Chapter 12 – Out and About
On 28th August, 1990 I received a letter from Marshall Cavendish Partworks Ltd inviting me to contribute to their new weekly magazine Out and About, which consisted of a series of descriptions of country walks. The descriptions were accompanied by route directions and by sections of the Ordnance Survey 2½‑inch map with the route marked on them. As it is unlikely that any readers of this book will have kept copies of the magazine I am including the articles in their entirety.
There was one place I would have liked to write about in my books but couldn’t because it was outside the Dorset boundary, and that was the area around Montacute and Ham Hill, so this was the obvious choice for my first article. The walk to Osmington Mills was included because, although it is in Dorset, the area is not described in any of my books. The walk to Ballard Down was included because it combines the best heathland walk in Dorset with the best ridge walk in Dorset, but this meant reusing material from my Purbeck guide.
MONTACUTE AND HAM HILL
Through hanging woodlands to an ancient encampment
The beautiful village of Montacute was the childhood home of the literary Powys brothers whose father was the vicar here. The village is centred on the Norman market-place called the Borough, which is surrounded by hamstone cottages. On the south side of the market-place there is an old plank door with iron strap hinges, and in the north-east corner there is a sixteenth-century house called the Chantry. This was the home of Robert Sherborne, the last Prior of Montacute, and his initials are incorporated into a carved panel below the upstairs window.
Adjoining the Chantry is the entrance to the vast Elizabethan mansion of Montacute House, which is open to the public from April to October. Its finest aspect is the eastern elevation, which is adorned with nine statues in shell-top niches and flanked by gazebos. This was originally the front of the house. Running along the top floor is a long gallery 180 feet long now used to display paintings from the National Gallery.
On leaving the village the route passes the Priory Gate House, an early-sixteenth-century building of great architectural interest. Above the entrance there is an oriel window with a different carving under each of the lights, and right at the top there is a tiny coat of arms carved in the central merlon of the battlements.
The route then ascends the steep wooded slope of St Michael’s Hill, the ‘Mons Acutus’ that gave the village its name. According to legend the Holy Cross was found on the hill in the reign of King Canute. It was taken to Waltham Abbey in Essex, which then became known as Waltham Holy Cross. The hill is surmounted by a circular stone tower built in 1760 on the site of Montacute Castle. At the top of the tower is a little room with a fireplace and four windows looking out over the countryside.
The walk continues through Hedgecock Hill Wood, where there are badger setts, to the Iron Age hill fort on Ham Hill. This is the largest hill fort in area in Britain. Within the ramparts is a fascinating area of little hillocks, the result of centuries of quarrying. The quarries yield a beautiful golden brown stone called hamstone, which was used in Exeter Cathedral, Sherborne Abbey and many famous houses. The area is now a country park, an ancient monument and a site of special scientific interest.
From the ramparts there are views to the east, north and west, and many features of the view are identified in a drawing displayed by the layby.
On the way back to Montacute the route passes through a deeply sunken lane where the Yeovil Sands is exposed. This rock may be identified by its outjutting calcareous bands.
POWERSTOCK AND EGGARDON HILL
Through hidden valleys to a famous viewpoint
The village of Powerstock lies in an area of rounded hills, deep valleys, and sunken lanes. The houses in this area resemble those of the Cotswolds because they are built of the same stone, the oolitic limestone; but the countryside here is much more beautiful than that of the Cotswolds. There are narrow strips of hazel coppice on the steepest slopes. Hart’s tongue ferns and wild snowdrops grow on the banks of the lanes, and pennywort grows out of crevices in the walls.
A delight of this walk, both at the beginning and towards the end, is the constant chattering of streams in the valleys. Features to look out for are Dorset gates consisting of vertical iron bars set in a wooden framework, and hurdles made entirely of wood, with split hazel rods woven round pointed vertical stakes.
Rising to the east of this area, and towering over it, is Eggardon Hill, its summit encircled by the ramparts of an Iron Age hill fort. On the north side of the hill there is a narrow lane from which one can look out over an enchanting landscape of pastures, woodlands and overgrown hedges.
The ramparts of the hill fort were constructed in about 50 B.C., and they are much larger and more impressive than those of the older hill-forts on Lambert’s Castle Hill and Pilsdon Pen. From the Ordnance Survey column on a clear day one can see all the way from Dartmoor sixty miles away in the west to the Isle of Wight sixty miles away in the east. In Thomas Hardy’s novel The Trumpet-Major Eggardon Hill is called ‘Haggerdon’. It is now owned by the National Trust.
From Eggardon Hill the route descends to a later earthwork, the Norman motte and bailey known officially as Powerstock Castle and unofficially as ‘Humpy Castle’. There is a tradition that King Athelstan had a palace on this site, and King John had a hunting lodge here. The motte was built on the oolitic limestone, and consequently it has been considerably disturbed by quarrying, but this is a small price to pay for the beautiful stone cottages that are found throughout this area.
Through the Dorset heath and along a hogsback ridge
The so-called Isle of Purbeck (which is not an island) is bounded by the English Channel to the south and east, by Poole Harbour and the River Frome to the north, and by the little stream called Luckford Lake to the west. As a result of the underlying geology the area may be divided into four natural regions, each running from west to east. In the north is a relatively level area of heathland on the Bagshot beds. To the south of this is a long narrow ridge of chalk called the Purbeck Hills. Then there is a valley of Wealden clay, and finally there is an upland area of Purbeck and Portland beds which presents a rocky coastline to the south. The walk described here combines the sombre beauty of the heath with the more dramatic beauty of the Purbeck Hills.
The Purbeck Hills are crossed by only two streams, the Wicken and the Byle, and between the two is a steep-sided hill crowned by the gaunt ruins of Corfe Castle. The keep was built early in the twelfth century, and various additions were made in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The castle has been ruined since 1646, but two of the towers were inhabited in the eighteenth century. The village of Corfe Castle, which lies to the south of the ruins, is one of exceptional beauty. Not only the walls, but even the roofs of its cottages are made of Purbeck stone. Other Purbeck-stone villages in the area are Worth Matravers, Langton Matravers, Church Knowle and Kingston.
To the north of the Isle of Purbeck is Poole Harbour, a large natural inlet linked to the open sea by an entrance only a quarter of a mile wide. The shore is fringed with sea club rush and sea lavender (which has little blue flowers). Sea purslane grows along the margins of creeks, and farther out the mud flats are covered in rice grass. The birds most commonly seen here are oystercatchers, shelducks, black-headed gulls and curlews.
The only island of any size in the harbour is Brownsea Island, where red squirrels are found and where the first Boy Scout camp was held in 1907. There is also Round Island, where Sir Thomas Beecham wrote the biography of Delius; Long Island, which was used as a hideout by Harry Paye the pirate; Green Island, which was formerly used as a pottery; and Furzey Island, which is now used for the extraction of oil by B.P.
In the Middle Ages the Isle of Purbeck was an important source of marble, which was transported from Corfe Castle to Poole Harbour, and thence by sea to cathedrals all over the country. The Purbeck Marblers’ Road can still be traced, and is the subject of a poem by Bevan Whitney.
In 1982 some of the most beautiful scenery in Dorset was bequeathed to the National Trust by Ralph Bankes of Kingston Lacy. This was the greatest gift ever made to the trust, and it included Studland Heath, Ballard Down, Corfe Castle and village, part of the south coast of Purbeck, Hartland Moor, Kingston Lacy house, Badbury Rings and Holt Heath.
The Dorset Heath (box feature)
The Dorset Heath plays a prominent part in Thomas Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native, where it is called ‘Egdon Heath’. In Hardy’s day it extended almost continuously from his birthplace near Dorchester to the sea at Studland, but now much of it has been reclaimed for agriculture or forestry, or used for the extraction of gravel. More recently oil has been obtained from the heath, and the Wytch Farm Oilfield is the most productive in the country. Another product of the heath is ball clay, which is sent to the potteries at Poole and Stoke-on-Trent. Disused clay pits make attractive small lakes, the best known of which is the Blue Pool.
Among the more interesting plants of the heath are bog myrtle, also called sweet gale on account of its delightful scent, cotton grass, heath spotted orchid, marsh gentian and royal fern. Sphagnum moss grows in the bogs, along with jointed rushes and sundew. The less acid bogs are dominated by black bog-rushes, which may be identified by the black tufts about an inch from the top of their stems.
All six British reptiles occur on the heath – adder, grass snake, smooth snake, slow-worm, common lizard and sand lizard, but the smooth snake and sand lizard are rare. Roe deer are often encountered, especially early in the morning or in the evening; and sika deer are found in the forestry plantations. The bird for which the heath is most famous is the Dartford warbler, but this is not often seen. A much commoner bird is the stonechat, which is frequently seen perching on gorse bushes. As dusk falls on the heath in summer the churring of a nightjar can usually be heard, the pitch of its note changing slightly whenever the bird turns its head.
Characteristic butterflies of the heath are the grayling, a large butterfly with a habit of aligning itself with the sun so that it casts no shadow, and the silver-studded blue, which is difficult to distinguish from the common blue. The silver-studded blue is most often seen in July, and the grayling in late July and August. Dragonflies can be seen wherever there is water, including the blue emperor dragonfly. Entomologists come to look for the heath grasshopper, the large marsh grasshopper and the bog bush-cricket, but these are likely to be missed by the ordinary visitor. Much commoner is the tiger beetle, which is green with yellow spots.
Studland is noted for its church, which retains many Norman features including two rib-vaulted ceilings. To the south of the church is a stone cross bearing the inscription ‘Spaceship Earth’ and the date 1976. The most remarkable building in the village is the Manor House, which is embellished with an enormous number of tiny stone-roofed gables.
Extending to the north from the village to the mouth of Poole Harbour is a magnificent sandy beach backed by sand dunes. Behind the dunes is the lake called the Little Sea which was joined to the sea until 1850. On the shore of the lake are hides where people can watch the water birds without disturbing them.
On leaving Studland the route passes through an attractive birchwood and crosses a little stream where hard ferns grow at the water’s edge. These ferns are easily recognisable because they have two different types of frond: only the upright fronds have gaps between the pinnae.
When it leaves the wood the path crosses the finest area of heathland in Dorset. Pale grey sand is exposed, and this becomes dark grey farther on. The dominant plant is heather, broken up by patches of gorse and bracken, with cross-leaved heath in the wetter areas. Purple moor grass also grows here, and in late summer the yellow flower-spikes of bog asphodel rise from the marshy area to the left of the path. The best time to see the heath is in the autumn, when it is a beautiful mixture of subtle colours.
The path leads to an enormous boulder called the Agglestone, 17 feet high and estimated to weigh 400 tons. Boulders this size are common in mountainous area, but in Dorset there is nothing else like it. It is also known as the Devil’s Anvil, or the Witchstone, and was even more impressive before it fell over onto its side in 1970. Here the sand is cream-coloured, and farther on the ground is littered with fragments of brown heathstone.
Before long the route leaves the heath and follows the crest of the chalk escarpment of Ballard Down, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest noted for its butterflies. The chalk is tilted so steeply the dip slope is almost as steep as the scarp slope. This is the finest ridge walk in Dorset, with views across Swanage Bay to Peveril Point on the right and views of the heath and Poole Harbour on the left – an agreeable mixture of land and water. In clear weather the white cliffs of the Isle of Wight are visible ahead: at one time these were joined to Ballard Down.
The route passes the Ulwell Barrow and the Obelisk, where an inscription (difficult to read) says that the granite was taken down from near the Mansion House in London and re-erected here in 1892. Farther along the ridge two tumuli are passed on the right. Soon there is sea on both sides and Durlston Head (with Durlston Castle in silhouette) can be seen behind Peveril Point. Just before the Ordnance Survey column is reached the route crosses an ancient bank and ditch called a cross dyke.
Where the ridge reaches the sea there is spectacular coastal scenery with glistening white cliffs and three stacks one behind the other – the Pinnacle, the Haystack and Old Harry. Cormorants are common, and the clifftop is bedecked in a multitude of wild flowers in the spring. Wild cabbages also grow on the clifftop.
As Handfast Point is approached the coastline becomes divided by narrow promontories into small coves. The third promontory is pierced by an arch. Eventually this will collapse, leaving the promontory as a stack. Between Handfast Point and Old Harry is the island called No Man’s Land, which was joined to the mainland as recently as 1920. There are more promontories and coves beyond Handfast Point. Here the rock is still chalk, but instead of dropping sheer into the sea the cliffs are broken up by grassy ledges and the chalk is stained brown.
Before returning to Studland the route passes through Studland Wood, where butcher’s broom grows. This is a plant about two feet high with dark green sharp-pointed leaves (actually modified stems) and red berries in the winter.
To a smugglers’ haunt on the Dorset coast
Lying to the north-east of Weymouth is an area of countryside where the scenery is constantly changing because of the diversity of the underlying rocks. In an hours’ walk one can pass from Purbeck Stone to Kimmeridge Clay, from Kimmeridge Clay to Corallian Limestone and from Corallian Limestone to Chalk; and the rocks of the heath, the Bagshot Beds, are never far away.
The walk begins by rising up a ridge of Purbeck stone that is pressed so close against a ridge of chalk that the two almost meet at Pixon Barn. From the top of the hill the sprawling manor house of Poxwell with its interesting hexagonal gatehouse can be seen amongst tall trees on the right. The Pathfinder map shows a church with a spire at Poxwell, but this has now gone. Behind the manor the main road can be seen heading for the roundabout at Warmwell Cross, and beyond it is a view of distant forests on the heath.
The route continues to Pixon Barn, an isolated stone building with a slate roof and walled farmyard. Rabbits are common in this area, and larks are constantly singing overhead. Just past the barn there is a view on the right of the chalk escarpment leading to the Osmington White Horse. Here the unimproved pastures can be distinguished by little terraces or ‘terracettes’ running along the slope.
As the route descends it runs along the crest of a ridge with views on both sides. On the left you can see how the Isle of Portland is linked to the mainland by no more than a narrow strip of shingle, and on the right you can look along a valley of Kimmeridge Clay to the village of Sutton Poyntz. The white horse is also visible, but it appears to be foreshortened because of the angle.
The route follows a lane shaded by sycamores and enters the village of Osmington. Note the giant ammonite embedded in the wall of a house on the right – a common sight in this fossiliferous county.
Osmington is a village of thatched stone cottages and stone garden walls. The cottages are adorned with flowers, and valerian grows outwards from the walls. Adjoining the churchyard are the ruins of the seventeenth-century manor house where steps lead down to a very old door with long iron hinges. In this village in 1816 the artist John Constable spent his honeymoon at the age of forty. He produced two paintings of the area, one entitled ‘Osmington Village’ and the other ‘Weymouth Bay’. As you turn into the main road you can see ahead of you a thatched roof embellished with crescent-shaped decorations called scallops.
The path from Osmington to Osmington Mills is part of the Dorset Coast Path, which takes to the hills here to avoid the built-up area around Weymouth. From the stile at the top of the hill there is a beautiful view on the left looking along a valley of Wealden beds to Holworth. The Osmington White Horse is well seen from here. This is the only white horse that has a rider, the rider being King George III, who was a regular visitor to this part of the country.
The Smugglers Inn at Osmington Mills is described on the sign board as a thirteenth-century smugglers haunt, but the present building is not as old as this. The Ordnance Survey map shows a cliff-top path to the west from here. If you walk to the far end of the car park you can see how this path has completely disappeared as a result of encroachment by the sea, and it is easy to visualise how England became separated from France, and the Isle of Wight from the mainland, in the course of thousands of years.
The high spot of the walk undoubtedly occurs just past Osmington Mills, when the path suddenly bursts upon the clifftop, and you look out over a great expanse of sea to the hotels on the seafront at Weymouth.
Before long the path passes through a thicket that has been trimmed by the wind as neatly as if it had been cut with a hedge-trimmer. As the path emerges from the thicket the headland of White Nothe comes into view ahead, with St Aldhelm’s Head to the right of it. In the novel Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner John Trenchard was carried up the cliff-path to White Nothe by Elzevir Block. On the top of the nothe is a small building, and to the left of this is a much larger building. This was the home of the novelist Llewelyn Powys from 1925 until 1931.
Farther along the shore you pass the wreck of an old ship whose bare ribs are a favourite perch for cormorants, and at Bran Point you can look down on a series of ledges of Corallian limestone, which is seen to be dipping to the east.
The path passes a meadow on the left that is yellow with the flowers of bird’s foot trefoil, and then it descends into a little valley. Here the route turns left into a wood and enters a world of hart’s tongue fern and pendulous sedge. Hart’s tongue doesn’t look like a fern because its leaves are not divided up into pinnae, but you can identify it as a fern by the fruiting bodies on the back of the leaves. In the same way, pendulous sedge may be recognised as a sedge by its triangular stems.
On leaving the wood the route follows a twisting traffic-free lane through lush meadows backed by woodland. This is one of the many places where there is a discrepancy between the route of a public footpath as shown by a green pecked line on the map and the actual course of the path. In some cases this can be put down to the movement of a path (just as county boundaries often follow the long-abandoned course of a river), but in this case it can only be put down to slapdash cartography. The black pecked lines (which one has to look closely at the map to see) are much more accurate, and show every twist and turn of the lane.
Later the lane passes through another stretch of woodland, but here the vegetation is not so luxuriant as it was in the valley, and there is no pendulous sedge or hart’s tongue fern.
The lane comes out onto a public road which leads up through a valley cut into the chalk. A wide variety of wild flowers grows along the roadside, but pride of place must go to the nodding thistles with their big round purple flower-heads. On the left is a quarry where the chalk may be seen dipping to the north.
Along the right-hand side of the valley there are traces of ancient cultivation terraces called strip lynchets, and both sides of the valley are covered in gorse bushes, which are frequented by stonechats.
From the top of the hill a Bronze Age burial mound called a tumulus or round barrow can be seen in a field on the left. There are 1800 of these tumuli in Dorset. Behind it, in the distance, is the monument erected in 1844 to commemorate Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, who was flag captain to Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. As you descend to the next junction notice the width of the hedges on the hillside opposite: they are actually shown as strips of woodland on the map.
It is possible to return to the starting point by public footpath, but it is pleasanter to keep to the road.
Smuggling in Dorset (box feature)
Between about 1750 and 1840 vast quantities of smuggled brandy, tea, silk and tobacco were brought ashore on the south coast of England and distributed inland by wagon or packhorse. One of the regular landing places was Osmington Mills; and from 1790 until 1800 the Smugglers’ Inn was the headquarters of the smuggler-chief Pierre la Tour, who was known in England as French Peter. He eventually married the landlord’s daughter, Arabella Carless, and took her back with him to France, where they lived comfortably on his illicit fortune. Of course, it was not until much later that the inn acquired its present name.
The smugglers’ route from Osmington Mills to Sherborne passed the cottage at Lower Bockhampton where Thomas Hardy was born in 1840. Smuggling had ceased by Hardy’s time, but he remembered his grandfather telling him how he had hidden kegs of smuggled spirit in the cottage and cut a window in the side of the porch to look out for Revenue Officers. The cottage was ideally situated as a staging post as it was right on the edge of the heath. The route used by the smugglers, which here is called Snail Creep, can be seen to this day running north and south from the cottage.