St Catherine’s Chapel with the kids (Abbotsbury)

Distance: 2.25 miles/3.5km (once at the top of the hill, the route can be as long or as short as you like, even including a stroll into Abbotsbury)
Time: 2 hours
Total climb: 250ft
Max height: 275ft
Min height: 34ft
Terrain: Track, path and field.
Exertion: Medium.
Start: Chesil Beach Car park (DT3 4LA).
Map: OS Explorer OL15 Purbeck and South Dorset
How to get there: Once in the village of Abbotsbury, follow the road out to the west and take the turning on your left towards Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens. Continue straight past the gardens and the car park will be on your left, just before the beach.
Dogs: On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code.
Refreshments: None on route but cafes and pubs are in nearby Abbotsbury.

Abbotsbury is a beautiful, quaint, small, narrow laned village and can become pretty busy during the summer months. Nearby are attractions that are perfectly suitable for families visiting the area including Abbotsbury Swannery and the Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens.

To escape the crowds but still enjoy its amenities, this walk gives you that opportunity. Parking at the reasonably large Beach Car park prevents the first overcrowding problem, even with toilets available. However this is often frequented by many fishermen, taking full advantage of what Chesil beach can supply. Their randomly coloured tents and fishermen’s poles reaching out to sea, high above them, often stretch right along the beach.

From the car park, head straight up Chesil beach. The climb isn’t as easy as you first expect it to be, but a decked path from the car park can help you to a certain point. The views stretch from Portland in the West, connected by the huge stretch of pebbled coastline, to south Devon in the East. Head in the direction of Portland, keeping your eyes peeled for a path diverting you away from the beach. Its location is helped by being marked by an increase in vegetation as it sits right on the far eastern tip of the fleet lagoon.

Once you’ve found the track, follow it along keeping the defined strip lynches (ancient field systems) on your left hand side. Continue along its path to join a small river, highlighted by a gushing waterfall. Once at the base of the hill, climb the stile into the field on your right, marked with a signpost towards the swannery, to begin your climb. The views open up and and you pass the old war bunker. In the distance, Chesil beach is also scarred with the world war detritus in the form of dragons teeth, preventing enemy access to our land. Fleet Lagoon was also one of the locations where they tested the bouncing bombs! An actual shell of a one of these bombs is on display at the Swannery.

Gradually the views open up further as you gain height. Abbotsbury Swannery can be made out by the smudge of white created by the mass collection of swans dominating a small section of coast line inside the fleet.

Once through another gate in a small stone wall, turn left to start a steeper climb. Keep going, even though you have nothing to aim for, watching out for the deep indentations in the ground that can make your ascent more treacherous. Eventually the tip of St Catherine’s Chapel peeks over the hill to guide you in a better direction.

St Catherine, Catherine of Alexandria, is the patron saint of unmarried ladies, craftsmen, school children and knife sharpeners amongst other things. Born in the 3rd century she was a devout Christian, spreading its meanings far and wide. She was a lady who was strong in her convictions and good with her words, but she had her enemies, more specifically the pagan emperor Maxentius. He wanted to prove her wrong so he set up a debate between her and 50 of the best pagan philosophers. However, she won, so he had her tortured using a succession of techniques including stabbing and starvation. Yet she refused to die, apparently being tended to by angels and on release she appeared more beautiful than ever. Maxentius decide to propose to her – probably the worst torture of all – but, understandably, she refused. Eventually he had her killed by beheading. The legend continues though. When she died she did not bleed but flowed milk like substance and, on decomposing, her hair still grew and her body leaked an oil that had, and apparently still has, miraculous healing properties.

Her body was laid to rest in a monastery in Egypt; her hand is on display and is, according to legend, warm to the touch.

There is a pilgrimage to St Catherine and a poem to be recited to those that want to ask for help, it goes something like this.

A husband, St Catherine,

A handsome one, St Catherine,

A rich one, St Catherine,

A nice one, St Catherine,

And soon, St Catherine.

PJ Harvey (a local singer/songwriter who has won the Mercury music prize twice in 2001 & 2011) wrote ‘The Wind’ from the album ‘Is This Desire?’ It is said to have been influenced by St Catherine’s Chapel.

Once you have explored the chapel and absorbed the views around you, you could venture down into the village of Abbotsbury or retrace your steps back to your vehicle.

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