St Catherines Chapel


Plan of St Catherines Chapel

Site Plan St Catherines

St Martha’s Hill in the distance looking east from St Catherine’s Chapel

There is an old folk tale that the two chapels, St Martha’s and St Catherine’s, were built by two giant sisters to expiate some sin.  But having only one hammer between them they tossed it from one to the other across the two-mile gap in the river valley until the chapels were built.  A strange similarity to the belief of some new-agers that these lines are paths of some power.

St Martha’s Hill seen through St Catherine’s Chapel

St Catherine’s Chapel from the top of the Mesolithic site.

The present chapel ruin date from the early 14th century and is possibly on the site of an earlier building but has never been excavated.  The chapel is now roofless and all decoration has long since gone.  The existing walls are substantial and suggest tall pinnacles, perhaps to create a landmark for pilgrims.  Thankfully it is well protected by an iron paling fence.  The hill upon which St Catherine’s Chapel stands was recorded in 1318 as being called Drakehull, which the English Place Name Society translates from the old English as Dragon Hill.  Ley hunters often claim that references to dragons indicate the presence of an alignment with the dragon representing the hidden power associated with ley lines which are supposedly detectable by dowsing. Although I don’t give any credence to this supposition, it may be interesting to note that St Catherine’s is to the centre of the wheel-like pattern.

Telephoto looking west across the River Wey gap

Telephoto picture looking west across the River Wey gap

The Pilgrims Way, although the name is largely a romantic Victorian invention, is certainly a collection of ancient trackways that may have been used since prehistory and by pilgrims travelling between the great cathedrals of south-east England and it has been suggested that it is the old route from the Straits of Dover to Stonehenge.  The chalk downs provide a high and dry trackway and It is thought that after the inauguration of the shrine to Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral pilgrims used the existing terrace way along the south edge of the downs. In the east the trackway passes over the hill at St Martha’s Chapel, passes over a ridge known as The Chantries and descends into the valley of the River Wey.  At the river there was a ferry that operated in living memory at the foot of St Catherine’s Hill but has been replaced by a modern footbridge.  At this point there is a Mesolithic site where a rare assemblage of nearly 3400 worked flints of generally excellent quality has been collected, now in possession of the British Museum.

At my visit in August I spotted an excellent little flint blade.  The edge of this was evidently recently exposed in undisturbed sand only a few yards from the chapel suggesting that the Mesolithic site extended from the river bank up the hill to the chapel site.

Mesolithic flint tool from St Catherines

At the foot of the hill and a short distance from the river bank is a spring issuing and flowing into the river; this is known as Chaucer’s Spring, surely a romantic 19th-century name given to promote legends of the Pilgrim’s Way.

The sacred spring issues from the dark patch on the right.

The River Wey looking south with the Mesolithic site on the right climbing uphill to the chapel.

Farley Hill looking south from St Catherine’s Hill

St Martha’s Hill from the top of the Mesolithic site with the fence to the railway tunnel entrance on the right.

  • Cave believed to be dated from the 14thcentury
  • Considered to be a later medieval shrine or hermitage.
  • Thought to have associations with the nearby chapel of St Catherine

Although this discovery has no relevance to the alignments I have included it as St Catherine’s Chapel is this blog’s most visited site and there is clearly much interest.   It reinforces the importance of this hill from the Mesolithic era through to Medieval times.

Location of cave

The entrance can just be seen below the top end of the railings

The text in italics below is copied and credited to the newsletter of Network Rail.   It is virtually the same text as found on other sources and at the time of writing is the only information available.   The pictures are credited to Archaeology South East.

A team of rail workers delivering landslip repair works near Guildford have uncovered a small cave believed to be from the 14th  century.

The sandstone cave was discovered during work to stabilise and protect the railway embankment. The cave may once have been much larger, but only this small piece survived the digging of the railway cutting through the hill in the early 1840s.

Initial findings by a specialist archaeological contractor suggest that it was a later medieval shrine or hermitage associated with the early 14th century chapel of St Catherine, the ruins of which are situated on the hill nearby. It may even have earlier origins as a site of cult activity, due to its pre-14th century name of Drakehull – “Hill of the Dragon’.

Images taken from the site show the presence of a Gothic niche decorated in dots with a Calvery cross nearby.  

Upon first inspection I thought that the carving below was in raised relief but looking at the way the light is coming in from the left it can be seen that the strange shapes are carved into the sandstone and what looks like little knobs around it are in fact pits.   This is quite difficult to see and is a classic optical illusion.

If the reference rod is 1.0m long then the carving is about 1.1m high (3.6 feet).

There are a total of around seven or eight further niches and experts found considerable evidence of writing and other markings across the cave ceiling. The cave is partially covered in deposits of black dust, which is believed to be soot from lamps. The remains of two suspected fire-pits were also uncovered in the cave floor. The hope is that radiocarbon dating can be used to establish the period when the cave was in use.

Mark Killick, Network Rail Wessex route director, said: ‘This is an unexpected and fascinating discovery that helps to visualise and understand the rich history of the area.’

‘A full and detailed record of the cave has been made and every effort will be made to preserve elements where possible during the regrading of the delicate and vulnerable sandstone cutting.’

Tony Howe, historic environment planning manager and county archaeologist at Surrey County Council, said: ‘The discovery of this cavern is tremendously exciting. It is very early in the process of understanding its full significance, but the potential for knowledge acquisition is huge.’

‘We’re looking forward to learning an awful lot more about the site as studies progress.’

A spokesperson from Archaeology South East, said: ‘The cave contained what appear to be shrines or decorative niches, together with carved initials and other markings. The old name for St Catherine’s Hill is Drakehull “The Hill of the Dragon”, so this has obviously been a site of ritual significance long before the construction of the church on the top of the hill in the late 13th century.’

‘Work is underway to analyse soot and charcoal found inside the cave, which will hopefully tell us more about how and when it was used.’

The only access to the cave is by abseiling and no attempt should be made to reach it on foot.


A painting of the chapel viewed from the south by JMW Turner







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