St Aldhelm’s Chapel, Isle of Purbeck, Dorset

St Aldhelm’s Chapel at the southern point of the Isle of Purbeck is a strange place surrounded both by mystery and by the sea mist that drifts up the 100m cliff. It is surrounded by earthworks which may be the remnants of a pre-conquest Christian enclosure. However its structure (with a large central pillar supporting a vaulted roof) and the fact that it is not aligned east-west suggests that its original purpose was not religious. The Historic England List Entry  suggests that it more resembles the undercroft of an uncompleted tower. It was possibly built as a watchtower for the nearby Corfe Castle. Whatever its origins, however, it is clear that the building was in use as a chapel in the mid 13th century as the payment for a chaplain, paid by the crown, appear in the pipe rolls for Henry III. It continued in use until 17th century when it became ruinous.

As regular worship ceased the chapel took on another function as a ‘wishing chapel’ where local young women would place or drop a pin into a hole in the central pillar and make a wish. The leaflet in the chapel states that this was happening in living memory with a tale by a ‘Mrs Dora Wallace’ of doing just that.

 

The chapel has since been reconsecrated and services are held there on a regular basis.

There is a large amount of graffiti most of it on the central pillar. The outline of a foot is clearly visible, as well as some crosses. There are several Marian marks, but these should be regarded a little warily as they may be initials rather than true Marian marks. 

As might be expected there are a large number of names and initials. The dates range from the 1600s to the 1950s. I would like to draw attention to the quality of engraving for Augusta Grant, she really put the extra effort in.

 

It’s about a half hour’s walk along farm tracks to St Aldhelm’s chapel. There is no cover or shade on the walk. The nearest car park is at Renscombe Farm, but there is another car park (with toilets) in Worth Matravers, which adds ten minutes to the walk.

Parking at Renscombe Farm, Worth Matravers, BH19 3LL or Worth Matravers Car Park, BH19 3LE

Report by Anthea Hawdon

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