Saint Aldhelm’s Chapel, Dorset
There is a thumb of land, known as St. Albans Head*, that protrudes into the English Chanel. One side, to the west, overlooks Kimmeridge Bay and the Jurassic coast line. To the East it overlooks Swanage Bay. The views are expansive giving, on good days, a clear view of shipping along the English Chanel….so no surprise that there is still a Coast Guard Lookout Post, its past importance underscored by a line of white Coastguard Cottages.
But you will also find a Square Stone Building, this is Saint Aldhelm’s Chapel. Its history is mixed and parts unclear. At times there were doubt that it was actually constructed as a Chapel. Part of that doubt is the unusual square shape, a square shape that was laid out to a-line the corners of the building with the cardinal points of the compass.
The Chapel is also located within a very earl circular groundwork indicating very early use of the site, most likely Christian. There are records of the Chapel from 1200’s. It is also suggested that the building was constructed as a Watch Tower for Corfe Castle which itself is located someway from the coast but of strategic importance. There is also a records of payments during King Henry III reign for clergy at the Chapel…so confusing.
Whatever the full history and purpose of the building, Saint Aldhelm’s Chapel has been one of abandonment, disrepair, repair and reconstruction….and survival.
In 1873 major repairs were made and in 1874 the Chapel was reopened. Services were recorded as having been held on Sundays throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was though not until 1965 that ownership was formerly past to Worth Matravers Parochial Church Council. Further repairs were made and the building maintained. I also understand the Sunday Services continued. A very special service was held in June 2005. It was a service to celebrate 1300th anniversary of the consecration of Saint Aldhelm as Bishop of Sherborne. To mark the event a new alter table, made from local stone, was installed and consecrated by The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
The interior is sparse but that adds to its charecter, stone throughout it is cold even on a very hot day (as on the day we visited). Sparse it may be but its construction with vaulted ceiling is rather grand and would not be out of place in a Cathedral or Castle.
The Chapel is a Grade 1 listed building and the earthworks that surround it are a Scheduled Monument.
Now if you wish to visit and you are in this part of Dorset, which I would recommend, I also need to warn you to be prepared for a long walk. A Carpark just outside Worth Matravers is provide, then its off you go along a long straight walk to the edge of the cliffs…. take some refreshments with you.
The Chapel is intriguing and an experience to enjoy and you have the bonus of great sea views. The importance for a seafaring nation of an important ‘watch tower’ and still a Coat Guard lookout point is very apparent.
You will also discover this more modern addition to the headland. During WWII the area was an important research base in the development of Radar. A stylish tribute to the important life saving work.
* St. Albans Head is the modern corruption of St. Aldhelms. It should also be mentioned that the Chapel did serve as a Sea Marker for sailors approaching land
Please Remember ….
Stay Safe …. Be Kind…. Look After Each Other
(C) David Oakes 2020