Accessible only on foot and hidden away in woodland on the Dorset coast, the ruins of St. Luke's Chapel are a beautiful place of ancient history and modern day veneration, where walkers leave behind offerings on the altar, as well as makeshift memorials to their loved ones. Inside the ruins lie the graves of a family who once owned, and loved, this spot.
High on the cliffs overlooking Chesil Beach and Weymouth is a small wooded copse called Ashley Chase Woods, one of several in the area that appear indistinct and uninspiring from the outside. They are a part of the larger Ashley Chase Estate, 1000 acres of lush farmland where cattle graze to produce traditional farmhouse cheddar, made by hand to methods and recipes that date back hundreds of years.
A Brief History of St. Luke's Chapel
The area has been occupied for thousands of years, with the first evidence being an Iron Age hillfort from around 500BC, now known as Abbotsbury Castle, which is about a mile away from the chapel. It is situated on a high chalk hill overlooking the sea, and was once the front line of defence from invasion. It was occupied by the Celtic Durotriges tribe until the Roman invasion in AD 43, when it was conquered and probably abandoned.
The land the chapel is built on was given to the monks of Netley Abbey, an early medieval Cistercian abbey in Southampton which was founded by the Bishop of Winchester in 1238 and initially occupied by a colony of monks from Beaulieu Abbey. A simple order committed to manual labour and self sufficiency, they were given a carucate (between 60 - 160 acres) of land by William de Liddington, in exchange for saying prayers for him in perpetuity.
"Ashley in Litton Cheney, Dorset, a few miles west of Broad Waddon, was obtained in 1246 from the terre tenant of Litton, William de Liddington. It was assured by a final concord, made in the Common Bench in the week beginning 25th June 1246, and cast in a stereotyped form, whereby William admitted the right of Robert, Abbot of Edwardstowe to hold a carucate at Ashley as of his gift, in return for a share in the Abbey's prayers." *
As dedicated farmers and labourers, they would have built the chapel of St. Luke's for the use of their small Cistercian community who worked a farm in Ashley as well as serving the medieval village of Sterte (Sturthill). According to author C J Bailey in his book The Bride Valley: ‘the chapel of St Luke was served by parsons from 1240 to 1545 when it became so impoverished that the living was left vacant ... by approximately 1545, both Sterte and the Chapel were abandoned and St Luke’s descended into ruin.’ The reason for the abandonment would have been the Dissolution of the Monasteries when Henry VIII disposed of all religious orders.
All that remains of the chapel is the west gable-end wall, an altar constructed from the debris with a crucifix of Christ wearing a crown, and four modern tombs. Two of these belong to David and Olga Milne-Watson, who built Ashley Chase House nearby in the 1920s and acquired ownership of the chapel. They loved the place so much that they hired workmen to save what was left of the ruin and were both buried in it. The third grave is that of one of their grandsons, Denys Reed. A fourth grave is for Harold Farrer - I have been unable to find his connection to the place.
Visiting St. Luke's Chapel
Unlike nearly everywhere else, particularly in the high tourist area of the Jurassic Coast, there is no signage, car park, shop, walking trails, maps or anything at all to indicate that St Luke's even exists, yet as you will see when you visit, it is a place of deep significance to the people who do.
It is only accessible on foot. Most people enter the copse through a wooden gate just off Park's Lane - there is no parking on the road as it is so narrow, so if driving, you will have to park far away and walk there. It is worth it though. The copse is rather special in itself, being filled with a wide variety of flora and fauna, whatever the season.
In spring it is filled with native English bluebells, and is a carpet of purple. There are rare orchids in abundance, violets and primroses. We visited in Autumn when the leaves were drifting off the trees, red berries were ripe and the fungi were looking plump and succulent. The trees are bent into interesting shapes, many clad in ivy, and there was a soft bounce underneath due to the profusion of moss. A strong stream runs through the copse, forceful enough that you can hear it clearly even over the exuberant birdsong.
The chapel is on a small hill, with the stream running round two sides of it. You walk through the west wall, with the altar ahead of you, topped with a lichen clad, wooden crucifix with a small roof. Around the altar is a small clearing and the graves. There are tree trunks and stones lying around the outside, all just abandoned where they fell, half sunk into the soil, covered in moss with plants poking their way through the cracks.
The first thing you may notice though are the temporary memorials which are all around the chapel. People leave stones, petals, picked ferns, food, drink and coins in memory of their loved ones, some with heartfelt messages of grief. There is something so moving about these informal memorials, where people aren't restricted by what they are allowed to inscribe on a gravestone, where whatever they leave they know will fade back into the ground. The altar is covered in them, but you can also find them in the nooks, crannies and corners of the west wall.
There is no signage here, no information boards, nothing to tell you what to look at or what it means. They are just some beautiful and evocative ruins in a wood where you can sit, listen and observe. If you are lucky you will have the place to yourself, as we did - apparently it can get busy at weekends and bank holidays, especially when the weather is good, but there is a lot to be said for visiting in the colder months, so you can just sit and be in the stillness and birdsong.
The silent night
The early dawn
The badgers come
And the birds do sing
You were my everything
(Inscribed on the gravestone to Denys Christian Reed in St. Luke's)
Visiting St. Luke's Chapel
The entrance to Ashley Chase Woodland is near w3w:blurs.states.fairway.
* Studies in 13th Century Justice and Administration by C.A.F. Meekings 1981