The best of Dorset in words and pictures

The Dorset walk — Behind the Fleet

Matt Wilkinson and Pat Sheehan explore the countryside between Abbotsbury and Portesham and climb to Dorset’s most famous chapel

The view to Portesham from above West Elworth

As well as being martyred on a wheel, and so giving her name to a firework, St Catherine is connected with hill-tops because angels carried her body to Mount Sinai, where later a church and monastery were built in her honour. There is a St Catherine’s Hill near Christchurch and a St Catherine’s Chapel on high ground overlooking Milton Abbey. Best-known, though, is the chapel on its hill above Abbotsbury, dedicated to St Catherine and one of Dorset’s more extraordinary buildings. It is only 45 feet by 15 feet but its masonry is massive and great buttresses support the barrel-vaulted roof, all built of stone with not a timber in sight. Built in the early 1400s, it was not only a chapel but a seamark for sailors and a post for a look-out who would blow a horn to tell the village’s fishermen if he spotted a shoal of fish.

St Catherine was also the patron saint of maidens and girls would leave offerings to her in the chapel in the hope of finding a suitable husband. In a spine-prickling link across the centuries, such offerings are sometimes found in the chapel even today.

The chapel on its hill comes almost at the end of the walk, before the descent into Abbotsbury. One can happily spend the rest of the day exploring the village with its Swannery, tithe barn, children’s farm and other attractions, plus tea-rooms and several art galleries. The church of St Nicholas has a superb interior, including a Jacobean pulpit pitted with bullet holes from the vicious battle for the village in 1644 during the Civil War.

In the heyday of the railways, Abbotsbury was linked to the main line at Upwey by a very rural branch which ran through Portesham and Friar Waddon. Opened in 1885, the six-mile line eventually closed in 1952. Our route follows the old track-bed at first, then climbs over the watershed and follows an attractive valley as it opens out towards Abbotsbury to give views of the Fleet, Chesil Beach and Lyme Bay.

Distance: About 6 miles
Start: The car park to the south of the main road through Abbotsbury at the eastern edge of the village, next to The Swan. OS ref SY578853.
How to get there: Abbotsbury is on the coast road (B3157) between Bridport and Weymouth
Maps: OS Explorer OL 15 (Purbeck & South Dorset); OS Landranger 194 (Dorchester & Weymouth).
Refreshments: An abundance of tearooms and pubs in Abbotsbury

1. Walk back up to the main road and turn right. In 200 yards, just after Glebe Close, turn left up a rough track, bearing left in front of Abbot’s Peace to join the track-bed of the former Abbotsbury branch. Pass to the right of the stone barn which was once a goods shed and continue straight ahead as the track narrows to a path and then broadens out again. Follow it until just after a right-left dog-leg, it enters the outskirts of Portesham and descends to the main road. Turn right and walk a cautious 400 yards to a turning on the left signed to West Elworth.

St Catherine’s Chapel

2. Take this lane and follow it into the hamlet of West Elworth. Where it swings to the left, continue straight ahead on a rough track which bends to the right. Almost 200 yards after the bend, turn left through a metal gate onto an enclosed grassy path which goes up Merry Hill. Follow the path across the hilltop and straight ahead as it starts to descend on the other side. Emerge from the enclosed path and almost immediately cross a stone stile in the wall on the left. Turn immediately right and descend steeply to an open field. Follow the right-hand edge of this field and of the long one beyond it. At the end of the second field, cross a stile and turn left to follow the left-hand edge of two more fields.

3. Reaching a lane, there are two alternatives. The shorter is to turn right on the lane to New Barn Farm, but you may prefer to cross straight over the lane and to walk up the left-hand side of the field beyond. Follow the field-edge round to the far right-hand corner, by a large wood. Here cross a stile and bear right round the edge of the wood. Keep the wood on the right, descending to where a track runs away to the left and takes the South-West Coast Path down to the Fleet. Ignore this track but look for a stile alongside the wood. Cross this and continue to follow the edge of the wood closely. After a turn to the right, with a large open field to the left, the path bears right to enter the wood and continues uphill just inside it.

4. At the top of the field, continue to keep close to the wood on the right, now with hedgerow on the left. As the path descends slightly, with a dry-stone wall on the right, reach a rough wooden post with an illegible sign pointing to the right. Turn right here, across the wall, and walk down inside the left-hand edge of the wood to cross a plank bridge and reach a stile. Go through the metal gate immediately in front and follow the left-hand edge of an open field to reach a stile.

5. Turn left on the lane beyond and walk up to New Barn Farm on the left. A public right of way runs just the other side of the fence on the right, alongside the lane beyond New Barn Farm, but the lane is reasonably quiet and has a good verge. Follow it for 1½ miles to a sharp left-hand bend with barns on the right then the left. Just under 200 yards after the bend, turn left into the entrance to a car park. Keep to the left-hand side and pass the entrance to Abbotsbury Swannery on the left, going straight ahead on an unpaved track. Take the first path on the left, shortly after the Swannery entrance, and follow it to a stile. Continue straight ahead, uphill to another stile. In about 100 yards turn right, straight uphill towards the left-hand end of a belt of trees on the skyline. Reaching the trees, bear right and pass a stone memorial bench to ‘Daph’ and continue uphill. Bear right onto the very top of the hill and walk straight ahead to reach St Catherine’s Chapel.

6. Having admired the chapel, go through a kissing gate at the bottom of some steps in its north-east corner and walk down the field towards the village. Reaching the wall at the bottom of the field, bear right, then left at the end of the wall, down to a metal gate. Continue straight ahead and turn right on the main road through Abbotsbury. Follow the road as it bends to the right, then the left, and leads back to the car park on the right.

Abbotsbury includes some fine 17th-century houses like this one

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