Quirky Dorset 21 – St Aldhelm’s Chapel…….or is it?

– – – Exploring The Countryside and Lanes of Dorset – – –

So, having looked at some Dorset places through the ‘lens of blur’ last week in order to get an alternative view, this week I thought we would go back to our series on ‘Quirky Dorset’ by visiting some slightly oddball or out of the ordinary places. This is Part 21 and we are starting off this set with a very old chapel…….or is it?? Well actually, no one seems to be certain! This is St Aldhelm’s Chapel that sits on the headland that bears the same name.

St Aldhelm’s Chapel, St Aldhelm’s Head

St Aldhelm's Chapel
St Aldhelm’s Chapel

St Aldhelm’s, also known as St Alban’s, Chapel sits atop a remote Dorset headland some 108 meters above sea level, a couple of miles from the nearest village. It is tiny, just 30 feet square, with thick walls, and a solid stone roof that is supported by a heavy internal rib-vaulted ceiling that radiates out from an overly stout central pillar. With just a single door and single window, this building is built like a fortress, set to withstand the elements that beat upon it in its exposed position. Externally, the chapel stands in the centre of a low circular earthwork which is thought to be pre-Conquest Christian. It is a chapel, and occasional services are still held there, but was it always?

Well that is a difficult question to answer even for the experts! There are a number of unusual features about this building, namely, it is square, it is not built to the traditional east/west orientation, and it has a huge central pillar which makes it less than ideal for gatherings of people. In addition, there is no evidence of a place for an altar or a piscina. All these suggest that it wasn’t originally intended to be a church. However, there is definite evidence to show that there was a chaplain here in the 13th century!

The age of the building is somewhat uncertain. Indications are that it dates from Norman times, but some say that the doorway is actually Saxon. The site itself is even older than that as it is in fact thought to have been built on the site of an earlier, possibly wooden, building.

St Aldhelm's Chapel interior
The Central Column and Rib Vaulting

That isn’t all that is strange about this chapel because, although it has a cross on top now, this only dates from 1873 and there is evidence that prior to that, there was a beacon at the apex of the roof. This could lead to the supposition that the building might have originally been some kind of coastal lookout, and this thought could possibly be supported by the fact that the construction is similar to parts of Corfe Castle which is several miles inland. Add to this the fact that the headland is on the ‘blind side’ of the castle and you have even more weight to its argument for being a lookout to aid and protect the castle. You could add to that again, that the parish is described in 1428 as having no inhabitants so arguably would not need a church, plus its description in 1625 as being a ‘sea mark’ – an aid to navigation used by seamen.

However, a very strong argument against the lookout theory, aside from the fact that there was a chaplain, is that there is only one tiny window, which is hardly the normal way to design a lookout! How can you look out if there is nothing from which to look out!

On the altar!
One Tiny Window

One suggestion put forward is that this building was erected as a Chantry, a small chapel where an incumbent priest would pray for the souls of deceased benefactors to aid them through purgatory, or perhaps for the safety of those at sea. This was a common practice until the Reformation; until then, many small Chantry Chapels were built. Of course, none of the uses described here are necessarily mutually exclusive and it is possible that this was built as a chapel that doubled as a lookout/beacon.

The historical time line indicates that this was a chapel with a chaplain, at least from the 13th century but that by the 17th/18th century it had fallen into disuse and was in a ruinous condition. It was restored and re-opened in 1874 and was used for a considerable time by the coastguards who had a lookout and a row of cottages on the headland. They held weekly services here. Again, however, it fell into disrepair, and again it was restored in the 1960’s.

We still haven’t exhausted the strange and unexplained features of this site! In 1957, a 13th century grave was found on the headland as well as the foundations of a small building which might have been a tiny dwelling. Little is known about the person interred except that she was aged between 30 and 40 years. It is thought that she might have been an Anchoress, basically a Christian recluse, who moved there to be near the chapel. A second grave was also discovered near the chapel itself.

Oh, and for some unknown reason, the chapel was once known as The Devil’s Chapel! It has also been known as a Wishing Chapel, a place where girls could go to in order to pray for a husband, posting personal items such as hair clips into a hole in the central pillar!

St Aldhelm's Chapel
St Aldhelm’s Chapel and Earthworks

There seems no end to the mystery that is St Aldhelm’s Chapel. Despite the theories, no one really knows for definite when it was built, who built it, or what its original purpose was. However, as with most of these mysteries, there are some traditional explanations! One such story has it that a new bride and groom were sailing around the headland watched by the bride’s father when a huge storm blew up and both were drowned. It seems that the father built the chapel in their memory and had a beacon installed on the top in order to warn all sailors of the dangers of that part of the coast. Come to think of it, that story seems to be very similar to one relating to another such church about which I blogged recently!

Whatever the truth, this is a beautiful chapel, in a wonderfully exposed and wild position along the Dorset coast. It gives off an air of strength and dependability. Simple, and some would say functional, but with mystery and intrigue enough to keep you wondering. And we will have to wonder on, because this landmark still hides most of its secrets and it appears to have no intention of releasing them any time soon!

But isn’t that a part of its magnetic charm?

Thanks for stopping by.

Until next time,
Your friend The Dorset Rambler

If you would like to contact me, my email address is terry.yarrow@gmail.com – comments and feedback are always welcomed.

All photographs, poems and words in this blog are the copyright of The Dorset Rambler and must not be reproduced without permission.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s