the most mysterious site in the Bournemouth-Christchurch area is the site known as St Catherine's
Hill. Few today know why it is so named: after a chapel that once stood there, built sometime
back when the church was the major local landowner, with its administrative centre Christchurch
Off the tourist track, this 35-hectare hill [OS map ref SZ
145/953] overlooks Christchurch, the lower Avon Valley and the New Forest to the east and, to
the west, what is now Bournemouth. Today it is a Town Common Nature Reserve, a place where local
people go to exercise their dogs or horses, or just have a pleasant walk along the bridleways
and footpaths that criss-cross the hill through its birch and conifer woodland cover.
But it remains a slightly strange place, its pre-20th C.
history largely unknown. Although only 45 metres high, its steepness has fortunately precluded
normal industrial or residential development. The only modern additions are a pair of microwave
towers and two concrete monstrosities - water reservoirs painted with graffiti of werewolves
etc. But there remains no sign of any ancient native Neolithic, Bronze or Iron Age hillfort atop
what would have been a natural stronghold. There is a set of low earthworks in one area –
the Council website says that “Bronze age settlers and Iron Age farmers may have built
the enclosure just to the south west of the radio mast.” And nearby are the banks
of a Roman fort believed to have held a small garrison manning a two-way signal station. The
Council website also says the hill “has most likely been used as a look-out and beacon
since prehistoric times.” This is probably because it is the highest ground for miles,
and because beacons were put there in Tudor and Napoleonic times. (The two hills on its northern
flank, Blackwater and Ramdown, are lower.)
Yet there is no evidence that in pre-Roman times it was encircled
by a defensive ditch that could hold the populace and their herds in time of attack. (Maiden
Castle hillfort for example could hold an estimated 4,000 people.) This is despite the facts
the steep-sided 160-foot high hill would have been easier to defend than many places that did
have hillforts, stood at a more strategic spot than most, and was almost the only sizable hill
in the area. It commanded a view of the area just inland of Hengistbury Head and Christchurch
Harbour, which archaeologist Prof Sir Barry Cunliffe has argued was Britain's busiest Iron Age
port, the path and river route inland leading north up the River Avon to the interior of Wessex.
The ancient route passed Stonehenge, which had an avenue leading to the Avon near the spot where
Amesbury Abbey was later built, and may well date back to the days when Stonehenge was in use.
All we know about the hill's human usage pre-1900 is from a few archaeological notes, a couple
of references in church records, and a much-cited local legend. The evidence of this could be
interpreted to mean that it was not fortified as a military site as it was a sacred
The Original Priory Site?
The legend relates how when Christchurch Priory was first being built, the hill was the originally
chosen site. But when the workers carted the foundation stones up the hill, the next day they
found them back down at the foot of the hill again. After this happened twice, it was taken as
a hint by unnamed supernatural forces that the church should be built down below. The Council
website adds the detail that “On the third night one of the monks had a dream in which
he was instructed to build in the valley bottom.” The Priory was built instead on
the flood-plain delta between the confluence of the rivers Avon and Stour at the site which gave
the town its Saxon name, Tweoxneam, Thuineham, or Twynham, meaning village 'tween the
waters. The legend has been interpreted as local 'heathens' protecting their turf, implying a
pagan cult using the hilltop in the 1090s. Rodney Legg in his Mysterious Dorset suggested
the legend is a distorted memory of the fact there was originally a hilltop church - presumably
of the timber from this site being taken down the hill to help build the Priory.
Some neo-pagan sites suggest it was known as the Hill Of
Keridwen, though I can trace no authority for this identification. It does give us a pagan deity
name reminiscent of its Christian name, supporting the theory it was redesignated by the church.
Of course, you'd have to accept that the local pre-Christian population would acknowledge Catherine
as another name for their goddess Keridwen - the two names don't sound all that similar.
In British myth, Keridwen was the magician who gave birth to Taliesin, the bardic figure whose
verses are characterised by riddles involving transmogrification of people into animals. Though
there's little evidence Taliesin existed as an historical figure, this could account for an odd
claim the Welsh bard came from this area. (For an account of the Keridwen legend, see here.)
The "rationalist" explanation given of the site-relocation
legend is that it was inspired by what happened up the Avon Valley, at Sarum, where the Cathedral
church was relocated from the hill now known as Old Sarum, down to its present site at New Sarum
- the present Salisbury. But the Sarum move happened later (1220-), the circumstances well-known
and not in the least mysterious. There was no moving-stones legend attached to the Sarum site.
This is not surprising as the Cathedral was in fact successfully built, and only fell into disuse
later when there was less need to have it inside an overcrowded fortification. (For details,
see our page on scenic
On the other hand, mythographers argue that big stones mysteriously
moving down a hill is a common folklore motif, a relic of pagan beliefs, akin to legends of stone
circles 'dancing' or coming down to drink at night. There are similar legends elsewhere. (The
closest one I know of relates to Godshill on Wight.) Of course the re-location legend could be
rationalised as a folk memory of an ancient taboo. (‘Superstition’ literally means
something ‘standing over’ i.e. from an earlier time.) Taboos play a major role in
Celtic lore (break a géasa or taboo and you’re doomed, however strong of
heart or arm you are). The Celtic word for taboo, géasa, used in the Irish legends
seems to mean literally an earth-pole. Asa meant a pole, with the prefix gé-
as in geography, geology etc., and Saxon gewissae, land-folk, ie peasants]. The asa
could be a tribal totemic pole where members swore sacred oaths. One aspect of such 'foundation'
legends we should mention is that of human sacrifice, where a human, perhaps a child, is to be
interred under the first corner. For example there is a saint's legend that when the first monastic
buildings on Iona collapsed, St Columba's monks insisted this was due to the lack of a human
We could 'rationalise' the relocation downhill as
the result of superstitious locals who refused to build on the hill as they feared the ancient
powers of nature alive on the hilltop, in ‘wood and stone’. (I’m alluding here
to the church’s 6th century complaint about the officially-Christian southern Saxons still
worshipping at pagan sites built of wood and stone.) But the Priory foundation stones were not
sacred pagan stones. They were 'scrap' or rubble from the older Saxon church which stood where
the Priory is today, when it was demolished - or more likely built over. This has led to the
argument that the legend dates from the building of an earlier church here, either the Saxon
Priory, or even the “primitivam ecclesiam” [primitive church] which some
argue preceded it (as at Glastonbury).
One local historian has argued there could have been no church
here because the locals didn’t have any stone quarry nearby (the Norman Priory stone largely
came from Quarr Abbey area on NE Wight), and they (presumably Celtic Britons) didn’t know
how to build in stone even if they had any. But a “primitivam ecclesiam” would be
more likely built of wood and thatch, or wattle-and-daub - a type of construction that dates
back to the Neolithic. (The Priory's 'Miraculous Beam' legend and relic may be relevant here,
but this isn't the place to delve into that mystery.)
Of Serpents And Flying Dragons
In Celtic lore, there were also bars on activity of a different type, where the protagonist has
to overcome a magical difficulty to proceed. In the legend of the British over-king Vortigern
as preserved by Nennius, there is a similar tale of stones being moved back down a hill selected
as a stronghold. Vortigern tried to build an impregnable fortress for self-protection from his
people after he fell from favour. (He had given away half his kingdom to Hengist and his Saxon
mercenaries in exchange for gaining the hand of Hengist’s daughter Renwein or Rowena).
The king ... travelled
through many parts of his territories, in search of a place convenient for the purpose of building
a citadel. Having, to no purpose, travelled far and wide, they came at length to a province
called Guenet; and having surveyed the mountains of Heremus, they discovered, on the summit
of one of them, a situation, adapted to the construction of a citadel. Upon this, the wise
men said to the king, "Build here a city: for, in this place, it will ever be secure against
the barbarians." Then the king sent for artificers, carpenters, stone-masons, and collected
all the materials requisite to building; but the whole of these disappeared in one night, so
that nothing remained of what had been provided for the constructing of the citadel. Materials
were, therefore, from all parts, procured a second and third time, and again vanished as before,
leaving and rendering every effort ineffectual. Vortigern inquired of his wise men the cause
of this opposition to his undertaking, and of so much useless expense of labour? They replied,
"You must find a child born without a father, put him to death, and sprinkle with his
blood the ground on which the citadel is to be built, or you will never accomplish your purpose."
His counsellors brought a fatherless
boy to be sacrificed to remove the curse in the traditional way, but the boy turned out to be
the future Romano-British leader Ambrosius, who was gifted with special insight. He explained
to Vortigern he first had to excavate a pit inside the hill where two dragon-serpents, a red
one and a white one, were fighting. The symbolism here is blatant, the red dragon being the Welsh
national emblem, whereas the Saxons had a white one (later trampled in the dirt at Hastings).
The boy tells him, "depart from this place, where you are not permitted to erect a citadel;
I, to whom fate has allotted this mansion, shall remain here; whilst to you it is incumbent to
seek other provinces, where you may build a fortress."
The Nennius version sets the tale in Guenet, or Gwynnedd
in North Wales. Of course, Vortigern like other rulers of the time would have travelled a court
circuit around his domain. “Wales” would in Vortigern’s time have stretched
all the way down to here - even the Saxons used the term Welsh or wealh as a generic
one for the Britons, hence local place names like Bournemouth's university campus site of Wallisdown,
In the following century, the Avon Valley would become very
much the front line in the Saxon Wars. It was the defeats up the Avon Valley, at Charford [Cerdicesford]
in 519 and Sarum [the hill-fort that Salisbury supplanted] in 552, that allowed the Saxons to
advance west into the "Welsh" areas. Vortigern's nemesis would get his own local place-name
dedication, Hengistbury Head, and there is a legend of Hengist attending a fatal peace conference
up the Avon Valley at Amesbury, leading to the Saxon coup known as the Night Of The Long Knives.
The placing of these events locally is regarded as a later elaboration on Nennius by Geoffrey
of Monmouth in 1135 - Nennius does not specify a setting.
One “miracle” legend that local heritage does
not play up is that Christchurch, like Vortigern's citadel, was reportedly consumed by fire from
heaven - no doubt because the reason given is that it was devastated by a fire-breathing dragon
sent to punish the town for its wickedness. An account by a visiting French monk, Herman of Laon,
has the town being burnt by a fire-breathing flying dragon in 1112/1113. Herman came here with
a group touring SW England to raise funds to rebuild their home church, but got an unwelcome
reception here. As Herman's group left, they looked back and were pleased to see the town being
burnt up by a dragon in revenge for the insult to their Lady of Laon!
Dragons are often associated with “fire from Heaven,”
but despite new-age attempts to equate dragons with ‘serpent lines’ (rather than
ley lines) of esoteric or geomantic force, no link with St Catherine’s Hill is apparent,
Herman’s dragon rising from the sea. There is a local land-based serpent-dragon legend,
but it is localised across the valley at Bisterne (which means beast’s or pest’s
secret place). Or at least the family whose ancestor supposedly slew it resided at Bisterne,
with the dragon carved on their stone gateposts in commemoration, the dragon itself alighting
at Burley Beacon nearby to drink the milk the fearful locals left out for it. (For more on dragons
and the theory they are linked to ley lines, see Here Be Dragons, by Michael Hodges,
author of the history of St Catherine's Hill pictured right.)
The notion of the hill as a still actively pagan site in
the Middle Ages is supported by some slight circumstantial evidence. At some point a chapel was
built on the hilltop either in addition to, or else instead of, the planned hilltop priory church.
This is despite the fact the downtown Priory site had up to nine chapels or altars there already.
One theory is a hilltop church was erected to displace ongoing pagan use of the hill. It was
the policy of St Augustine that the early Saxon church should take over ‘wood and stone’
pagan sites and give them a cosmetic makeover to convert them into Christian ones, beginning
around 600. The Saxon church of Twynham is thought to date from the 7th C., but there is no record
of the hilltop chapel for 6 more centuries. The first mentions of the chapel in the historical
record are from the early 14-C, of the Prior being admonished for holding mass up there, when
the chapel was not approved to keep the necessary accoutrements for this there (presumably as
its remoteness would make it vulnerable to theft).
The official record notes that Bishop Stratford “inhibited”
the Prior of Christchurch on 19 November, 1331, “from celebrating in the chapel of
St. Katharine on the Hill of Rishton, constructed on the soil of the priory, on account of the
lack of certain formalities. Licence for celebrations [i.e. of mass] in the chapel was not granted
until 1 February, 1332.” (History
Of The County Of Hampshire). If the Prior felt it necessary to do so against the wishes of
the Diocese, the implied reason would most likely be to counter residual pagan influence. Sceptics
like to point out there is no evidentiary mention for such early events as Saxon-era churches
or chapels, but as no actual records survive anyway from earlier eras, this is a deceptively
self-serving argument. (We'll get to the alternative name the Bishop uses, "Hill of Rishton,"
in a moment.)
The chapel still seems to have been visible
as late as the 1930s, when Sir Arthur Mee was preparing his volume on Hampshire for his series
The King's England:
A mile out of the town
is St Catherine's Hill, where, according to the legend, the priory was to have been built;
from its height Southey wrote his verses on the distant view of the Avon. The remains of a
British camp have been found there, and we see still the foundations of an ancient chapel of
Sadly, nothing visible remains today.
Why St Catherine?
A Sacred Or Royal Hill?
But why St Catherine? She was patron saint of spinsters (as a Virgin Martyr) as well as lawyers,
librarians, teachers, and theologians etc – her legend says she was clever at argument.
Her cult was founded in the 4th C. at the foot of Mount Sinai, which she supposedly ascended
on her death, so hills or mounts would come into the legend early on. She was certainly used
as a patron saint at other hilltop sites in the region. One is on the fortified hill overlooking
the ancient English capital, Winchester. Another survived demolition in the Reformation (left
standing as a sea-mark to guide shipping) above Abbotsbury's now-ruined monastery on the west
Dorset coast [pictured, below right].
The fact the chapel was dedicated to a female saint of doubtful
historicity by a male-oriented church has suggested a female saint was used to help blur the
original dedication to a pagan goddess with a similar name. The trouble is, if you don't accept
the church quietly turned "Keridwen" into "Katharine" (the spelling in the
County History quoted above), we don’t have a distinct goddess name the way we have with
Brigit becoming St Bridget, etc. The other "goddess" name that has been suggested is
Cat Anu, a name that appears elsewhere in British lore, and is given as Fighting Anu or Ana.
('Cat-' is a Q-Celtic correlative to the P-Celtic which gives us English 'battle.') This name
may be related to the Indo-European goddess Ana, whose name survives in that of the legendary
Irish nation, Tuatha De Danaan. This has been given as "people [tuatha]
of the deity Ana," with the -an ending the Irish genitive or possessive case, and
the De meaning Deity or Deified. The initial d in Danaan may be akin to the
de or d' in French indicating possessive case. Or it could be an adaptation of the personal name
to reflect the fact the holder is divine, a deity, giving us literally "Tribe Of The Deity
Another aspect suggested by the dedication is that there was women's religious establishment
here. St Catherine herself rejected all offers of marriage, her legend saying on her death she
was married to Christ. She was patron saint of spinsters, and it is customary for some orders
of nuns to claim that they are married (in life) to Christ, and wear a wedding ring to show this.
An alternative suggestion, from local historian Michael Hodges,
who lived just below the hill for many years, wrote a booklet on it, and conducts guided walks
there, is that the Britonnic place name was Katterns, perhaps from Cadrhyn, ‘battle
hill’. A rhynn is a promontory hill in Gaelic, as in the Rhinns of Galloway or
Rinns Of Islay in Scotland, the argument being there was a similar word in the local dialect.
The surviving examples in Gaelic cited imply it meant a coastal-peninsular promontory, more like
Hengistbury Head. The final -s in the ‘Katterns’ interpretation also doesn't seem
to fit even as a possessive, the genitive case ending in Celtic languages being -an,
though one can surmise the terminal -s was added mistakenly by non-Brittonic speakers, making
the original Cattern.
This could be cognate with Gadarn, an appellation used in a late Welsh Triad to describe
Britain as the Island Of The Mighty (Hy Gadarn), though it appears a masculine epithet,
possibly a Q-Celtic form related to Latin paternus, father. There is only one letter
difference however with words meaning mother - mater, maternus, maternal etc. Parallel terms
like mater and pater (Latin) may be what philologists call "doublets" - two
words deriving form the same root, here meaning a parent who could be a mother or father. There
seems no obvious obstacle to making the ancient site-dedication feminine.
Though the root Cat- in Brittonic is given as fighting
or battle, alternatively the root cat- in English is usually given as derived from Greek for
pure, as in Catholic. We also have French Cathare (the ‘th’ being pronounced
just as ‘t’ in French and Latin) from Greek katharos, pure. Cad-
as a corruption of coed or coit, ‘woodland’ is also possible, but
that doesn’t fit here as official conservation studies indicate the hill was bare of trees
till relatively modern times. (The current pine- and fir-tree cover is now being culled on the
official grounds it is unnatural.)
More productive seems to be cader as a possible root,
the Welsh for seat (as in Cader Idris in Wales), meaning court-seat of a monarch. Early
monarchs were peripatetic, travelling about with their court staff, and this location would make
geographic sense if the hill was at the boundary of two Celtic-Brittonic kingdoms. Nancy Bell's
1916 history From Harbour To Harbour notes '... the legend that an abortive attempt
was made, before the building of the predecessor of the Priory Church, to erect a chapel on Kaeder-Ryn,
now known as St Catherine's Hill". Though Bell gives no source, here we have a reference
to 'Kaeder-Ryn' being transformed into "Catherine". This would seem at first glance
to neatly solve the mystery of the placename. But were all such St Catherine Hills, e.g. those
overlooking Winchester, Abbotsbury, Glastonbury, or on Wight, really called Kaeder-Ryn hills?
Or is it itself a back-formation, a rationalisation of the name resulting from antiquarian speculation
when first writing down the legend?
The first problem is the oddity of the word Kaeder. This is close
to early Welsh cader, an old Brittonic word for "chair" used as a placename
in Wales (cf. Cader or Cadair Idris) for a hill that was the seat of a ruler, giant, or other
mythic figure - which could refer to a law-giving court held there. The Welsh mountain Cader
Idris takes its name from a giant chair-shaped depression, and the word Rhinn was used for a
coastal promontory. Perhaps the notion was to imply a place name meaning something like Chair-shaped
Promontory? This doesn't fit the hill's appearance. For any construct meaning Chair /Seat of
[insert ruler or deity name here], the word order would make "Kader Rynn" the "Seat
Of Rynn". There was a male Brittonic name Rhun, and a famous 6th-7th-C. prince of the Scottish
Borders, Rhun son of Urien, who helped bring Christianity to northern England, and may have written
parts of Nennius's Historia Brittonum. But apart from the fact he may have a hand in
writing up the story of Vortigern cited above, this doesn't get us anywhere.
The problem remains: why Kaeder and not Kader? The -ae- dipthong
is pronounced to rhyme with Kaiser (from Caesar), so we get 'Kaider'. It begins to look like
the name was created by a pretentious English antiquarian who thought it looked more like an
authentic old "British" name with the -ae- diphthong from the similar Welsh placename-prefix
word caer, used for a stronghold. However English antiquarians transcribed Irish-Gaelic
words in a way bearing little resemblance to the way they were pronounced, so the diphthong may
still just misrepresent an authentic old name for chair or seat.
That law-giving royal courts were then what Americans would later call circuit courts, with the
king and his retinue circling his realm to dispense justice, etc. would make the notion of other,
coincident Cader-Ryn > Catherine hill names seem feasible. Yet I can't recall ever seeing direct
evidence of a St Catherine name-change in the old records the way other place names have evolved.
Of course, if the church was systematically, per St Augustine's policy, overwriting 'pagan' names
on the map with Christian-saint dedications, their aim would be to obliterate evidence of earlier
names, not preserve them.
The one other pre-Christian name we have for it, given in church records of c1300, is
the Hill Of Rishton. This is given as the name of the village below, on the west side, where Hurn
Road is today, although the Hill could also have been named Rishton or something similar. Spelt
Rishton or Richeton, this would normally be parsed as "strong farm-holding" - a landholding
or farm settlement (-ton) which was strong, riche- being a Germanic root also adopted in French,
as in Richelieu. Adrian Room's book on place names gives riche- as related to the German word Reich.
It would fit for such a stronghold, with the meaning a place where you didn't need to build fortifications
as it was a natural stronghold.
A place with a similar name has a secret cave, where carvings
of St Catherine, Jesus, etc. were found. The Royston Cave in Royston, Hertfordshire, is now preserved
as a tourist attraction. It is artificial, a bell-shaped construction akin to a mediaeval oubliette
(from French oublier, to forget, a dungeon where you are forgotten i.e. left to rot).
It may have served as an underground chapel, for an earlier group of religious exiles, whose patron
was St Catherine: the Order of Knights Templar. Banned by papal order in 1313, those not arrested
would have spent the remainder of their days in hiding, travelling from one bolt-hole to another.
Some think the artistic graffiti on the Royston Cave wall depicts Templar figures and symbols,
including their patroness.“One of the most prominent carvings is that of a crowned woman,
holding an eight-spoked wheel, which has been interpreted as St Catherine. It would follow the
custom that Christian saints are depicted with the instrument of their martyrdom, in her case the
wheel.” (The now-demolished pub below our local hill was named the St Catherine's Wheel.)
St Catherine Of Alexandria was beheaded in AD 305 after being
sentenced to be ‘broken on the wheel’ for refusing to confess. She held special significance
for the Templars, perhaps more so after they were accused of heresy and other heinous crimes in
1307, as she was tortured and executed for crimes she did not commit. She was also significant
to the "heretical" Gnostics: "Catherine traditionally had a vision in which
she married Jesus, representing the Gnostic Mystical Marriage.” Though originally her
cult was founded at the foot of Mount Sinai, it seems to have been generally commemorated by hilltop
sites, Winchester and Abbotsbury being the closest other examples. (At Cerne Abbas - where St Augustine
supposedly visited - the monastery buildings have vanished except for the gatehouse, but a place
name survives, Cat'n Chapel Hill, which suggests another lost chapel with a similar dedication.)
The Catholic Church seems to have been uneasy about her cult,
and ordered it suppressed. This was not in the 14th C, but in 1969! (It was partly reinstated after
protests.) The church's official reason was doubt she was an historical figure, which gives weight
to the idea she was an early Christian makeover of a pagan deity, done to convince the locals they
were worshipping the same power under a new, Greek-Latin version of the name. You could argue that
after the missionary phase, the church became uneasy about thinly-disguised pagan-deity motifs,
and this might explain why later Catherine's worship was relegated to remote hilltop chapels, where
the general public would not be subverted. But on the other hand, you could just as easily argue
our hypothesized pagan goddess Cat Ana was always worshipped on hilltops, and that the hilltop
sites became minor pilgrimage destinations for those, such as single women, continuing to follow
her cult after it was Christianised. In any case, this may have been the earliest religious dedication
in the parish. Nevertheless, Kattern remains a possible alternative, from cader, seat, though the
suffix suggest a missing 2nd word, since cader-n would mean "Seat Of -". Could the second
word be a variant of Rishton?
Could Rishton, Richeton, Royston and like names be cognates, versions of a generic Anglo-French
name from roi-stone, meaning Royal Stone? The usual interpretation of this if it does
not mean a stone on a hilltop or obvious ancient seat is that it was an inter-tribal royal boundary
marker, put at a crossroads, which is the case with the Royston site near London. At Royston, the
base of a large stone has been found, at a place taken to be a meeting point. (Aristocratic words
then were French, such as Roi for king and Reine for queen, while ‘peasant’
words like stone were Saxon or Celtic.) This would be the hill was where people came to swear oaths,
settle disputes and receive court judgements.
Putting Rishton together with Cattern etc is still problematic. Richeton is mediaeval
French-Saxon, though the root meaning royal is ancient - we know this as it is common to so many
European languages. It seems to derive from an Indo-European root rig-, referring to straight
lines (the word ruler retains both senses), something that books on ley lines like to point up.
The concept behind the word became applied to ideas of rectitude or correct behaviour - again the
words (Latin-derived) are related (compare rectangular). German Reich, regime, is also
related to this, The only sequence of events I can hypothesize here is that Cattern, originally
referring to the tribe's "maternal" court-seat, became converted by missionaries into
St Catherine's, while the IE root Ri- became the basis of a Brittonic word which sounded like Germanic
Reich, to which the Anglo-Saxon settlers added their own ending meaning a settlement -
Just as pagan names were made over by the church, Christian sites
were often built over "pagan" ones to displace them. The chapel was in fact built inside
the former Roman signal-garrison fort that stood in the southwest quadrant. Its defensive rectangular
earthen vallum is still just visible. (The hill today is criss-crossed by low banks and
ditches, but most of these seem to be a relic of their use by the military in both world wars for
infantry training. However any rifle shots you might hear today are not ghostly echoes, but the
result of one gravel pit still being used as a shooting range by Christchurch Gun Club.)
The chapel site has been located and excavated. An archaeological
dig in 1967 found it had had a marble floor, and later on, glazed, coloured-glass windows (!).
There was a ‘pottery’ tiled roof, and the building used over half a dozen different
kinds of stone. This suggests a building made of leftovers, perhaps scrap left over when the present
Priory was completed in 1094. The Priory site had reportedly held up to 9 old chapels, so there
may well have been suitable fittings left over. The hilltop chapel is presumed to have been razed
to the ground at the Reformation. (The Priory was only spared on the basis it was a parish church.)
It could also have been destroyed in the subsequent Catholic persecutions of the Elizabethan era,
to prevent refugee Catholics from conducting secret rites there. Nothing remains to be seen of
the chapel foundation above ground, though it’s said no trees will grow on the spot as the
remains of the foundation prevent them taking root. But did any other historic ruins survive into
The Royston example, with its man-made cave where religious refugees could worship, might suggest
to the imaginative the exciting prospect of a lost cave on St Catherine’s Hill, perhaps
linked to the Templars. There's no escaping references to the Knights Templar these days, but
it has to be said there's no record of any Templar presence in the locality, apart from the lone
captive knight who was kept at the Priory from 1319 till his death some twenty years later.(For
details, see On The
Trail Of Englandís Last Templar.)
This of course does not preclude an earlier cave, used by Templars or other refugees. In terms
of religious establishments, what would make sense for a hilltop site, chapel aside, is a hermitage,
perhaps a hillside cave. (The ground hereabouts is largely gravel, which makes a natural cave
impossible, but there are sandstone areas.) This could also serve a practical secular civic or
military purpose as a sheltered lookout post. The hill's original summit, called Toothill, was
excavated in the industrial revolution to quarry its clay, and part of this is now a water-filled
claypit [pictured]. Toothill is usually given as a "Celtic" name, related
to tuatha, tribe or people [compare French tout, everyone], though Alfred Watkins
in his classic work of antiquarian speculation The
Old Straight Track had a theory such toponyms were even older, and may relate to the
Germanic todt, dead: Hill Of The Dead.
There may have been Bronze Age barrows atop this hillock, which
could tie in with the idea of a court-seat, as oaths were taken on "ancestral" sites.
(There is a description of such a site, the Mound of Narberth, in the Welsh folktale collection
The Mabinogion, being used for a vigil at a critical time.) No other ancient buildings
are known, though there were some "squatters'" cottages on the SW slopes facing Bournemouth.
There is a reference to a group of 6 thatched cottages here in the memoirs of John Arnell, a
local soldier's son, a quarter-mile up from the Fairmile Road. In the 1920s two of these 2-bedroom
thatched cottages were sold off by landowner Lord Malmesbury for £40-£60 each. (What
happened to to the earlier residents - presumably the "squatters" mentioned - is not
recorded in this source.) The ceiling was so low you could touch it, and John Arnell's father
excavated the floor to create more headroom. This may have been due to buildup of the floor level
as well as people being smaller in earlier times, but both causes suggest the cottages had already
been there for a long time. There was certainly nothing modern about the cottagers' lifestyle.
The only lighting was an oil lamp hung from a central beam; the well was down the hill, the windlass-n-bucket
type, and the cottages came with adjoining pigsties to raise pigs for slaughter at market. Arnell
says the 6 cottages were inhabited by the same 6 families for many years. There were also three
gypsy families living in mule-drawn caravans just down the track.
In 2007, some dog-walkers told me of a ruin visible from the trig point, but on closer inspection
two possibilities here turned out to be optical illusions - either a prominent corner of gravel
pathway or an eroded sandstone bluff. However, more recently, another walker [tks, Tessa] emailed
me photos of what appears to be a ruined cottage - except that it has a gable-arch with a bell
on it, as if it were used as a chapel - hidden in the trees in the southeast corner.
There are some intriguing references to an east-facing ruin in the poems of Poet Laureate Robert
Southey, who lived at Burton opposite the hill in the 1790s. (As noted earlier, Sir Arthur Mee's
volume on Hampshire in his series The King's England said it was on the hill that 'Southey
wrote his verses on the distant view of the Avon.') Southey wrote a set of notes as a basis
for future poems, several dealing with the Avon Valley. His "For The Banks Of The Hampshire
Avon" had been inspired by another planned “poem of place,” his “Inscription
For A Tablet By The Hampshire Avon.” (“From the near hill you see the ocean,
to which the river is running. The trite allusion, - where'er we go, we're journeying to the
tomb. But this is not the less true for being trite.”) His poem "Banks Of The
Hampshire Avon", comparing the river to a serpent, was composed from the viewpoint of St
... yon heathy hill
That rises from a vale so green,
The vale far stretching as the view can reach
Under its long dark ridge, the river here
That, like a serpent, thro' the grassy mead
Winds on, now hidden, glittering now in light.
Nor fraught with merchant wealth, nor fam'd in song,
He wrote another called "For A Cavern
That Overlooks The River Avon." It describes a cavern which is an ivy-covered “rude
portal” or "arch'd rock" overlooking the Avon, by a “high-hanging forest”
(which I take to mean a steep, wooded hillside):
Enter this cavern Stranger! the ascent
Is long and steep and toilsome; here awhile
Thou mayest repose thee, from the noontide heat
O'er canopied by this arch'd rock that strikes
A grateful coolness: clasping its rough arms
Round the rude portal, the old ivy hangs
Its dark green branches down, and the wild Bees,
O'er its grey blossoms murmuring ceaseless, make
Most pleasant melody. No common spot
Receives thee, for the Power who prompts the song,
Loves this secluded haunt. The tide below
Scarce sends the sound of waters to thine ear;
And this high-hanging forest to the wind
Varies its many hues. Gaze Stranger here!
His "arch'd rock" could refer
to one of the sandstone bluffs [see photos above right] that New Forest naturalist Heywood
Sumner described as 'terminals to buttress-like projections from the hill-scarps'. These
formed an overhang with a natural cavern beneath, protected from further erosion by being overgrown
with vegetation, and perhaps tunnelled into to make more of a shelter for a lookout or hermit.
Southey also wrote a poem called "The Ruined Cottage" which may be related to his Avon
poems; in it, he says "I pass this ruin’d dwelling oftentimes" - implying
he lived nearby. Could he have been inspired by one of the old ruined cottages on the hill? The
problem is that the subject was then a common one for poets, there being no shortage of actual
instances of such sad relics around the English countryside, so the poem may or may not be autobiographical
and specifically local.
Obviously, there is still more than one
mystery remaining here, but we will have to leave it for now, pending further discoveries.
Telephoto shot from Hengistbury Head of St Catherine's Hill, with the tower of Christchurch Priory
in line between the two.
Above: The earliest map [Speed,1614]
- colour added.
Above: A detail from the earliest