Another almost-spring morning shines its welcome way through Dorset. The terribly torn tendons still seem far from healed but the day promises to be too good to miss and I’m off to the cliff edge. It’s not a very sensible idea for your intrepid explorer, not least as I fear the notion of a cliff edge threatens all sorts of inner ear antagonism. Just the very thought of the South West Coastal Path makes me dizzy.
The other day, I heard someone on the wireless say that no-one takes a walk without there being an end in sight. Could be a spiritual end but here’s mine: St Adhelm’s 12th century (at least) chapel poised 355 feet above sea level in the parish of Worth Matravers.
The old and straightish track doesn’t make for easy walking: it’s comprised of the stony detritus of close at hand quarries from which Purbeck ‘marble’ has been retrieved since Roman times to be sent onwards to St Paul’s Cathedral, Salisbury and Exeter cathedrals, Westminster Abbey and that slightly smaller building to which I’m headed.
The track may not be ideal walking terrain but the views in all directions are grand. Here’s a tease between the hills at the bottom of which may well be Chapman’s Pool. I’d like to see it if I can manage the coastal path. In the meantime, Hugh is striding towards me.
‘Glorious morning’, he says cheerfully. Now, as it’s not winter today, I’m not wearing the lime green hat so Hugh is at an immediate disadvantage as a) he doesn’t recognise me and b) he’s unaware that he’s about to be questioned about my latest conundrum.
‘The thing is, Hugh’, I say, ‘the fields are full of birdsong, yet there’s not a bird to be seen’. He doesn’t bat an eyelid:
‘That’s because they’re all in the sky. Skylarks’. Hugh and I stand on a bend in the old straight track, with our necks bent back in superb synchronicity, staring up into the sky-blue sky. The empty sky-blue sky. I can’t see a thing.
‘Must be half a dozen of them up there’, he claims and I am minded of the emperor’s new clothes. And there’s more as Hugh joyously informs me that he’s just been lucky enough to see a waxwing.
‘No way’, I respond, ‘that’s wonderful’. A silence follows in which respective emotions are not conjoined. ‘What’s a waxwing’, I finally ask? He doesn’t care. To see a waxwing has been the highpoint of his day. Well, make that his life and he tells me all about these rare (at this time of the year) visitors to our shores, suggesting that I might see it on a post shortly.
We go our separate ways, me with my eyes peeled. All I see is Marian and Andrew. Actually, I hear them before I see them. They’re having a row. Something about being on holiday and Marian complaining that Andrew still needs her to look after his every need. I am really cross: these two will have frightened off any passing waxwing with all their noisy arguing. ‘Have you two come all the way to the middle of nowhere just to have a row’, I ask in passing? Marian and Andrew are silenced but, twenty feet past me, I can hear them starting up again. No matter because that brave little waxwing has just landed in front of me and is singing a tiny song of gladness. I’m ecstatic. No idea why because what I know about birds could be carved into a fat ball with a taxidermist’s needle. Smugness will ensue tomorrow when I mention the waxwing to a twitcher friend who’s been looking for one for years.
And here’s the chapel: a rum sort of do if you like; another cliff-top conundrum about which, few facts are known. The angles of the building point to the cardinal points which is, apparently, strange. Further, the square shape is very unusual for an ecclesiastical building; thus the orientation and shape hint to a non-religious origin.
Of course, never learning from previous lessons, I’m still an explorer who does their research AFTER the event so I know nothing of angles and shapes. Neither do I know that the chapel occupies a central position on an earlier timber building in pre-Christian earthworks. As the literature informs me, the casual visitor often fails to notice that earthen mounds surround the chapel. Correct, but not so much of the ‘casual’ if you don’t mind. In the 1930s, there was a problem with cows getting into the chapel – hardly surprising if they too suffered from vertigo.
These are the cottages in which the families of coastguards lived. Around the same time that the cows were being problematic, the weekly services at the chapel had declined and were only held fortnightly at Rogation Tide. When I read this, I thought, not entirely illogically, that Rogation Tide must be a marine function like Spring and Neap tides. Well, it’s not and if you’re interested, look it up.
Oh what pleasure to find the chapel open and to have it to myself. There’s some really interesting and ancient graffiti in here but the photos I took failed to give that impression. I help myself to a handy leaflet and perch on an ancient bench behind the door to search my rucksack for thirty pieces of the coins of the realm for payment. I didn’t envisage shopping when I set off, and no-one except me will know whether I paid or not but, having located the due fee, I hear voices outside. As I can’t be seen, I emit a warning of my presence: ‘don’t jump’, I call affably. There’s no answer and the bodies attached to the voices fail to make entry. Maybe they think some ghostly type is warning then not to jump off the nearby cliff. They wait until I leave. Scaredy cats.
Deferring the setting of feet onto the coastal path until the last possible moment, I have a look at the look-out station. Clearly, it’s not about to win any prizes for architectural design but here’s the rub: in 1994, this successor to the original coastguards’ lookout was closed down due to a lack of interest or funding, along with all other visual coastguard services. However, in the very same year, two fishermen died on the Lizard within sight of their closed lookout. In true British fashion, 49 coastguard lookouts were re-opened, manned, naturally, by volunteers. In this part of the world, if you weren’t a fisherman, a farmer or a quarryman, you had no livelihood.
I make three attempts to set foot on the coastal path but, for me, it’s a non-starter. Why don’t they just be honest and call it the cliff-edge path where you take a deep breath along with your life. I cut across a field, through a gate that says ‘no entry’, just to get the view of Chapman’s Pool.
People I ask along the way mention a few steps. If you click on this picture and study the incline, you’ll see some folk’s idea of a few steps. I don’t imagine that I missed anything. Au contraire, I feel nauseous just thinking about it, regardless of tendons, torn or otherwise.
Back in the safety of the village, I visit the church of St Nicholas. As with everything else, there’s more to see here than I knew about at the time. I don’t care because an English churchyard in early spring is a thing of beauty regardless of religious inclination. Later, at another church, I will lay flowers on the grave of an old friend; a grave which, less than four months old, seems already to have been consigned to ancient, uncaring history. But here, in Worth Matravers, all is reasonably well with the world although I’m saddened at the stone engraved with corn for Johnny Bray who died whilst harvesting. Is this some nineteenth century memorial to the hardships of the day? No: an accident befell Johnny in 1988 which, along with those dead fishermen, just confirms the eternal hardship and danger facing those who work the land and coast.
Later, I venture into Swanage where, I’m delighted to report that, on this wonderful spring morning, it’s still Christmas; and where, a being, possibly older than St Adhelm’s Chapel, was busy stoking up a real wood and coal fire.