A visit to the Chapel of Saint Aldhelm
Worth Matravers, Purbeck
A family pilgrimage to a very ‘Thin Place’
Our visit to Saint Aldhem’s Chapel was on a grey, overcast day, which made the long walk there on a pebbly track more of a pilgrimage than a promenade.
Like a pilgrimage it had purpose though. Firstly I wanted to see for myself what the path up to the chapel was like, having received a complaint in our inbox recently that it wasn’t ‘disabled-friendly’ enough. Secondly, my family and I had been invited to attend the Celtic Evening Prayer service taking place inside the Chapel at 5.00pm on Sunday 13 August.
Our Sat Nav, surely sensing we were cutting it fine timewise, had taken us on a tour of the farm tracks outside Worth Matravers, including one with boulders six inches high and troughs six inches deep. If this was the track to the chapel, I’d thought, then never mind being unsuitable for the disabled, the S.A.S. would probably baulk at it.
With the help of a local chap’s directions, fortunately the car had managed to make it in one piece to the Renscombe car park. Not our nerves though, that were still jangling after the ‘detours’. As planned, we had managed to get there 15 minutes before the Service, which was what I’d thought Church Warden Janet Robinson had advised me in our conversation over the phone.
Except Janet had meant at the chapel, which I now realised was around 1.5 miles away. So, there was nothing for it, we had to ‘yomp’ it at double speed. Needless to say we didn’t do it in 15 minutes though.
However, being ten minutes late wasn’t a problem for the welcoming helpers in the Church. Perhaps our exhaustion gave us a resemblance to penitents crawling in seeking forgiveness.
In the darkness of the interior of the ancient little church, lit only by candles, we were directed to an empty pew. Fortunately, a guitarist and a flute player that were adding to the wonderful atmosphere inside helped muffle the distracting sounds of our shuffling feet.
Jane Hudson, in her capacity as Lay Preacher, conducted an interesting service with Holy Communion readings and a speech focussing on our natural surroundings. This is apparently a central theme to Celtic poems and prayers which often express a deep gratitude and thankfulness for the beauty of the earth. Something I’m sure that St Aldhem, the Anglo-Saxon 8th century Bishop of Sherborne, would have been familiar with.
The experience was certainly different to any other Church Service I‘ve been to, and whether you are a regular church-goer or not, I would heartily recommend attending a service at St Aldhem’s. Search on the church’s website: www.staldhelmpurbeck.wordpress.com for the diary of events there.
1300 years of Christian devotion at this site
Though the structure is 12th Century Norman, the chapel is built within a series of earthworks that probably enclosed a roughly circular pre-Conquest Christian enclosure. Early Christian enclosures are rare monuments and a similar one found on the site of Sherborne Old Castle, suggests that there is a stronger link with St Aldhelm than just the chapel’s name. Perhaps a monastic community here was a cell of a similar community founded by Aldhelm at Sherborne around the year 705? I’d like to think so.
As we left St Aldhem’s we spoke to Jane Hudson who told us that the church was described by some as a ‘Thin Chapel’. It didn’t sound like a very flattering description of the old place, so I inquired what the term meant.
“Thin places are where the spiritual world and our physical world meet, where the veil between the two worlds is so thin that a person can sense the spiritual in a tangible way.”
It was basically a Celtic belief that recognised the spiritual importance of certain sites, and yes, I wouldn’t disagree; our pilgrimage to this ‘Thin Chapel’ of St Aldhelm was in the end definitely an uplifting, if tiring one.
Next time, when its permitted to do so, I think I’ll drive to the St Aldhelm’sl!
Article first published in Love It Local magazine, September 2023.