developed radar equipment that was fitted into warships deployed to escort merchant ships and into RAF aircraft hunting German submarines attacking those convoys and also into anti-aircraft radars to help defeat the fearsome and hugely destructive flying bomb cruise missiles and into night fighters.
Scientists at Worth developedand Langton devised radio navigation systems for ships and aircraft such as GEE which helped secure the success of the D Day landings in France on 6 June 1944. They also developed H2S which traced out a picture of the ground over which the aircraft was flying and created acuratea target marking systems such as Oboe together with radio and radar beacons which helped air supply of the Resistance in Occupied France.
Nothing remains of the huge aerials, or the site buildings as they were all removed at the end of the Second World War. You can still see the foundations of a ‘Chain Home Low’ radar station set up in 1940 to search for bombers flying at very low level across the Channel. A memorial to the WWII work of the scientific research and testing facility is just a few yards from the coast guard station and is a prominent landmark on this headland.
After the war everything went very quite here until in 1957 a local farmer dug up some old stones whilst ploughing his fields near the chapel bringing further attention. The stone he exposed was part of a monumental slab with a Celtic cross engraved on it and prompting further excavations. A grave was then discovered of a 13th century woman in her 30s below the slab with folded arms and rows of upright stones around her body suggesting a cell. It is suggested she may have been an anchoress leading a holy life near to the chapel. Apocalypse legend tells of a leper colony nearby so she could have cared for them.
Another attraction is the wildlife. Puffins, razor bills and guillemots, kittiwakes, cormorants and fulmars all visit the steep cliffs with angular caves and tunnels that have often been used in films as distant planet backdrop in sci-fi films; rare butterfly called the Lulworth skipper and the Greater Horseshoe bat who reside in the caves.
The local geology is much quarried limestone, exploited since the Romans times and has been a key supplier of stone to many of this countries cathedrals and monumental buildings that has left the cliffs pitted with tunnels and dramatic caves where limestone has been removed and also dinosaur fossils that have been abundant in the area – hence the Jurassic coast. Fossils found have included diplodocus footprints.
When you have finished exploring the chapel, memorial and coast guard’s station – the guys there are very friendly welcoming and informative, return to the car park, if you are up to it, by the shorter but more challenging route, westward along the coast path to the steps down the valley. Guessing about 100 steps and no handrail. Not so bad going down but you then need to ascend an equal number of steps up the other side. The views here are wonderful. It is then an easy stroll back to the car park via the beautiful Chapman’s Pool. Last thing to do is get yourselves back to the Square and Compass pub for a home made Cornish pasties and a pint of Charlie’s cider and a warm in front of the fire. At the back of the pub is a free museum with an amazing collection of local fossils and all sorts. In the gardens a collection of rare chickens running about, pumpkins everywhere and sometimes Charlie’s dog up on the ridge of the roof. My sort of pub, my sort of day and I recommend it.
Approaching our targets from L to R
WW2 memorial – Coastguard Station – St Aldhems Chapel
Vaulted stone arched roof
Grafitti through the centuries
Sculpture to mark WW2 research station
Coastguard station and old foundation stonework
views towards Kimmeridge and Portland
Yay, back at the Square and Compass and a pint of Hattie Browns (Swanage Brewery)
Queuing at the serving hatch
one of the two sitting rooms
My S & C seat, cheers Charlie