Saint Aldhelm’s Chapel, Dorset
Dating old Churches and Chapels is often difficult and not always precise. In the case of this isolated, yet dramatical located Chapel, it would appear more difficult than usual. Much of its history surrounding this building is either local legends and supported by conflicting records.
What has always caused confusion and doubt as to the buildings original purpose is the construction of the building itself. First it is square (only 7.77m square), that in itself is far from usual in a religious building. Secondly it is that the four corners that are located on the compass points…not the usual East/West orientation of a Christian Religious building. However step in side the single arched doorway and you are greeted with a fine vaulted ceiling and that rather makes its own statement.
It is suggested that the Chapel was at one time connected to the Chapel at Corfe Castle and some of the first written records refer to dates around 1216. But many believe the construction is much earlier. One legend that holds much favour is that the Father, of a newly married couple who were drowned, when there boat capsized in a sudden storm in the sea below this headland, instructed the building be erected as a memorial to them. The building was to act as a lookout on this dangerous coastline.
It is also suggested that this was actually known a Chantry where a Priest would say prayers for the safety of sailors. Other stories suggest that this was a place of shelter for hunting parties and used by royalty and local nobility. As to the dedication to Saint Aldhelm well there is a named saint connection with Lady Saint Marys Church at Wareham (see last Sundays posting).
Over the years the Chapel was used by the residents of the nearby Coastguard Cottages as well as some dedicated locals. Services are still held every Sunday Evening in August and used by visitors throughout the year and in all weathers as a place for quiet contemplation.
It is a long, dusty and in the summer, hot 2 mile walk to reach St. Aldhelm’s Head and the Chapel…..so once your have reached it do step inside and be surprised. Try and interpret the old graffiti carved on the stone pillars. Pause in on one of the pews…enjoy
Another point that may have some bearing on the legends. The Cross on top of the roof is relatively modern addition. It is believed that once a ‘cresset’ was on the roof so that a Beacon Fire could be lit to warn passing sailors of the headlands dangers. Other suggested that at one time a Bell for giving similar warning was located here. Recent repairs suggest that there is some evidence in support of a Beacon Fire.
Today a Coastguard Lookout Post is strategically located on the headland. During WW2 military radio masters, antennae and early Radar Dishes were erected….. Today very fitting sculpture has been added to the headland in recognition of those early radar days
St. Aldhelm’s Head in itself is worth the visit. Expansive views over the English Channel, and on clear horizon days, views of the French Coast. The coastline is rugged and one soon understand the need of navigational aids for sailors on what can be a very stormy coast….but on a hot sunny day its rather special…
(C) David Oakes 2018