St Aldhelm’s Head

  • Distance – 4 miles
  • Duration – 2 hours.
  • Exertion – Medium to Hard, especially the climbs.
  • Terrain – Path, track and field.
  • Dogs – Be aware of livestock and keep to the countryside code. Few gates, no stiles.
  • Map – OL Explorer 15 Purbeck and South Dorset
  • Start – Renscombe Car park
  • Refreshments – The Square and Compass, Worth Matravers

This walk takes place on the small headland that is named St Aldhem’s Head, otherwise known as St Alban’s Head. The walk begins at Renscombe car park just to the West of Worth Matravers. Worth Matravers is an old quarry village. Many rough roads and tracks cross the landscape once linking the old quarries to the villages. Worth Matravers was a much more wealthy place than it exhibits today, competing for success much easier than nearby Swanage. Its wealth, thanks to its stone, can be seen in some of its architecture. The Square and Compass pub is a famous place to visit, named in honour of the quarryman’s tools. It is a small cob and thatch building with little space to sit inside but a vast view with plenty of seats outside, it is a magnet for those that like adventure, isolation and a drink.

St Aldhem’s Head was named after the first Bishop of Sherborne, back in the 8th century. It comprises of a large 400ft cliff, a prominent feature of the Jurassic coastline and visible for miles.

From Renscombe car park, take the track that continues directly south. In the distance you can see the chapel and Coastguard Cottages you are heading to. On both your left and right the sea rises up above the cliffs and the view stretches right across the Dorset coastline either side of you. Pass St Aldhelm’s Quarry on your right and continue down the track following it around to the right. As you get to end you approach the coastguard cottages on your right and then to St Aldhelm’s chapel on your left.

The chapel is an isolated site. It is square in shape with a vaulted roof. It is custom to leave a pin in the hole of the central column and to make a wish. St Aldhelm’s chapel’s origin is relatively unknown. One theory is that of a father who erected it in memory of his daughter who in he witnessed drown off the Head along with her bridegroom, almost 1000 years ago in 1140.

Continue along the track until you reach another building (the current coast guard base), in front of you is a sculpture to honour the work that was carried out here during the Second World War. Placed here at St Aldhem’s, in 1940, was a base for telecommunications. Their mission was to locate enemy aircraft using airwaves. However, their efforts were so successful they also managed to not only identify positions, but also interfere with enemy radio signals, resulting in enemy pilots flying blind to their targets.

From the sculpture, turn all the way around to your right, joining the coastal path. The height at which you stand allows the views to be fully appreciated, along with the dangerous rocks below. Many a ship has fought and failed on these rocks. One famous one being the East Indian Halsewell in 1786. Its story was then immortalised in Charles Dickens’ novel ‘The Long Voyage’.

The Halsewell had only just left London when it encountered storms so bad that they took the drastic action of cutting the main mast. Struggling at sea, they knew their battle had been lost and eventually they struck the rocks. Many men (and girls-on their way to marry wealthy men in India) lost their lives and those that got to shore were greeted by cliffs, knocking them back into the ocean to meet the same fate as their fellow sailors. 70 were saved but it is thought more than 160 were lost. The morning light brought with it a scene of devastation – broken masts, chests, clothing and bodies littered the ocean, as far as the eye could see.

Along the coastal path you come to your first major obstacle as the cliffs dive down to a valley and back up again. Going down is not as bad as it looks, going back up is slightly more effort, but a bench is waiting for you when you reach the top. The views are undeniable, to the west is Houns Tout and rising behind that is Swyre Head.

Follow the narrow coastal path and go over a stile to reach the Royal Marines memorial. Chapman’s Pool appears below you, viewable more clearly through gaps in the cliffs.

Continue along the cliff top until you come to a footpath directing you down the hill. You can return to the car park from here but to come this close to Chapman’s pool and not visit it, would be a shame.

Head down the cliff steadily to reach the boat house. Part of the path has been made into steps, helping you find your way down more easily. About half way down join a track and turn left. Go through a gate and continue to follow the track down to the sea.

Chapmans Pool appears as a lonely cove, a miniature, hidden Lulworth. There is no easy access to the pool so any visit is an effort. In contrast to Lulworth, Chapman’s pool is bordered by Kimmeridge clay cliffs. This is a dark, peaty soil, containing large amounts of carbon. Its origin having been a forest many millions of years ago. This recipe means it is highly flammable and on occasions, has been known to spontaneously combust. As it is so soft it is also susceptible to landslides. The advantage of this, however, combined with its age, means fossils galore. The soft texture can be easily manipulated with curious fingers exposing many historical creatures.

The sheltered coastal inlet with its sandy and grassy slopes, sheltered valleys and under cliffs provide a haven for wildlife. Rare species of butterflies and bees as well as summer migrant birds like the nightingale and warblers, are happy to call this place home.

Once at the boat house access to the beach is debatable, depending on the sea conditions. It requires a bit of scrambling over large boulders so judge it carefully. An alternate route can be back via the track and instead of climbing the hill, continuing straight ahead. This is also an alternative route back to the car park, following the track through the valley to Renscombe Farm.

Returning to your vehicle on a shorter route, climb back up the same way you came down, and once at the top go over the stile and straight across the next field to reach the car park.

2 thoughts on “St Aldhelm’s Head

Leave a Reply