Behind the popular village of Abbotsbury discover a secret ruined chapel, forgotten by generations and overtaken by nature. The village it once served now just mystical lumps and bumps in the undergrowth. Nearby is Ashley Chase House, the previous owners, who preserved the church and are buried amongst the remains, also played a heroic part in the Second World War, saving lives.
Distance: 2 to 3.5 miles/3 to 5.5km
Time: 1.5 hours
Total climb: 482ft.
Max height: 620ft.
Min height: 300ft.
Terrain: Track, path, road and field.
Start: Ashley Chase Road (Postcode: DT3 4JZ, Grid reference: SY557871, What Three Words: apprehend.securing.prone)
Map: OS Explorer OL15 Purbeck & South Dorset
How to get there: From Abbotsbury, follow the B3157 westward for about 1½ miles. After passing the view point on your left, take the narrow road on your right, signposted to Ashley Chase. Pass Abbotsbury Castle on your left and follow the road until you reach a fork. Park off the road, allowing any vehicles to pass.
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 a number of options are in the village of Abbotsbury.
From your vehicle, take the left hand track and follow it down the hill. The views open out in front of you with the valley of the river Bride below. Ahead sits the village of Litton Cheney with the tower of St Marys church most prominent. Follow the track until you reach some woodland and take the small gate on your right into the trees. If you were to continue up the track you would come to Ashley Chase’s Ford Farm, the award winning producer of Coastal Cheese! As you leave the track, ancient oaks, ashes, hazel and elm hide the sky and the branches are gnarled and unfriendly, but they do not make you feel unwelcome. Instead, they line the path guiding you further into the forest. On your left is a small babbling brook making its way over rounded rocks and through the roots of the trees, cutting deep into the ground. The landscape, in this green and lush environment, creates a real atmosphere of nature and history combined.
St Luke’s chapel’s ruinous remains are hidden in the woodland, accessible only by foot, with nothing but birds and trees for company. As you continue along the path you approach it as if you were attending a service. The chapel’s western end is all that is standing. A small alter has been constructed from the debris with a wooden crucifix fixed above, framed by the arched doorway on arrival. Small trinkets scatter the alter left by previous visitors and in the centre are a few graves, two of whom are Sir David and Lady Olga Milne-Watson, who built Ashley Chase House in the early 1920s. The east and northern borders of the church are marked by steep banks dropping down to the little stream.
Historically St Luke’s was built on land given to Cistercian monks from Netley Abbey by a local landowner, William of Litton, around 1246. In exchange he asked that perpetual prayers be said for him – nothing is free! The Cistercian order was founded in 1239 near Southampton, they lived a simple life that was committed to manual labour and self-sufficiency, and they were never a rich or influential establishment. As dedicated farmers and labourers it is likely that St Luke’s was built for the use of a small Cistercian community who began to work a farm in Ashley as well as to serve the medieval village of Sterte (Sturthill). However, after the 1500s (the Dissolution) the community of Sterte and the Chapel were abandoned and the chapel fell into disrepair. There is little trace today of the mediaeval village of Sterte (Sturthill), however the route of this walk encounters so many lumps and bumps in the ground it is possible to have walked right though it without even knowing!
Sir David and Lady Olga Milne-Watson fell in love with the chapel; they employed workmen to conserve what remained also requesting that their mortal remains be lay to rest in this magical place. It is thanks to them we see what is left today. Occasional wedding blessings and baptisms still take place at this peaceful spot as it remains a consecrated church.
Facing the front of the western wall, take the faint path on the right that disappears deeper into the wood and up the hill. Exit out the wood over a stile and onto a field. Turn left and walk straight across to a farm gate, straight over the next field, passing the dairy on your left and over another stile onto the road.
At this point you have a choice to either turn right and head back to your vehicle, or you could extend your walk, continuing your adventure by another two miles by turning left.
On turning left and heading down the hill, the roofline of Ashley Chase house comes into view on your right. Just a tease of what the full building looks like. You’ll shortly pass its drive on the right as you continue down the hill, but it gives you no better view. It was built in 1925 as a shooting lodge by the architect Sir Guy Dawber. It is set within landscaped gardens and the property as a whole lies in the heart of its 1,000 acre Ashley Chase Estate. It is an unusual design with an irregular, almost triangular, layout. Its front doorway is set within a distinctive pointed-arch entrance with slight straight-chamfered jambs in roughly dressed stone. Carved above the door is the Milne-Watson’s coat of arms with the motto ‘’Des et Patriae Omnia Debeo” which translates as ‘’For God and King, For God and Freedom’’
The Mile-Watsons also have a bit of a heroic history. In 1939 they played a role in helping a Jewish family flee Europe to travel to America. Gustav Broessler had been arrested on Kristallnacht but was released, so the family, realising that their lives were in danger, made plans to escape Germany. Firstly they sent their two daughters to friends in the Netherlands, with the intention to join them. However, before they could finalise their plans, the Dutch stopped further immigration and closed their borders leaving the family separated and stranded. Mitzi Ponlechner was working as a cook for the Milne-Watsons and had been the Broesslers’ former housekeeper and nanny. When she learnt of her former employers’ situation she asked the Milne-Watsons for help. They sprang into action immediately. They managed to obtain entry permits for Gustav and Thekla who left Austria and travelled to England as quickly as possible where they lived safely in a gardener’s house on the Ashley estate. Nevertheless, it was not until 1947 that the Broessler family were finally fully reunited.
Continue to follow the road up the opposite side of the hill and when it curves to the left turn to the right. Here you are faced with two stiles. Climb the one on the right hand side, keeping the boundary on your left. On your right the valley drops and on the opposite side of the hill you can just make out your vehicle, the colour or the sunshine might help you to determine its exact position!
Remain high throughout this field and don’t be tempted to cut the corner too tightly. It is boggy, even in the summer months, and the bogs are quite deep! Follow the field to the bottom right hand corner where a small gap in the hedge takes you over a bridge and into coppiced woodland. At first the path is hard to follow, however a number of way marked posts help to guide you through. The coppice becomes thicker, but as long as you remain climbing up hill you are going in the right direction. On meeting a field you will find a stile, if not you may have a little fight to escape the tightly knitted vegetation.
Once in the open field, head straight up the hill to circle the trees ahead. On passing the trees, turn right to head back down the hill. Ahead of you, you can make out your vehicle for the second time on the route, this time, much closer; yet it highlights your return climb!
Continue straight down the hill and up the opposite side. On reaching the gate, follow the waymarked sign and curve around to the right. This particular field is full of a number of bumps and lumps in the ground as if some kind of activity has happened here historically. Maybe a possible location for the Sterte settlement or associated activities? The small woodland on the left is also full of a number of anomalies. Taking in all the woodland that this walk has travelled though, it can only be imagined what hundreds of secrets it must all be hiding.
Cut straight across and meet the stile to bring you back onto the road. Turn left and follow the road back to your vehicle.
Although not on the walk, but passed on route to the parking spot, is Abbotsbury Castle, an Iron Age Hill Fort. The ramparts occupy a dominant position overlooking Chesil Beach and Portland but also have fine views in-land. There is evidence of occupation spanning the Bronze Age the Iron Age and Roman period including a suggested Roman signal tower. There is an easy lay-by right next to the fort to make it a simple to park, jump out and explore.