Every time we drive the spectacular coast road from Bridport to Weymouth, as we crest the hill and see St Catherine’s Chapel silhouetted against Chesil Beach, I always say “I’d love to go up there one day”.
Well, with two hours to kill waiting for my son to do rugby training in Bridport, today was the day. I drove to the car park on the beach, past Abbotsbury Sub-Tropical Gardens, and took the path that starts along the beach and cuts inland to Abbotsbury village. It’s a beautiful route, full of contrasts – the soft reedbeds against the starkness of Chesil Beach, the dead straight lines of the drainage ditches next to the crazy scramble of the wind-sculpted hawthorns. There are glimpses of The Fleet in one direction, and the heathy hills behind Abbotsbury in the other.
It’s not very far to the bottom of the hill upon which St Catherine’s Chapel sits, and its strangely man-made landscape of strip lynchets. These are the rings of terraces that run around the contour of the hill; a common feature in the hills around Bridport, they are a long-lasting remnant of medieval farming methods, which terraced the land to make it easier to work. Even more recent history is obvious on the hill, too, in the form of WWII pill boxes, and a double row of anti-tank defences on the beach. (I tried to go inside one of the pill boxes to get some arty photos out of the window, but they are now obviously well loved by cattle, and were knee-deep in poached mud & worse!)
You can just do a circuit at the base of the hill, or divert off into Abbotsbury, but I really wanted to see the chapel close up, so I clambered up the hill and reached the 14th-century chapel. Its walls and stonework are satisfyingly chunky – not crude by any means, but obviously built to withstand the worst the English Channel can throw at them, and after 700 years, they’re standing firm still. The chapel was built by the nearby Abbotsbury Abbey, as a place of pilgrimage and retreat for the monks. It escaped the destruction of the Dissolution, which destroyed the Abbey, but this may have been in part due to its prominent position making it a useful navigation mark for sailors along Chesil Beach.
St Catherine is the patron saint of virgins and spinsters, and local women would go there and, inserting a knee and two arms into the wishing holes, wish for a husband.
It is a short hop from the chapel hill into Abbotsbury itself – this is an almost unbelievably picturesque village, with honeyed stone cottages, charming thatchers and a stunning 14th century tithe barn, and enough tea rooms, cafes and pubs to refresh the thirstiest visitor.
I didn’t stop for tea, though, as I had a time limit, and even with stopping to nose around the chapel and take photos, it still didn’t take very long as a circular walk. It’s about two and a half miles from beach to chapel and back again, and the constantly changing views, the shifting light on the sea and the lagoon of the Fleet, and the sense of history all around you is well worth a detour.