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The Dorset Walk — Ackling Dyke and the Dorset Cursus

Ackling Dyke and the Dorset Cursus - Matt Wilkinson and Mark Bauer in the atmospheric landscape of Cranborne Chase

Distance: About 5¼ miles

Start: Gussage St Michael (OS ref ST986115)

How to get there: Turn south off the A354 Blandford-Salisbury road at Cashmoor. In about 1½ miles enter Gussage St Michael. Near the start of the village, just past the bus shelter, there is a no through road on the left. Turn into it and park immediately on the left.

Maps: OS Explorer 118 (Shaftesbury & Cranborne Chase); Landranger 195 (Bournemouth & Purbeck)

Refreshments: None on the route

Ackling Dyke is a Saxon name for a Roman road. It was part of the great road that ran from Old Sarum to Exeter via Badbury Rings and Dorchester and can still be traced very easily running almost north-south across Cranborne Chase. Part of it has been incorporated into the modern A354 Blandford-Salisbury road.

The Dorset Cursus is more mysterious. There is a little trace of it on the ground now but its 6¼-mile length is clearly shown by aerial photographs. It consisted of two banks about 100 yards apart and ran north-east from Thickthorn Down almost to Martin Down. It was constructed by our Stone Age ancestors some 5000 years ago – but what for? That question keeps archaeologists happily arguing for hours, but a definitive answer is as out of reach as ever. Suggestions include an astronomical measure and an elongated temple, but the most popular theory is that it was some sort of processional way between the long barrows at either end.

The going underfoot can be rough in places but it is usually dry and there are not stiff climbs. The nature of the countryside means that some of the route is on enclosed paths, but that is no hardship when the autumn colours are at their best. In any case, this walk is as much about atmosphere as about views. There are those who believe that landscapes are haunted and that they themselves are sensitive enough to recognise it: there is no better place to find out than this part of Cranborne Chase. Even the most unimaginative sceptic may hear on the wind the muffled tread of sandalled feet or the sudden music of a war-horse’s harness.

Cranbourne Chase walk
One of the tumuli on Gussage Hill

1. Carry on along the no through road, past the sign, ‘Lower Farm’. Stay on the lane as it curves to the left, following a wall. The paved track becomes rougher and just under ½ mile from the start of the walk suddenly swings to the right. Follow the track until it swings to the left. Here, continue straight ahead on a grass path. Reaching a corrugated barn, turn left in front of the barn on a grassy track. This is the Roman road, Ackling Dyke. Follow it for almost 1¼ miles to a cross-tracks just after emerging from a patch of woodland.

Cranbourne Chase walk
Looking north from Gussage Hill

2. Here turn left onto a grassy track with a fence on the left and intermittent stunted trees on the right, between which are some wonderful views to the north. Keep on the track as it rises gently to the brow of Gussage Hill. As it begins to descend it reaches a track junction, where go straight across, passing two conspicuous tumuli in the field on the left. Another tumulus in the next field on the left marks the point where the route is crossing the Dorset Cursus.

3. Just past the end of that field, turn left through a gate onto a path between two fences. In ½ mile, with a metal gate ahead, follow the track round to the left then the right; once again, the Dorset Cursus is crossed. Continue slightly downhill and pass North Farm, home of the appropriately named Cursus Herd. Follow the paved drive down to a lane and turn left.

Cranbourne Chase walk
Although no trace is visible on the ground now, the Dorset Cursus once crossed these fields

4. In 300 yards turn right down the drive to Ryalls. Walk straight ahead, past the house and across the lawn. Just in front of a rustic-style hump-backed bridge, turn left to a stile in the fence on the left, under a large ash tree. Follow the right-hand edge of the field beyond to a double stile and bridge. Turn left on the track beyond. In 600 yards cross a stile to the left of double gates and turn right on the paved drive to Manor Farm. At the beginning of the farmyard turn left onto another drive. Follow it all the way to the road, where turn left. At the next junction turn left and the turning where your car is parked is on the right in about 100 yards.

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