Sitting alone on the crest of a hill, St Catherine’s Chapel is one of only a few survivors like it left in the country. Fortress-like and sturdy, it overlooks Chesil Bank – that lethal stretch of shingle stretching fourteen miles from the Isle of Portland to Golden Cap – on which many a ship has founded. The seas are treacherous here. A strip of wild water known as the Portland Race, marks a current – once used by English sailors to defend our shores from Spanish invaders – that still catches sailors unawares. It is no surprise, then, that this late C14th chapel, built by masons employed by the nearby abbey of Abbotsbury and dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria, was probably also used as a lighthouse and a warning beacon.
Built entirely of the same golden limestone used in the abbey and village, the structure was built to withstand the ferocious storms that batter the Dorset coast. The stone roof drains water through gaps in the parapet, and heavy buttresses help support the stone-vaulted single space inside, where monks came to pray, and villagers made pilgrimage to the shrine of St Catherine.
Off the corner of the chapel, a stair turret rises to the parapet providing an oratory chapel and a space in which to light a brazier for a beacon. A tiny window looks west towards the sea, and two larger windows east to the abbey. Little remains, but even that which does, speaks of the veneration St Catherine earned in late Medieval society.
Like so many others, the abbey fell victim to Henry VIII’s program of dissolution. However, the chapel had played an important part in village life for centuries, and local traditions developed around it. Perhaps the most notable was the trek up the hill to the chapel by women seeking a husband – my mother-in-law included. Balancing on one leg, the girl put a knee in one of the three holes in the south doorway, a hand in each of the others, whereupon she would pray:
St. Catherine, St. Catherine,
O lend me thy aid.
And grant that I never shall die an old maid.A husband, St. Catherine,
A good one, St. Catherine.
But anyone’s better than no one, St. Catherine.
A husband, St. Catherine,
Young, St. Catherine,
Handsome, St. Catherine,
Kind, St. Catherine,
And soon, St. Catherine!
The girl would then stand, spin around three times on the spot, and clap her hands. And did the prayer work? It did for my mother-in-law. She met her future husband while on a picnic at the chapel.
Generations have come and gone, but St. Catherine’s Chapel remains an iconic feature of the landscape. Summer or winter, drive along the coast road from Bridport and you will be rewarded by one of the finest views in the South-West.