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Legging it in Dorset — Pentridge and Martin Down

Rodney Legg goes on a seven-mile circuit on the wild side of great open chalklands along the borders

The village green at Pentridgell
The village green at Pentridge

Bokerley Dyke, which runs for five miles across the toplands of Cranborne Chase, dates from the fall of the Roman Empire and forms Dorset’s three-dimensional county boundary. It is still impressive and substantial, with its effect doubled by the depth of the ditch being followed by the height of the bank. Originally it would have been palisaded and acted as the front-line protection for the great Celtic settlements across the Chase and Dorset Downs.

What makes it unique, in terms of an area of ancient landscape in central southern England, is that 850 acres of adjoining Martin Down remain open and unenclosed as a single unit of registered common land. It is now a national nature reserve.

The cultivated side of the chalklands, behind Bokerley Dyke, are also on the big scale. Rolling grain fields and hilltop plantations, crossed by grassy lanes, teem with deer, hares, pheasant and partridge, plus butterflies and flowers when in season.

The starting point is the pint-sized cul-de-sac village of Pentridge, a mile from Ackling Dyke Roman road, which clusters around its equally modest green. As with Martin Down, this is another superlative, not in terms of size but as village green Number 1 in the list of Dorset registrations.

The memorial to the poet Robert Browning in St Rumbold's Church, Pentridge
The memorial to the poet Robert Browning in St Rumbold’s Church, Pentridge

The parish church is a tiny building of banded flint and brick. Its dedication, to Saint Rumbold, is a rarity. So too is the flyer’s grave by the porch and the engraved window to Wing Commander ‘Bee’ Beamont, who retired to Cross Cottage at Pentridge. Hurricane pilot Roland Prosper Beamont (1920-2001) from RAF Exeter was not only one of ‘The Few’ in the days of the Battle of Britain but went on to become Britain’s foremost military test pilot. He was the first to fly the Tempest, the Typhoon and the Hunter and went on to take the Canberra jet bomber into the sky with an unprecedented climb that enthralled a post-war Farnborough air show. Then he did the same with the P1 Lightning, which in 1954 was Britain’s first supersonic fighter. Along the way, he picked up notable ‘firsts’, including various fastest Atlantic crossings and other performance records. He was the first Briton to fly faster than the speed of sound.

Other memorials state Pentridge’s claim to the bones of the first known forefather of the poet Robert Browning. His family came from the nearby hamlet of Woodyates. William Browning, aged 22, was drowned on 21 December 1781 while serving with HMS Sybil in the naval anchorage of English Harbour, Antigua. Robert Browning described the way that nature wipes the historical record: ‘How the minute grey lichens, plate o’er plate, Have softened down the crisp-cut name and date.’

Walking conditions along this seven-mile circuit are excellent. Although it is on high ground, there are only gentle slopes to contend with. The route comprises well-marked tracks and lanes, with few gates and stiles.

Park and start in the village street in Pentridge, which is reached from the A354 midway between Blandford and Salisbury (OS reference SU033177). Set off from opposite the notice board beside Pentridge House, following the bridleway between Chestnut Cottage and Yew Tree Cottage (NW). Pass Orchard House and visit St Rumbold’s Church, which is on the left in 100 yards. Leaving with your back to the churchyard gate, head straight across the village green (NE), into its right-hand corner in 50 yards. The cottages facing the green are across to the left.

The onward route is a back path through the trees behind the houses and cottages. Turn right (SE) on reaching the road in 275 yards. Walk down to the junction between Cross Cottage and Knoll House, in 75 yards, where we turn left (NE). Follow the road to the yard entrance for Whitey Top Farm in 225 yards. Fork left here, along the lower track (N).

On reaching field gates at a junction of paths in ½ mile, bear right beside them (E), up a double-hedged bridleway. Climb up the slope, with Neolithic long barrow burial mounds visible in the fields on either side. To the left is the ploughed-out northern end of the 5000-year-old Cursus ceremonial monument. In 550 yards we confront the much more formidable Bokerley Dyke earthworks.

The view into Hampshire from Bokerley Dykel
The view into Hampshire from Bokerley Dyke

Turn right on reaching the National Nature Reserve sign (SE) to follow the ditch and bank of the late Roman frontier which defended Dorset (up to the right) from the Anglo-Saxon hordes advancing across Hampshire (down to the left). In 550 yards, pass a section of Grim’s Ditch ranch boundary, which dates from the Bronze Age. It stretches across this vast tract of open downland, which is a nesting refuge for the rare stone curlew.

In the course of the next 1100 yards, pass two sections of the Blagdon Plantation. Then, in the dip after the last of these trees, turn right (S) and cross back through Bokerley Dyke. This is Blagdon Gap. The bare chalk track passes a Bronze Age round barrow, in the paddock to the left and leads to a junction of bridleways in 175 yards. Continue straight ahead along the main track. After passing the tranquil idyll of Blagdon Farm in ½ mile, it becomes a tarred road (SE). Look out for game birds and roe deer during this gradual progress down the wide valley to Peaked Plantation in 1¼ miles.

Penbury Knoll, with Cranborne Chase beyond
Penbury Knoll, with Cranborne Chase beyond

Turn right along this road (SW), towards Cranborne, being sure to walk close to the hedge along the side facing oncoming traffic. Proceed to the next road junction, signed to Boveridge Farm, beside the cottages in 650 yards. Turn right (W), along the private drive to West Blagdon, which is permitted as it is a public footpath. Continue straight ahead at the junction of tracks beside Kennel Pond Barn in 650 yards. In 100 yards, fork left, up the grassy track, to the left of a huge grain field. On the skyline, between the gates in 700 yards, come to Jack’s Hedge Corner. Turn right along the bridleway (NW). Keep going straight ahead, with a covert on Blackbush Down to the left and the paddocks of West Blagdon across to the right.

Climb back into the high downlands, to the right-hand end of Blackbush Plantation, in 1 mile. Bear right (N), on going through the gate, beside which there is an 1891-dated boundary stone with a coronet and ‘S’ for the Earl of Shaftesbury. Follow the fence along the summit of Pentridge Hill, keeping it to the right, to the next field gate in 550 yards. The escarpment falls away to the left, with sweeping views across Cranborne Chase. Keep the fence to the right (E) while passing beneath the beeches and pines on Penbury Knoll. These conceal a Mesolithic site as well as the small Iron Age hill-fort, a contemporary pre-Roman settlement with Celtic fields spread across the slopes of Pentridge Down.

The OS triangulation pillar on Pentridge Hil
The OS triangulation pillar on Pentridge Hill

In 550 yards, on leaving the trees after passing an OS triangulation pillar at the 606-feet contour, turn left (NW) and descend towards the tower of Pentridge church. Cross a stile in 375 yards. Then pass to the right of a Bronze Age round barrow and walk down to the corner of the arable field in 225 yards. Follow the fence and cross the stile beside it, in 100 yards. Go along a narrow path between dense hedges which descends in ¼ mile into parkland grass beside the entrance to Manor Farm. Bear right (N), down to the stile to the right of the drive in 100 yards, and here return to the village street.

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