A striking, isolated chapel, standing on cliffs, 108 metres above sea level on St. Aldhelm’s Head on the South West Coast Path, in the parish of Worth Matravers, near Swanage.
Origins of St Aldhelm’s Chapel
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 the 8th century 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?
The chapel appears to have gone out of use by the 17th century, and was in a ruinous condition by the end of the 18th. Repairs were carried out by the local landowner during the 19th century, and the chapel was reopened for church services in 1874. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries regular weekly services were held, attended by coastguards and their families who lived in nearby cottages. In 1965 the Enscombe estate gave the chapel to the Worth Matravers church council, and it is once more used for regular services.
The tiny, grade 1 listed building has a very unusual square plan where each angle of the square points to a cardinal point of the compass. This has led some historians to theorise that the building did not originally have a religious purpose. However, the presence of medieval graves outside the chapel walls and the beautiful vaulted interior suggest that it was built for worship.
What to see at St Aldhelm’s Chapel
The lovely, atmospheric interior of the chapel with its large central column supporting the vaulted roof.
The 17th century graffitti cut into the pillars of the interior.
Nearby you can also see the coastguard lookout station and a radar research memorial.