St Aldhelm's Chapel, 2010
For those of you who like a little mystery the primitive Christian chapel of St Aldhelm is to be found on St.Aldhelm's or St.Alban's head, Isle of Purbeck. It stands on a cliff about 108 metres above sea level and is enclosed in an early Christian enclosure of earthworks and mounds, plus a few graves. It is quite a walk to get to but I was lucky enough to be able to get permission to drive down the track in 2010.
www.flickr.com/photos/barryslemmings/sets/72157631469902176/ to see the full set.
The building is 7.7 metres square and has a vaulted stone roof springing from a single pillar in the middle of the building. Unusually it is aligned with its corners to the points of the compass and not the walls. First mention is in the reign of Henry III when it was noted that the chapel at Corfe Castle and the chapel of St Aldhem were each served by a chaplain paid 50 shillings per annum by the Crown via the local sheriff. 50 shillings was the going rate for royal chaplains. A later mention in the reign of Edward I said the area was taxed at 20 shillings while a further mention in 1428 repeats the 20-shilling tax but adds that there were no inhabitants to pay that tax.
One suggestion is that the chapel might have been a chantry to pray for the souls of shipwrecked sailors (there is a strong tidal race off the point) but other suggestions are some kind of lighthouse or bell house to warn sailors of the danger of the rocks of St. Aldhem's head. These would be a prominent threat to coastal traffic between Weymouth and Swanage or Southampton. Local legend is that a bride and groom were sailing around the head circa 1140 when their ship sank and they drowned in sight of the bride's father who then built the chapel as a lighthouse. However most of these local legends tend to go back only as far as the writing of the first Victorian guidebook. Recent repairs to the roof threw up signs that there was once a beacon on the roof but its date is unknown.
Stylistically the building has been linked to nearby Corfe Caste while the King Henry III record of joint payments to royal chaplains (above) supports that link. King John is believed to have been a regular visitor to Corfe Castle and he may have begun the royal patronage of the chapel, perhaps as a place of prayer during hunting. The most recent church guide (available on site) also points to the style similarities to Corfe Castle and throws in the further suggestion that the site may have served as a look-out for Corfe Castle itself especially as it looks across sea access to Swanage Bay and is also very close to Chapman's Pool, one of the few practical landing points on this stretch of the Isle of Purbeck.
In 2000 the whole site was declared a Scheduled Ancient Monument after it was recognised that the chapel sits inside a circular earth enclosure typical of pre-Conquest Christian sites and one possibility is that the present Norman chapel was simply rebuilt on the site of a wooden Saxon one. In 1957 a burial was found NNE of the chapel and this may have been a female anchorite aged 30-40 who lived in the area in the late 13th century.
The site was restored in the 19th century and the present cross was added to the roof. It became the site of Whit Thursday celebrations for the villagers of nearby Worth and the local coastguards who lived near the chapel. Services began to be held there, with a christening in 1874, while the 3rd Lord Eldon paid for reconstructing the font. During the Second World War the site was used by the Air Ministry's Renscombe Farm Research Establishment to develop radar technology. In 2005 it was visited by the Archbishop of Canterbury for the 1300th anniversary of St Aldhelm's consecration as Bishop of Sherbourne.
A hermitage? A look out? A royal hunting chapel? A lighthouse? You pays your money and makes your choice.