Tag Archives: history

St Aldhelm’s Chapel…….or is it?

6 Jun

– – – 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.

 

Quirky Dorset – Part 17

20 May

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

So, we are continuing the theme of ‘Quirky Dorset’ today, highlighting places and people that are strange, a bit off the wall, or just plain mysterious, and this one fits well into the last category. This is one of Dorset’s mysterious places, somewhere that just makes you wonder about its history, who passed through here, what was their purpose, and what was their life like. At least, that’s what it does for me, and its a place that somehow draws you back time and time again. This is the Dorset Gap.

The Dorset Gap

The Dorset Gap

The Dorset Gap in its Flattened Clearing

The Dorset Gap, or Dorsetshire Gap as the OS have it on their maps, is a ‘gap’ or more precisely a dip in the chalk ridge that runs across the south of England and known as the Dorset Downs. These downs are actually an escarpment with a steeply sloped northern face and a more gently sloping southern aspect. The ridge effectively forms a barrier to traffic moving north to south and vice versa and there was a natural tendency for people and animals to cross the ridge at a lower point. Perhaps as a result of this, some five paths converge on this one point to form what was effectively an ancient ‘spaghetti junction’, a meeting point of medieval motorways.

The paths that meet here were part of the ancient network of super highways that criss crossed this wonderful country and they were very active from the Middle Ages right up to the 19th century when other forms of transport took over. Indeed, the path that runs along the top of the ridge from east to west is part of a much longer ancient route that stretched from the Devon coast right to the Norfolk coast. This was a very important trade route, and the Dorset Gap was a very important crossing point.

It is possible that these routes even predate the Middle Ages since there is much evidence in the area of older settlements in the form of hill top cross dykes, burial mounds, an Iron Age hill fort, and the remains of a settlement in the valley to the south.

Ramsons

One of the Ramson Lined Paths

The paths around the Dorset Gap are well worn having withstood centuries of feet, hooves, cart wheels, packhorses and so on, as goods and animals were moved around the county and farther afield. Some would have been moved along the ridge top trails towards Devon to the west or Wiltshire to the east and many would have dropped off the ridge at this point, perhaps moving north to pick up other drove trails. Thus the paths have gradually been eroded away to become Holloway’s, sunken paths with steep sides. I have blogged about Holloways many times.

When I visited the Dorset Gap this week, the sides of the sunken lanes were laden with ramsons, wild garlic, and it was just wonderful walking these beautiful paths to the accompaniment of bird song. There is no real view from the Gap itself since it is surrounded by trees, but climb just a short way up to the top of the ridge beyond and the views are simply amazing. To the north, the view stretches for miles across the Blackmore Vale, and to the South, the view stretches across the valley with the hamlet of Higher Melcombe in the centre. It is at Higher Melcombe that the remains of the ancient settlement lie. It is at Higher Melcome also that the manor house sits, to which this land belonged.

Higher Melcombe from the Ridge

The View South towards Higher Melcombe

Blackmore Vale View

The View North Across the Blackmore Vale

One of the slightly quirky things about the Dorset Gap is that there is a visitor’s book which is kept in a plastic tub below the sign post. This book has been here since 1972, some 45 years ago, and is maintained and replaced as necessary by the current owner of Higher Melcome Manor. Each time I visit this spot, I write in the book so I feature regularly in the gathering collection of books that the owner must have.

The Dorset Gap

The Visitor’s Book

So why is this place so mysterious? Is it its position, a small flattened clearing surrounded by trees in a dip in a long range of hills? Is it because it is so remote and hidden; the nearest road is a mile or more away and it can be reached only on foot or horseback? Is it the fact that it is a centuries old, once very busy cross roads used by all manner of people from gentry to drovers to warriors to paupers to prisoners? Is it because you wonder why it was there and who started using it in the first place?

I think it is all of these things! Stand at the Dorset Gap and it is like standing amidst history. Its past sounds you, it is soaked into the ground, and you can almost here the sounds of ancient voices, hooves and wheels and you wonder who they were and what they would be like if you could greet them.

The Dorset Gap is an ancient, mysterious and special place. It is one that always rewards a visit and one that I shall continue to return to because peace and the past pervade this place.

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.

Theme for the Week – Quirky Dorset Part 6

9 Apr

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

For our theme this week, I thought we would come back to ‘Quirky Dorset’ and feature a few more things in my lovely county that are perhaps a little bit ‘off the wall’ 🙂 ! And this is one of my favourites – it is The Smugglers’ Path.

The Smugglers’ Path, White Nothe

I love walking this path…..if you can call it a path! It runs from the top of the White Nothe  (aka White Nose) headland down to the rocky seashore some 170 meters (550 feet) below. The path is steep, very steep, and it zig zags its way down the cliff face with amazing views all across Ringstead Bay to the west. Below, there are just rocks which may be covered if the tide is high.

The Smugglers Path

The Smugglers’ Path, White Nothe

This is a breathtaking walk in more ways than one! The views are breathtaking, the steepness is breathtaking if you are not good with heights, and if you are climbing up, it definitely takes your breath away 🙂 ! Whether this path was actually used by smugglers or not seems unclear but the fact that a row of coastguard cottages was built at the top in the early 1900’s would seem to suggest that it was. Of course, the whole of the Dorset coast was used by smugglers to bring their contraband ashore under cover of darkness. With its wild remoteness, White Nothe would have been ideal for this practice!

This path, and its past, was immortalised by J Meade Falkner in his book ‘Moonfleet’ as it was the inspiration for Elzevir Block’s escape from the Excise men, accompanied by a very young John Trenchard. I have reproduced a short passage below.

The Smugglers Path

The Top of the Smugglers’ Path

‘Forgive me, lad,’ he said, ‘if I have spoke too roughly. There is yet another way that we may try; and if thou hadst but two whole legs, I would have tried it, but now ’tis little short of madness. And yet, if thou fear’st not, I will still try it. Just at the end of this flat ledge, farthest from where the bridle-path leads down, but not a hundred yards from where we stand, there is a sheep-track leading up the cliff. It starts where the under-cliff dies back again into the chalk face, and climbs by slants and elbow-turns up to the top. The shepherds call it the Zigzag, and even sheep lose their footing on it; and of men I never heard but one had climbed it, and that was lander Jordan, when the Excise was on his heels, half a century back. But he that tries it stakes all on head and foot, and a wounded bird like thee may not dare that flight. Yet, if thou art content to hang thy life upon a hair, I will carry thee some way; and where there is no room to carry, thou must down on hands and knees and trail thy foot.’

(From Moonfleet by J Meade Falkner – as young John Trenchard and Elzevir Block flee from the Excise Men)

White Nothe sunset

White Nothe at Sunset

The description by J Meade Falkner was perhaps a little exaggerated, but nevertheless, this path can still be scary to walk if the weather is stormy with the wind taking you off balance and the wet making the steep path slippery. But it is a path that I love for its sheer quirkiness…..and perhaps for the feeling that you are somehow following in the footsteps of some ancient smugglers! It is definitely not to be missed if you are walking this part of the Dorset coast!

Thanks for stopping by.

Until tomorrow,
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.

Theme for the Week – Dorset Mills Part 4

31 Mar

– – – EXPLORING THE COUNTRYSIDE AND LANES OF DORSET – – –

So we are now at Part 4 of our Dorset Mills theme for this week, and today we feature a mill with a past! It is another mill that sits in a beautiful location although unfortunately it is not open to the public. This is Fiddleford Mill.

Fiddleford Mill

Fiddleford Mill

Fiddleford Mill stands on the banks of the River Stour just a mile or two down stream from Sturminster Newton. It is a delightful and quaint mill that is part of Fiddleford Manor, a grand house that is now in the hands of English Heritage. The house itself is open to the public but the mill isn’t, although it is still well worth a visit.

The current building is thought to date from the 18th century but since the inscribed stone referred to below dates from 1566, and parts of the nearby manor house date from the 14th century, it is clear there must have been an earlier mill on the site. Indeed it is thought that there has been a mill here for over 1,000 years although it is likely that the earlier mill was actually on the site now occupied by the manor house itself.

Fiddleford

Inserted into the wall of the mill to the right of the door is a stone containing the following words, dedicated to a former miller. It dates from 1566 and reads as follows:

‘He that wyll have here any thynge don
Let him com friendly he shal be welcom
A frynd to the owner and enemy to no man
Pass all here freely to com when they can
For the tale of trothe I do always professe
Miller be true disgrace not thy vest
If falsehood appere the fault shal be thine
And of sharpe ponishment think me not unkind
Therefore to be true yt shall the behove
[to] please god chefly [that liveth] above.’

So, what of that ‘past’ that I referred to earlier? Well back in the 18th and early 19th century, this building was used to store contraband. This would have been smuggled in at Hengistbury and Stanpit Marsh and carried up the river to be stored here before being distributed in the local area. As someone who has kayaked up the river, I can’t see that this would have been an easy task as in places the river becomes quite shallow.

The Weir

The surrounding countryside of the Stour Valley is beautiful with lots of wildlife to watch and the ever present rippling of water. The route to the mill itself takes you past the very unusual crescent shaped stepped weir and also the row of old sluice gates.

There is history aplenty in this area, and some delightful walking that can easily take in both Fiddleford and Sturminster Newton Mills as you follow the river and its meadows. This is a lovely place to wile away an hour or two.

Thanks for joining me on my visit today.

Until tomorrow,
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.

Theme for the Week – Dorset Mills Part 3

29 Mar

– – – EXPLORING THE COUNTRYSIDE AND LANES OF DORSET – – –

This week, we are looking at Dorset water mills. Clearly there are so many that one week is not enough to do them justice but at least we get to look at a few. Today’s mill is Melbury Abbas Mill, also known as Barfoot Mill.

Melbury Abbas Mill

Melbury Abbas Mill

Across the Mill Pond

Barfoot Mill stands in a stunning location in a valley beside its own beautiful mill pond. The pond itself is fed by the River Sturkel which is a tributary of the Stour – but then, most rivers in this part of the county are tributaries of the Stour. I say River Sturkel but it is actually little more than a stream that has its beginnings in a spring just a short distance away, and yet at the time of the Doomsday Book, this stream fed some 5 mills within one mile. Interestingly the name Sturkel is thought to mean Little Stour.

The River Sturkel

The River Sturkel at Melbury Abbas

The mill itself was a corn mill dating from the 19th century and is the lower building to the left of the millers house in the picture above. It was driven by an external cast iron overshot water wheel which is inscribed with the year of 1875. At the time of the listed building registration, the internal workings were still in place, as well as two pairs of millstones.

It is not possible to see inside the mill because it is now a private residence but there is a truly delightful footpath that follows the stream past the mill along the valley bottom.

Melbury Abbas Mill

Barfoot Mill with its Mill Wheel

I feel like I should be featuring the next mill along this little stream, Cann Mill, because that is one of very few mills still being worked commercially but I have to say, Barfoot Mill is so much more picturesque 🙂 ! It is like a fairy tale mill especially on a sunny day such as this.

Thanks for stopping by.

Until tomorrow,
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.

Theme for the Week – Dorset Mills Part 2

28 Mar

– – – EXPLORING THE COUNTRYSIDE AND LANES OF DORSET – – –

Continuing our theme of Dorset Mills, we are once again on the River Stour but this time further north at Sturminster Newton at a beautiful mill. And one of the few that continue to be worked albeit not on a commercial scale.

Sturminster Newton Mill

The Old Mill

Sturminster Newton Mill Across the River Stour

There has been a mill on this site since 1016 or possibly even earlier, and it was mentioned in the Doomsday Book. The current mill dates from the 17th and 18th centuries and as you can see, it is L shaped. In fact it was originally two separate mills, the left half in the picture above being a flour mill and the right half a fulling mill. These were driven by a pair of undershot water wheels which stood side by side. In the 18th century, the fulling mill was demolished and rebuilt on the original foundations as an extension to the flour mill. Then in the early 20th century, the two water wheels were replaced by a single water turbine.

The Miller's Workshop

The Miller’s Workshop

The unusual thing with this mill is that it was worked commercially until the late 20th century when modern health and safety requirement forced it to cease its commercial activities. However, even today it is still a working mill and milling days are held regularly although more as a tourist attraction.

Sturminster Newton Mill

The Mill and its Weir

The mill takes its name from the nearby town of Sturminster Newton. It comes from Stur a derivative of Stour, minster meaning church and Newton meaning new estate or town. So the name literally means mill by a new town with a church on the Stour.

This is another delightful place to visit, surrounded by lovely countryside with the gently flowing river and bird song aplenty. But step inside the mill when it is working and you are immediately captivated by the noise, the constant rumble and throbbing of the machinery as cogs, belts and wheels go about their milling business.

Thanks for stopping by.

Until tomorrow,
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.

 

Theme for the Week – Quirky Dorset Part 5

25 Mar

– – – EXPLORING THE COUNTRYSIDE AND LANES OF DORSET – – –

Another of those quirky things in Dorset relates to its bridges! The bridges themselves are normal but many of the older ones have signs on them such as the one below threatening transportation if anyone was found damaging them. This seems very harsh today but believe it or not, it was aimed at leniency in those days.

Lower Bockhampton

Penal Transportation was the banishment of criminals, political prisoners and prisoners of war to lands overseas. It started in the early 1600’s with boat loads being shipped to the Americas and continued until the American Revolution when the practice was suspended. It resumed again in 1787 when the first fleet departed from England bound for Australia. It is though a practice that had its foundations much earlier, dating back to Roman times when people were sent into exile.

It might seem harsh to transport someone for life for damaging a bridge but prior to its introduction, the penalty might have been death. Indeed, many who were transported for comparatively minor offences were originally sentenced to death but pardoned, their sentence being reduced to transportation. It was actually introduced as a punishment for crimes where the death penalty seemed too severe!

However, it had other benefits as well. It also had the effect of increasing the labour force in the newly set up penal colonies, so helping develop English colonies overseas. And it wasn’t limited to men either, as women and children could be transported as well. One of the problems though was that there were less destinations prepared to take women, children, or those who were infirm. Most wanted only fit young men who could work hard.

In the case of the sign below, the punishment was transportation for life, but sometimes it was just for a set number of years. The problem was that at the end of their term they had to pay for their own passage back and many could not afford this, choosing rather to stay on as free men in the country to which they had been transported. Thus, the colonies grew.

Beware!

Its amazing to think how the transportation system worked – no phones, no internet, no way of contacting the colonies, so the captains (for whom this became a commercial transaction) would have had to set sail not knowing whether their human cargo would be accepted. They would have had to choose from a selection of prisoners purely on their knowledge of who would bring in the most profit for them.

I guess the lesson is, if you fancy carving your initials on a Dorset bridge, think again as you might wind up in the ‘back of beyond’ somewhere serving in a penal colony 😉 !

Thanks for stopping by.

Until tomorrow,
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.