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The Dorset Walk – St Aldhelm’s Head and Winspit

Matt Wilkinson and Dan Bold are back on the Purbeck coast

Abandoned buildings at Winspit opposite the caves

Abandoned buildings at Winspit opposite the caves

Our walk begins in the impossibly picturesque village of Worth Matravers with its village green, its duck pond, its 12th-century parish church and its traditional pub where the beer is still handed out through a hatch. The modern economy of Purbeck soon makes its presence felt, though, with a view of Swanworth Quarry, a major producer of Portland stone that is mostly used as roadstone.
The walk joins the South West Coast Path above Chapman’s Pool, a quiet bay that is a popular destination for cruising and day boats. It then descends steeply into the valley known as Pier Bottom before climbing up the other side to St Aldhelm’s Head. St Aldhelm was an early 8th-century Bishop of Sherborne, canonised in 1080. The 12th-century chapel on the Head is dedicated to him and probably gave the Head its name; it is a tiny building, only some ten yards square, notable for 17th-century graffiti cut into its pillars. Why is it here? The answer is unknown, since Aldhelm had no particular connection with the sea. Possibly there was a need for a sea-mark on the head and the builders thought they might as well make it a chapel and then looked round for a suitable dedicatee. Evidence that the cross on the top of the chapel replaced a brazier would support the idea of a sea-mark at least.

The imposing escarpment

The imposing escarpment

There is absolutely no connection between the first Bishop of Sherborne and the first British Christian martyr, killed by the Romans 400 years earlier and 130 miles away in what is now Hertfordshire. Unfortunately, St Aldhelm’s name is not only difficult to pronounce but leads to confusion with the better-known and more easily articulated St Alban. Over the last 100 years the Head has become increasingly known as St Alban’s Head and today, mindful perhaps of the danger of confusion in radio transmissions (but with complete historical inaccuracy), mariners and coastguards refer to it only by that name.
The white lookout on the Head is now manned by volunteers of the National Coastwatch Institution (NCI). On the wall of the lookout are excellent information boards about the work of NCI, about the South West Coast Path and about the pioneering research that was done in these quiet fields during World War 2 on the development of radar. To the east of the Head is a memorial, unveiled in 2001 by Sir Bernard Lovell, to those who did such crucial work here.
Further along the coast, the quarry at Winspit was effectively abandoned in 1940, although it was still worked on a small scale by ‘Billy Winspit’: William Jeremiah Bower, who lived at Winspit Cottage and died aged 80 in 1966. In recent years it has been popular with TV and film location managers looking for a slightly spooky and sinister setting.

0170 Map - April

Distance: About 4¾ miles.
Terrain: The going underfoot is generally good except after prolonged rain. There are two short, sharp climbs and a slow, steady one.
Start: The car park on the northern edge of Worth Matravers. OS ref. SY974777, postcode BH19 3LE.
How to get there: Turn onto the B3069 from the A351 at the southern end of Corfe Castle village. Follow the road round to the left at the top of Kingston Hill and in just under a mile turn right, signed to Worth Matravers. The car park is on the right.
Maps: OS Explorer OL15 (Lyme Regis & Bridport), OS Landranger 195 (Bournemouth & Purbeck).
Refreshments: The Square and Compass; Worth Matravers Tea & Supper Room.

Chapman's Pool is a popular spot for boats to overnight

Chapman’s Pool is a popular spot for boats to overnight

1 Turn right out of the car park and in 90 yards, just before the Square and Compass on the left, right again along a narrow footpath. When the footpath reaches a fence, turn left through a gate and in a few yards go straight on through another gate. Walk along the left-hand edge of two fields. At the far end of the second one, turn right to continue to follow its left-hand edge up to the next corner. Here cross into the next field and walk down towards Swanworth Quarry.

2 In the bottom corner, cross a stile and turn left on a path that runs along the edge of the quarry. The path descends to the valley bottom, where it bears left to some steps up to a stile with a path beyond. Turn left on this path, which runs through woodland, and at a cross-paths turn left to reach a paved track almost immediately. Turn right on the track, then take the next left on a rough track across a bridge and up to a gate. A few yards beyond the gate, bear left on a less distinct track that climbs the hillside. As the track peters out, continue ahead at first and then bear right, climbing all the time.

Another view of Chapman's Pool

Another view of Chapman’s Pool

3 At the top of the hill, follow the stone wall on the left. On the right, the bulk of Hounstout looms over serene Chapman’s Pool. Pass the moving and immaculately maintained memorial garden to Royal Marines killed in conflicts since 1945 and reach the 184 steps down to Pier Bottom and the 219 up the other side. After visiting the chapel and lookout at St Aldhelm’s Head, continue to Winspit, where the path turns inland above an abandoned quarry, then right down some steps to a track.

The NCI Coastwatch station at St Aldhelm's head

The NCI Coastwatch station at St Aldhelm’s head

4 Turn right to go down to the sea, but the route lies to the left, up the rough track. Follow it as it bears to the right between a house and the drive to Winspit Cottage. Take the first turning on the right, just before a Wessex Water pumping station, and follow the path to a gate. Bear slightly left in the open field beyond to go over the shoulder of the hill ahead, then follow the curve of the hill to the left to reach a gate. The path beyond leads up to a road, where turn right. Turn right at the junction to walk up the side of the village green, right again at the top, then left at the junction in front of the Square and Compass. The car park is on the left. ◗

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