The Dorset Cernunnos and Catherine Way – 22 miles, 2 days. You begin at St Augustine’s Well, or the Silver Well as some call it, with all its mysteries. It is said that a St Catherine’s Chapel was on the hill behind the well in the past, but some say it was called St Augustine’s Chapel. Then after the last remaining ruin of Cerne Abbey, the Abbott’s Porch, you follow the course of the River Cerne to the view of Cerne Giant. Cerne is associated with fertility, as both Catherine and the Giant are – one feminine, one masculine. ‘Cerne’ is a contracted form of ‘Cernunnos’, a (male) Gaelic god of beasts and wild places, called the ‘horned one’. The Giant chalk carving may be newer than we think, having been put there in the 17th-century by the Dorset Clubmen – protesters for peace in the Civil War – but we still don’t know. But plausible given the Giant is holding a club…
From Cerne you move through the type of bucolic Dorset valley (Church Bottom and Break Heart Hill) that you will become used to on this two day pilgrimage. The 5000-year old village of Sydling St Nicholas follows, lunch at the Greyhound perhaps, and a visit to the village church where the wedding scene from ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ was filmed. Onwards past more of the distinctive earth formations of Dorset farmland before Maiden Newton church, where you can marvel at the oldest door in England. Next is the very remote end-of-the-road Saxon church of Toller Fratrum, which still retains a pure and palpable holiness.
Another cosy and intimate valley of Wynford Eagle (with a possible night’s rest at West Compton) before the majesty of Eggardon Hill, with its Iron Age hill fort, extreme beauty of shape and broad views of this beautiful West country. (Eggardon was also the scene of an important clash between Dorset Clubmen and the Parliamentarians). You descend and soon meet Askerswell Church, dedicated to the angels, before the prehistoric Chilcombe Hill and its nearby tranquil chapel. More valley walking, before you enter the gladed fairytale Chapel in the Woods, and walk up to Abbotsbury Castle hill fort, where you finally feel close to the sea, with views of the remarkable Chesil Beach and St Catherine’s Chapel in the distance.
Glide along the South Dorset Ridgeway before descending into picturesque Abbotsbury, nestled in a green and pleasant landscape, worthy of ‘Jerusalem’. Ascend finally to St Catherine’s Chapel on the Hill, which has been visible to you for a while now, and petition her (perhaps for a new husband?!) and then you have the option of returning to Abbotsbury or ending at the sea on Chesil Beach – an elemental expanse, and fitting end to this pilgrimage. Perhaps pilgrims would then set sail from here?
Holy place spotlight: This hill near Abbotsbury is dedicated to St Catherine – she of the Catherine wheel, which exploded before her enemies could torture her with it. Catherine is patron saint for young girls wanting to find a husband. Tradition would have it that girls of a certain age would ascend the hill to say this prayer: “A husband, St Catherine / A handsome one, St Catherine, / A rich one, St Catherine, / A nice one, St Catherine, / And soon, St Catherine.” But, in addition to the chapel which may also have functioned as a beacon for ships, seen from above there is an intriguing spirallic pattern of pathways around the hill leading to the chapel. This may have been a meditative processional walkway for medieval monks or perhaps it dates back even further.