The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Dorset’s little rivers — The Crane (Moors River)

John Chaffey visits east Dorset to explore two rivers in one

The Crane Valley above Cranborne

The Crane is unique amongst Dorset’s little rivers because it changes its name in mid-course: below the Moors Valley Country Park it becomes the Moors River, which flows southwards for another ten miles before emptying its waters into the Stour at Blackwater under the shadow of St Catherine’s Hill. Just as the Brit takes its name from Bridport, so the Crane takes its name from the first major settlement on its course, Cranborne. Thus Cranbourn (1252) was a ‘stream frequented by cranes or herons’, derived originally from cran and burna.

Clearly the stream of 750 years ago was very different from the weed-choked trickle that struggles its way through Cranborne today. However, below Cranborne it picks itself up and by the time it gets to Pinnocks Moor Bridge, on the road from Edmondsham, it has acquired all the aspects we expect of a stream originating on the outcrop of the Chalk – clear, flowing over a bed of sand and sparkling in the sunlight. It actually leaves the outcrop of the Chalk near Lower Holwell, a mile or so downstream from Cranborne, and then flows over Tertiary sands and clays until its junction with the Stour.

The character of the river changes often in its twenty-mile course. Above Cranborne it is a typical ‘bourne’, flowing only when the water table is high enough to nourish it. From Romford Bridge to the heathlands and conifer plantations of Matchams it flirts with Bournemouth suburbia – Verwood, West Moors and St Leonards – and finally sneaks along the eastern boundary of Bournemouth Airport before a last stretch of rural seclusion until its appearance at Blackwater and the Stour junction.

Geology maps show that the Crane had much more extensive headwaters than its modest beginnings of today. Just as with the Allen and the Tarrant to the west, its sources in the Ice Age, when tundra climates maintained their wintry grip on the area, would have been swollen summer streams, nourished by meltwater from the winter snowfields on Penbury Knoll and Oakley Down on the lower slopes of Cranborne Chase. Today these watercourses are dry, and the infant Crane first merits a footbridge just above Bowldish Pond. The latter may have derived its name from bula and edisc – ‘bull pasture’, although later usage suggests a bowl or dish-shaped pond, perhaps akin to the dew ponds on the South Downs. Here the Crane, when it flows, is very much a stream of its environment, all billowing Chalk downland, broken by the delightful autumn browns and yellows of Blackbush Plantation to the north and the long shelter belts to the west of the busy road from Handley Hill to Cranborne and Wimborne.

The river at Cranborne

Sir Frederick Treves describes Boveridge, tucked away in a dry valley just to the east of Cranborne Farm, on the Crane, as ‘this dim retreat… commended to any who seek peace and seclusion as even the cloisters of a convent may lack’. It is a land rich in antiquity, crossed by both the Roman road, Ackling Dyke, and the double-banked earthwork of the Dorset Cursus. Around the original Ice Age headwaters of the Crane, barrows cluster thickly on Oakley Down and Wyke Down.

Trickling past the splendid Cranborne Manor House, the river seems to lose its way in Cranborne, a village which, unusually for a Chalk settlement, is brick-built. The river appears in a carefully enclosed channel in Water Street and Crane Street. John Leland described it in the 16th century as a ‘fleting bek, passed down through the street self on the right hand side’. The Crane then flows away from the village towards the watercress beds below Holwell Farm, this name suggesting a stream flowing in a deep valley. Just before the Heavy Horse Centre, the first sign of modern-day tourist attractions in the valley, the Crane receives the outpourings of a spring rich in iron.

Pinnocks Moor Bridge

Downstream, Romford Bridge, originally a ‘ford marked by a pole’, records the first mill on the river. The Crane now swings through a damp, ill-drained valley around the western outskirts of Verwood. Although its course is largely shunned by the spread of suburbia, Dewlands Common, sounding and meaning ‘damp and moist’, seems to have succumbed to the spread of modern estates. Verwood has long since lost its original name of ‘beautiful wood’ and has crept down to the banks of the Crane at Potterne Park, a reminder of a once-important pottery that used clay from the local Bracklesham Group beds.

The Crane valley bottom was sufficiently damp and flood-prone for early settlement to have avoided it almost completely. At the present time flood-conscious insurance companies have added their own discouragement to the spread of housing, and the Crane valley takes on an important new function – the role of leisure provider. Between Verwood and the eastern outskirts of Ferndown there are several large camping and caravanning sites, remaining just above the damp valley bottom.

It might be said that the defining moment or feature of the Crane-Moors valley is the Moors Valley Country Park. Officially opened in 1988, the Park is a joint venture of East Dorset DC and the Forestry Commission and takes full advantage of the valley bottom and the surrounding Forestry Commission plantations. Above the Park, the river is the Crane, born of the sweeping Chalklands and sleepy Cranborne; below, as if by some magical transformation, it is the Moors River, the urbane stream that flows almost unseen through Bournemouth’s outer suburbs and past its burgeoning airport and industrial estates.

The Moors Valley Country Park extends for over a mile along the course of the valley. Two large lakes form a central feature, with first the Crane and then the Moors flowing rather self-consciously to the west in reed-fringed courses, far from being the main centre of attraction. Within the Park are found all the attractions which meet the demands of 21st- century urban leisure. Equidistant from Verwood, Three Legged Cross and Ashley Heath-St Leonards, the Park fulfils a vital recreational role for Bournemouth’s woodland-fringed north-eastern suburbs. Pitch and putt golf lies side by side with a full-quality 18-hole course. Adventure trails abound, varying from the Play Trail through a mile of woodland to the vertiginous tree-top trails. The once-silent valley echoes to the sound of miniature railway locomotives’ whistles on the Moors Valley Railway. Coarse fishing is available on the Moors Valley Lakes and cycling and orienteering are encouraged through the conifer plantations. So urban leisure has come to the Crane-Moors valley – a clumsy name, perhaps, but appropriate for the transformation that takes place.

The Moors River near Bournemouth Airport

After the excitement of the Country Park, the Moors River becomes an altogether different stream. Its course between Wools Bridge and St Leonard’s Bridge is the haunt of anglers enjoying the coarse fishing that the river provides. The Castleman Trailway, following the route of the old railway from Ringwood to Wimborne, crosses the Moors midway between the two bridges, a further reminder of the leisure role of the valley, and Racecourse Heath, now a caravan site, echoes a similar note of past leisure activities. Below St Leonard’s Bridge the Moors River is unseen, almost unknown to the commuters and retired people of Ferndown. It flows, unnoticed and inaccessible, in the shadow of Hurn’s coniferous plantations, until the spreading units of the airport’s industrial estates make their appearance on its western banks. One road, giving access to the airport’s North-Eastern Sector, allows a glimpse of the Moors River in its lower reaches. Here, just short of the approach to the main runway of the airport, the almost secret river reveals itself, flowing through great banks of reeds and silent but for the whine of jet engines above.

Few pause at the busy roundabout by Hurn Bridge to glance at the river, now only half a mile from its junction with the Stour: perhaps a more lingering look at the stream is more easily possible on the little road to Hurn Court. Here it flows gracefully over flinty gravel, only to disappear into the dark depths of Quomp Copse before re-appearing in the water meadows at Blackwater. Here it finally eases its way into the great curving meander of the Stour, some five miles from where Dorset’s longest river enters Christchurch Harbour. So the enigma of Dorset’s double-barrelled river ends its course on the edge of the County’s largest conurbation – a long way from the empty downlands of distant Bottlebush and Blackbush.

The Moors River’s junction with the Stour

Dorset Directory