Monday 23 November 2020

St Aldhelm's Chapel: A Clifftop Mystery

Photo credit:

A pirate or devil, I suppose they are much the same, and a saint guard the coast between them. Tonight the saint wins. The snow has hardened treacherously, and no one will be near Old Harry Rocks until the thaw. But the hardy and faithful among us have squeezed into Saint Aldhelm's chapel for the Christmas Eve service...


I have already written about the legends of Old Harry Rocks, but another iconic landmark that is a supernatural anchor in my novel, A Dorset Summer, is St Aldhelm's Chapel, nestled up on the clifftops at Saint Aldhelm's Head. It is also known as St Alban's chapel/St Alban's head, the Devil's Chapel, and as a Wishing Chapel.

There is considerable mystery surrounding the chapel - and this post is indebted to The Dorset Rambler (see link below) for pulling together the information I remember, but in a more cohesive manner! First, it is set on a circular earthwork, an ancient construction used at least as far back as the iron age (the impressive Maiden Castle earthworks is also in this part of the country - and I can attest that's worth a visit as well). It's Norman in construction, though some say the entranceway is Saxon. Secondly it is not built in a traditional church format: it is not in an east-west orientation, has no obvious place for an altar, and has a huge pillar in the middle of its tiny, square interior, not ideal for a congregation.

Photo credit: By Huligan0 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

As to its names: Saint Aldhelm was a 7th century monk who became Abbot of Malmesbury Abbey and then the first bishop of Sherbourne. Aldhelm was a scholar and, apparently, a pretty good entertainer. He is known most famously for a set of riddles he sent to the King of Northumbria. Perhaps this is why he was also roped in to help with the biggest riddle in 7th century Britain - the controversy between the Celtic and Roman church over whose practice should reign supreme in this isle. (Historian that I am, I still feel upset about the Synod of Whitby.)

I'm guessing that the St. Alban appellation is either a common mis-repetition of the lesser-known name Aldhelm, or that the promontory and chapel were renamed for a more local saint. (Saint Alban is considered to be Britain's first Christian martyr.)

But back to the chapel that was (probably!) named after Aldhelm. Nothing is really known of its function as a religious building in its early centuries, apart from records of a priest here in the 13th century. Some surmise that it was actually built as a chantry, a small religious building where a priest was paid to pray for the souls of the dead (heavenly insurance for the wealthy). The religious connections are strengthened by the discovery in the 1950s of a thirteenth-century grave of a middle-aged woman found on the site, leading to speculation she was an anchoress. An anchorite is a person who chooses to give their life completely to contemplation and prayer, shut up in a tiny cell until death. Except, they became holy celebrities and people constantly sought them out for advice, so there wasn't always a bunch of time for meditation. Perhaps that is why this anchoress chose a remote home! Evidence of a smaller building nearby lends credence to the anchoress story. Since I am also very interested in Britain's most famous anchoress, Julian of Norwich, I like that theory. (I think maybe there's a novel in that!).

Photo credit: By Huligan0 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

If not a chapel, some have suggested that it was a type of lookout - for the navigation of ships at sea (there's a mention of it as a sea mark) or to protect Corfe Castle further inland (it shares some similarities in construction with Corfe Castle). This idea is supported by evidence that a beacon may have sat on the roof where there is now a cross. Yet it has only one, tiny window.

I suspect it was all these and more, an ancient multi-purpose building: chantry, chapel and lookout!

As for its other names, I have not found any speculation for the name Devil's Chapel - maybe that is in keeping with the tradition of naming remote or odd formations after Old Nick (see my blog on Old Harry Rock). Or perhaps that's because it's a devil of a job to get to it! But it was definitely regarded as some sort of wishing chapel, because there is a hole in the central pillar where girls have dropped votive items such as hairpins, presumably after praying for a husband. By the way, you can also read centuries-old graffiti on the pillar.

A windswept visit from many years ago - my younger daughter is 17 now!

The chapel was part of the Encombe estate for centuries, until they handed it over to the Worth Matravers parish council in the 1960s. Even if we are not sure about how it was originally used as a religious building, in more recent history (19th century) it was restored as a chapel for the families of the coastguards who had cottages nearby. When they moved, the chapel was abandoned again. As far as I know there are still services held in the chapel - I recall summer morning prayer being advertised a few years back, but in these days of Covid-19, there are none listed. Here's the parish website, I'll try to update this when things change. It's on my Dorset to-do list to attend one someday: an early summer walk to the chapel for morning prayer, followed by a slap-up breakfast nearby (maybe at Durlston). (Hint to Mum and Dad -  I know you are reading this!!)

There's a quick route and a more challenging route to get to the chapel. If you have limited time or mobility (or small children in tow, which is both), you can drive to a small car park at Renscombe Farm, from where it is a short walk.

The longer way could be undertaken as a mini-pilgrimage, by picking up the South West Coast Path in the area. If you begin near Chapman's Pool, you can include a penitential thigh workout in the climb down (184 steps) and up (219 steps) to the chapel. I admit it's been a long time since I have taken that route.

Well, that was a long post  - and I didn't even exhaust all the stories. There are more than would fit into the tiny chapel! Take a visit, drink in the atmosphere, and decide for yourself.

The excellent Dorset Rambler article on the chapel:

Here's a circular walk along the South West coastal path, taking in other landmarks such as Chapman's Pool - it starts near the chapel for the short walk I mentioned above.

Here's another, longer one beginning at Worth Matravers. They suggest refreshments at the Worth Matravers tea room. Don't start with tea there - trust me, you might not get any further!

If you got all the way down here and don't feel like scrolling up again, here is the link to the legends of Old Harry rocks.

Finally, of course, here's an extract from my novel, when Phoebe is taken to the chapel by James, whose attentions she is gently trying to dissuade.

A DORSET SUMMER: from Chapter 17

Ahead of us, Saint Aldhelm’s chapel beckoned, a small, square stone building close to the cliff, topped with a tiny steeple crowned with a cross. The chapel sank slightly below the surrounding ground, as if weighed down by the years. A single path wound west from the low wooden door. We tramped across the scrubby grass to join it.
‘Is it a real chapel, or a wayfarer’s place?’ I asked.
James looked over his shoulder. ‘Probably a chapel. Some believe it is built on an ancient Christian site. Others say it is a secret lookout because it isn’t situated in the standard orientation for a church.’
‘A lookout for smugglers?’
‘For sailors. The coast is treacherous here. Mind you, I would not be surprised if the chapel played its part in smuggling operations.’
Given what he had told me about his family’s involvement with contraband, I wondered if he was being disingenuous. I could imagine him and the Major creeping up here in the dark to meet men whose names they pretended not to know, scurrying back under cover of the barley with their cigars and brandy.
James pulled the door open, scraping the paving. Inside, a faint musty smell pervaded the small, dim space. A few tiny pews faced the altar table, lit only by an equally tiny recessed window, more like a hermitage than a chapel. The roof was supported by a crumbling stone pillar. A vase of blown roses balanced on a stand by the front pew, the only indication that anyone had a thought for the place.
I took a closer look at the pillar, taken aback to find it desecrated with the names of bygone walkers or worshippers, but intrigued to note dates going back several centuries.
‘Do people still worship here?’ I asked. Talking with James was so easy when the conversation was not about us.
‘I believe a priest holds a service once a month for the coastguard families, and we celebrate a community Christmas Eve service out here, providing the weather allows. The chapel belongs to the Encombe estate.’
Though physically empty, the atmosphere of the chapel enveloped me, kindly, patient, long suffering, as though it had seen more joy and tragedy than its small walls could contain. Perhaps that was only my mood. I turned towards the door. ‘I have seen enough now, may we leave?’
We traipsed out, but instead of returning to the car, James led the way around the chapel and along the narrow path to the cliff’s edge. He was prolonging the outing, I knew, waiting for the right moment to say something, or for a sign from me.
I’m sorry, I said silently to his back. If I had not been a coward, I would have run forward and taken his strong, brown farmer’s hands in mine, and told him: You are sweet and kind and honourable, everything a girl should want. You don’t deserve to be anyone’s consolation prize, and I won’t let you be mine.
We stopped a foot from the edge. The cliff face dropped sheer for maybe a third of the way down before sprawling in a crumbling, heaped mass of white rocks to the sea.
I leaned forward and watched the waves pound the rocks at the base of the cliff, reminded once more of James’s story and the doomed lovers he had cast into the sea at Old Harry Rocks with adolescent indifference. I closed my eyes against the sting of the wind, letting the gusts buffet me. My hearing muffled by the competing roar of wind and waves, I saw in my mind’s eye Philippa and Roger, hands clasped, about to leap. Surely the chapel knew their story. Across the millennia, it must have witnessed its share of desperate and broken-hearted people poised on this cliff’s edge. Did they take one last glance behind them at the steadfast stone walls, murmur one last prayer for forgiveness, or did they turn their backs on hope to meet the cold arms of the sea?
James snatched me back from the cliff’s edge. ‘Steady, Phoebe.’ At the fear in his voice, I opened my eyes, realizing only now that I had been swaying back and forth with the wind. A dislodged pebble clattered down the cliff face.
‘Sorry,’ I said, attempting to sound light. ‘My imagination was wandering. I was thinking of your story, of the cliff top climax.’
‘I didn’t know it was that affecting. First my cousins, now you. I don’t think I dare tell it a third time.’ He tried to echo my levity, but the way he brushed my arms as he let go of my cardigan told me I had scared him.

Sunday 15 November 2020

Quick Lit November 2020

 Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy as usual for QuickLit. On reflection, it was a mixed bag for last month's reading - one classic, one so-so, and ending with some escapism as we went into a second lockdown. But here are the quick reviews:

P.G. Wodehouse - Pigs have Wings [audiobook]

How did I, with multiple degrees in English literature, escape reading P.G. Wodehouse this far in life? To be honest, because I harbour a suspicion of novels that are deliberately trying to be funny, and rarely try one. How wrong I was. With the impeccable upper class accent of the narrator, Jeremy Sinden, I was giggling from the beginning. Pig napping and star-crossed lovers are all adroitly managed by Lord Emsworth's incorrigible brother, Galahad. I have another Blandings Castle novel already in my TBR pile.

Donna Fletcher Crow -  Glastonbury: A Novel of Christian England

I wavered over whether to post a review of this because in some ways I don't feel qualified. To cut to the chase, it turned out that this novel is from Crow's pre-Anglican days, when she wrote for the Evangelical Christian fiction market - not my cup of tea at all. It was inspired by Edward Rutherford's Sarum: The Novel of England, an equally fat novel (actually, series of linked novellas),which I loved. As it says, Glastonbury tells the story of English Christianity from the time of Christ (following the legend that Joseph of Arimathea came to England with the Grail) to the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII. I liked the overall premise and the basis for each novella, and so I persevered through 1000-plus pages because I had been promising myself I would read this when I got a new Kindle, and also because the parts that I enjoyed, I really enjoyed. However, I confess to skipping chunks of the evangelical stuff.

Nancy Warren - The Vampire Knitting Club Books 1-3

I was seduced by Bookbub again into buying this collection on the cheap, to re-read the first and devour the others for a Halloween treat. Well-written escapism. American-raised Lucy has inherited her grandmother's Oxford knitting shop, although she can't knit to save her life. But it is soon apparent that her grandmother not only didn't die of natural causes, but is not technically dead. Oh, and she happened to be a witch who hosts a knitting club for her vampire friends, who are happy to break the boredom of eternal life by helping Lucy solve the murders and mysteries that fall her way as she herself takes up the family witches mantle.

Hope books are keeping you sane in these strange times! Going out on the BBC adaptation of the Blandings novels.