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 Corrallian 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 (A). 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 Osminton White Horse (B). 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.(C) 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 Aldhemlm’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 (D).

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 though another stretch of woodland, but here the vegation 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 (E). 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. The chalk was formed over a period of thirty million years from the skeletons of tiny animals called diatoms that accumulated on the floor of the sea.

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 (F).

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.