The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Legging it in Dorset — Silton and Huntingford

Rodney Legg makes a five-mile circuit of the northern vale, across a landscape ranging from medieval to rustic

The ancient oak tree at Silton
This ancient oak at Silton has the biggest girth of any tree in Dorset

Two Silton superlatives are the largest church memorial in Dorset and the tree with the biggest girth in the county. This is one of the ancient oaks that marked the limits of the medieval hunting ground known as Gillingham Forest. Although it is called Wyndham’s Oak, there was a Queen Oak in the vicinity. Perhaps that is the old roadside tree at Manor Farm, or it could have been an earlier name for Wyndham’s Oak.

Just to confuse things further, Wyndham’s Oak is also the Judge’s Tree. The hollow bole is 26 feet high and it measures 38 feet around the trunk. Sir Hugh Wyndham, Justice of the Common Pleas in the time of Charles II, used to sit beneath it, contemplating his cases. He died on the job, on circuit to Norwich, in 1684. His body was brought home, and he is commemorated by a life-size statue set in an immense baroque monument, which dominates the interior of the parish church. The sculptor was John Nost from Tring in Hertfordshire. Pastoral poet William Barnes wrote in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1833 of walking across from Mere to see Wyndham’s former home: ‘A neighbour of mine, who had lived in the old house in his boyhood, remembers it as containing some fine rooms lined with carved oak wainscot, and some of the family furniture, such as silk hanging and bedsteads.’

Huntingford, just a hedge away from Wiltshire, is a far-flung hamlet in the parish of Gillingham, three miles out of town. Its time-warp specimen architecture, a Victorian wooden chapel, is being re-built in a restoration project featured on the television programme ‘Grand Designs’.

The landscape comprises meadows and vale, undulating in places, just in sight of the chalk escarpment of Mere Down. Rustic farms specialise in free-range pigs and the genuine organic.

The iron water wheel at Silton
The iron water wheel which once helped to power Waterloo Mill

Among other streams you cross the River Stour in two distinctive settings. Waterloo Mill, built about the time of the 1815 victory, boasts its iron water-wheel as a display piece in the adjacent field. Fifteen feet in diameter, it was made in nearby Bourton Foundry, which once made the biggest mill-wheels in Britain. Our return crossing is over the delightful little Horse Bridge.

As for conditions underfoot on this five-mile walk, prepare for squelchy conditions in places at almost any time of year. Compass headings are given here in brackets at points where the route changes direction.

Park and start from the vicinity of Manor Farm and the parish church at Silton (OS ref ST782292). Set off from St Nicholas’s Church (N), via the churchyard and its gate behind the chancel in 150 yards. Bear right to the iron kissing-gate in 20 yards. Cross this pasture (E) to Wyndham’s Oak in 100 yards, and the stile in the hedgerow in 25 yards. Proceed to the stile and go in 100 yards.

Turn left along Waterloo Lane (N), passing the displaced iron-mill at Waterloo Mill. Cross the River Stour and continue along the road to the junction beyond Wyndham Farm in 1000 yards. Cross the B3092 to the right-hand of the two gates facing you. The public path follows the hedge (NE) to the muddy gates down in the corner in 350 yards.

Also go through the hunting gate at the end of the next field in 350 yards. Bear right in this pasture (E) with Redmoor Farm across to your left. We are heading towards a couple of houses on the distance skyline. In 400 yards, in the far left-hand corner of the field, we cross a stile.

Turn left along Slodbrook Lane (NE) and cross the stream in 50 yards. Turn right through the field gate 50 yards beyond the bridge. We are heading south-east, through a gate in the hedgerow in 50 yards, then straight across the fields for 650 yards to Mapperton Hill Farm.

The Victorian wooden chapel at Huntingford
The Victorian wooden chapel at Huntingford is being restored for Channel 4’s ‘Grand Designs’

Continue straight ahead from the road junction, along the lane (E) to Huntingford hamlet in 650 yards. Turn left (N) at the junction beside Postbox Cottage and the remarkable timber-built former chapel. In 100 yards we pass Apple Tree Cottages, the last building.

Turn left through the next gate (NW) in 80 yards. A public path follows the hedgerow, which is the county boundary between Dorset and Wiltshire, to Mapperton Hill in 650 yards. Cross the road and proceed straight ahead on the other side, continuing to keep the boundary hedge to your right. In 900 yards the final gate brings us to a road junction.

Turn right and then immediately left (E), to continue in the same general direction, following the lane to a bridge across the stream in 450 yards. Beyond it, in the field to the right, are the stout earthworks of the former Ark Garden.

The statue of Sir Hugh Wyndham in Silton church
The life-size statue of Sir Hugh Wyndham, a judge in Charles II’s time, dominates Silton Church

In another 450 yards we approach a corner beside Bagmore Wood. Turn left here, along the track, for 100 yards. Then bear left, through the gate into the field, and follow the right-hand hedgerow (S) beside Keeper’s Cottage. Silton Wood is across to your left.

Go through the gate in the right-hand corner in 550 yards. Bear left (SW) across this field, to the stream and pond, in 450 yards. Follow the track and driveway, beside Bagmore Cottage, to the B3092 in another 450 yards. Cross the main road (S) to the gate 20 yards to your left. Follow the hedgerow straight ahead (SW) across two fields for 150 yards. Go through the hunting gate, then left and right through similar gates, in 20 yards. Follow the right-hand hedge down to the River Stour in 200 yards.

The 200-year-old Horse Bridge is a ferny brick single arch without parapets. Beyond it the path follows the right-hand hedgerow up and over the hill, to the next stream in 750 yards. From here we climb the slope to the gate and stile in 150 yards, beside a roadside horse-mounting block, between Silton House and Silton Church.

A horse-mounting block in Silton
A roadside horse-mounting block in Silton

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