St. Aldhelm's Head, also known as St. Alban's Head, is an outcrop of Portland stone that underlays Lower Purbeck stone running to the east and north. To the west you quickly run into Kimmeridge clays and shales partly hidden by masses of fallen limestone. At it's highest it is some 350 feet above sea level.
Much of what you see in this picture is rockfall as the result of weathering and erosion, and also the fall/waste of quarrying which is not only inland as is often assumed, but also involved working on the cliff-face.
Although over thousands of years everybody has surely come and had a look, the only significant building, that we know about has been St. Aldhelm's Chapel which could have been built, very roughly, at the beginning of the twelfth century. Other suggestions do date it earlier, also that it was built on an earlier earthwork which may have been a very small and short-lived occupation. Why such a remote place should be chosen for a chapel is a mystery, but then it is only a small building being some 35 feet square. It is predominantly Purbeck stone of various size and cut.
The chapel is over 1½ miles out of Worth Matravers village and does seem a long trek for worshipers from that locale. One might surmise there was a small settlement closer to the chapel but there is no evidence for that. It would of course be nice to have a rule-of-thumb to equate the size of a place of worship to the number of people it served, but no such rule exists. A small settlement with a wealthy benefactor could have a large and grand building, whereas a poor and large settlement could have only a minimalist building.
It has been considered St. Aldhelm's Chapel was in fact a lookout disguised as a religious building. That is probably negated by it's lack of openings. Something that is suspicious however is the orientation which is North-East, South-West etc., where churches and chapels tended to be orientated East, West, etc., for spiritual reasons. This relied on it being architecturally possible, and in this case there is nothing to prevent it. If there were an earlier earthwork with no particular orientation the chapel may of course follow it for convenience.
If we look at St. Aldhelm's Head from the mariners point of view it was better known as St. Albans Head, after a completely different martyr who had nothing to do with Purbeck or Dorset but was however the first martyr in Britain and of Roman origin, and executed in the 3rd century.
The building is seemingly Norman, with what some consider a Saxon door. The roof is vaulted and supported by a central pier which divides the roof into four vaults. Some would justifiably suggest the central pier is much more robust than it need be. Could this be an obscure one-off construction, an early folly perhaps? Could it be a chantry? There are signs of a small one-man enclosure near the door where a resident priest could spend all his time praying for sailors passing beneath, or of course lighting a beacon, or ringing a bell.
There is a popular local story along the lines of a local family losing a daughter and son-in-law by drowning, and erecting the chapel as a remembrance, and somewhere they could pray for their souls. This supposedly occurred in 1140 and would of course post-date the early days of St. Nicholas's Church in Worth village by some 50 years.
A popular name for St. Aldhelm's Chapel was also the Devil's Chapel which perhaps suggests something sinsiter and unknown.
It fell into disrepair over the centuries, to be restored by 1874 by the Earl of Eldon.
All things considered, we don't know who built it, when it was built (accurately), or specifically why it was built. That aside it is a delightful building at a delightful and scarey location.
In 2,000 the site was declared a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It is quite plausibal that this is part of an ancient Christian site, there are earthen mounds surronding the site which cound take it back to being an enclosure often typified by a circular layout of earthworks and/or mounds. A definitive answer to the puzzle might be obtained by excavating the whole site, especially to search for evidence of a timber building. Such an excation is just not going to take place.
As with most archealogical research, in time, advances in ground radar may reveal some secrets that confound us all.
Much of the local costal land is part of the Encombe Estate, many of the population would be tenants of the estate. The estate gifted the chapel to Worth Matravers Parochial Church Council in 1965. Much work was needed, and with urgency, this was enabled courtesy of generous donation.
In terms of parishes the chapel is at the very south of the Parish of Worth which extends northwards to Harmans Cross. Worth village is actually a very small part of the parish in both size and population there being many widespread farms and stone workings, many not be apparent to those passing through.
More recent years saw 4 coastguards cottages built (1834 [note.1] ) and a coastguard station, which although no longer used by the coastguard, is now manned part-time by volunteers of The National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) which is a registered charity, and referred to as NCI St. Alban's Head. All members are unpaid volunteers and keep a friendly eye over both the sea, and walkers on the Jurassic path.
The Cottages and outbuildings were obviously built for the use of Coastguards and all the allied equipment for them and Lifeboatmen. The (white) shed with the tall doors was in fact specifically to contain a wagon(s) for all their equipment which was drawn by two horses. It is misreported that this was in fact for a lifeboat! Remember, this location is 350 feet above the sea.
Their design and construction is typical of all coastguard cottages, a significant part being substantial walls.
Something that has been something of a puzzle about this block is the true year of build which we, and many others, have presumed was 1834.
Naturally, coastguard cottages were built over the years all along our coastline. What is something of a dilemma for us is that just to the north west, roughly a mile away, is Chapmans Pool, where a Lifeboat House was built in 1867. As far as we were aware there were coastguard cottages already nearby. There were in fact in Hill Bottom, which is a valley that runs from Chapmans Pool inland to Kingston and Worth Matravers. If you look at the above cottages picture you can make out Worth Matravers in the left distance.
The dilemma is in fact: Why build more cottages up on St Albans Head when there are already some in Hill Bottom? When were the cottages in Hill Bottom built? We presume before 1834.
To make more of a puzzle, references in The National Censuses 1841-1901 for the district of "Worth Matravers" show varying numbers of coastguards. They are obviously in "Worth Matravers", but are they in Hill Bottom or on St Albans Head? Has the enumerator misunderstood the location/place. Instances of misnaming the place on census pages are commonplace throughout the country. The usual reason being the enumerator not being a 'local' and not having first hand knowledge of the area.
If we look at 1841, there are nine coastguard families at St Albans, and two at Winspit, which is about a mile to the east, and is also another valley running out of Worth Matravers down to the sea.
Why is there no mention of a coastguard in Hill Bottom? There are however several labourers in "Bottom", which might just be Hill Bottom.
Moving on to 1851, there are fourteen coastguards, but the enumerator has failed to tell us where they live, excepting of course in the district of Worth Matravers.
Frustrated, on to 1861, will we fair better? Yes and No. There are none at "Bottom, eight at "St Albans Head", two at "Windspit". Of possible interest are those refered to as Boatmen at "St Albans Head, but not at Hill Bottom/near the sea.
Will 1871 prove more enlightening? More puzzling in fact. There are two retired coastguard in place unknown, one at Winspit House, six in Coastguard Buildings 6 5 4 3 2 1, one Coastguard officer at Coastguard Office, Hill Bottom has four labourers.
This perhaps brings into play a previously unmentioned factor/building. At some time, a mile into Worth Matravers at Weston Farm some Coastguard Cottages and a Coastguard Office were built.
Now to 1881. There are two coastguard boatmen at Coastguard Buildings, one at Winspit Cottage, Hill Bottom is mentioned but not for coastguards, Coastguard Cottages 8 9 are shown uninhabited.
1891. nine Station Officer HM Coastguard at St Albans Head CtGuard, one Carter at "Bottom".
For 1891, unusually, the description of the district does actually include St Albans Head Coast Guard Station. Two cottages on the West Side of a road through Hill Bottom, and one on the East Side.
Lastly 1901, five coastguards in 1 2 3 4 5 Hill Bottom Coast Guard Station, nine coastguards in St Albans Head Coastguard Station.
Again, unusually, the 1901 description includes, "St Albans Head Coast Guard Station" - "Hill Bottom Coast Guard Station" - Two Cottages on the - side of a Road through Hill Bottom and One Cottage on the - side.
There is a further puzzle. It is accepted that the west side of Hill Bottom is in Corfe Castle/Kingston, and the east side in Worth. There is possibly some conflict with who lives on what side as far as the respective censuses are concerned.
Information courtesy of N.C.I.
The Coastguard Services first base in this area was at Chapmans Pool, where the foundations of the four original cottages can still be seen, if not covered in cow ****. The small shed on the site was the wash room and contained a large copper boiler. The Coastguards were in fact naval personnel, whose duty required them to patrol the Coastal Path and meet their counterparts on either flank.
The station was supplied by sea, the long boat which used to bring supplies ashore, was housed in a boathouse on the slipway, both of which still exist.
There are a number of possible reasons for them moving away from this site. They were too inaccessible especially during severe weather, they did not have a wide clear view of the sea, they were disgusted with their living conditions.
The Coastguard, still a branch of the Navy, moved to St Aldhelm's Head in 1895 where the four cottages and the original Lookout were built.
The building at the South end of the complex (which looks like a garage) housed the cart(s), drawn by two horses or twenty members of the Coast Life Saving Apparatus (or L.S.A.). Percy Wallace BEM came to St Aldhelm's Head Lookout as a naval rating and married a local girl, Dora Lander, and served his time there until his retirement.
After complaints by the families about the remoteness of the site, new cottages were built at Weston Farm in 1950. At that time the Station complement consisted of three Coastguards and a Station Officer who lived in the South end cottage; the building in front was the Duty Room. The LSA, later renamed The Auxiliary Coastguard Service, (ACS) was housed in the Garage type building at the North end of the new cottages and formed a 'Watchkeeping Section in addition to its rescue duties. Several members belonged to both the Coastguards and the ACS. Watches of six hours duration were kept. Two Coastguards were always available, one on watch at the Lookout, and one on standby summoned by 'bell' or later, by telephone, after the cottages were moved to Weston. Because of work commitments, the Auxiliaries usually kept the 1800 2000 watch, with a Coastguard 'on the bell'
The present lookout building was built in the 1970's at a reputed cost of £40,000. When the Coastguard Service abandoned visual lookouts in 1994, the Station was returned to the Encombe Estate, as previously the cottages had been.
The Lookout is now owned by the Scott Trust and leased to The National Coastwatch Institution on a peppercorn rent of One Pound per annum. Links with the Coastguard still apply today as there is an official auxiliary unit based in Worth Matravers. This is manned by local volunteers and is known as St Alban's Auxiliary Coastguard or St Alban's Mobile - we work closely with them.
St Albans Head - Radar Research 1940 - 1942
To go back a short time in history towards the end of the 19th century scientists became aware of the ability to detect electromagnetic waves, and subsequently create and transmit them. For those that think somebody invented them, not true, they have flooded the universe since time began. We have learnt much from their existence, and learning how they can best be utilised, and also how dangerous they can be.
Many, including Thomas Edison, were experimenting. The last decade of that century saw many make claim to various aspects of sending and receiving "signals". Perhaps the most famous, being the distress signals from the Titanic in 1912. A popular name adopted was "Wireless Telegraphy" which was abbreviated to "Wireless". The popular modern word of "Radio" has many possible origins including the latin word "radius".
While everybody was experimenting it became apparent that these waves were both reflected and blocked by predominantly metallic substances. This gave rise to the idea of of detecting targets by transmitting a signal at it and listening for the reflected signal. In principal, not so different from an echo, just that you can hear an echo, whereas this new technology needed special equipment to "hear" and had a major advantage of being out of visible and audible range.
This is all very simplistic because what has developed as radar does need very specialist equipment to work. A radar system has a transmitter that emits radio waves of a specific short wavelength range called microwaves. The waves are emitted in phases of a known pattern and when received back the difference in the phases can tell the recipient, given speciaialist equipment, the range, direction and speed of the target.
In the early days radar was called "Radio Direction Finding" (RDF). The acronym "RAdio Detection And Ranging" (RADAR) was adopted during WWII.
During World War II there were pockets of scientists spread all around the country, engaged on research into many ways of fighting to victory with technology rather than traditional methods.
Such a place was at Worth Matravers out to St Albans Head where farmland was utilised in large areas for the erection of radar equipment, and the housing of scientist with their equipment and the attendant security.
Not surprisingly Germany was carrying out similar research. Winston Churchill feared of German attack and in 1942 the operation was moved inland to Malvern in Worcestershire.
To see the whole story we suggest you take a look at Purbeck Radar where there is much to tell and describe. There is also an exhibition presently at temporary premises in Swanage.
Sales of publications help to fund the radar exhibition, website and leaflets - donations are always welcome!
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