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Legging it in Dorset

Waddon House and Friar Waddon - Rodney Legg ventures into Weymouth's hilly hinterland

Weymouth walk

Sheep, flints and power lines are features of the walk

Distance: About 8½ miles.
Terrain: Reasonably decent paths with a couple of easy climbs.
Start: Little Waddon on Winter’s Lane, about 1¼ miles east of Portesham. OS map reference 623857; postcode DT3 4ER.
How to get there: From the north, turn south off the A35 onto the B3159 at the eastern end of Winterbourne Abbas and follow the signs to Portesham. From the south, turn north into Portesham from the B3157 between Chickerell and Abbotsbury. Turn east next to the parish church onto Winter’s Lane
Maps: OS Explorer OL15 (Purbeck & South Dorset); OS Landranger 194 (Dorchester & Weymouth).
Refreshments: The Kings Arms at Portesham is near the start/finish of the walk.

Pimpled with Bronze Age burial mounds, the Ridgeway dominates Weymouth’s hinterland, and was described by antiquarian William Stukeley as ‘for sight of barrows, I believe not to be equalled in the world’. Below are big grain fields on the landward side and a more pastoral landscape towards the coast. This is the scene for an exploration across the outer parts of Portesham parish. It is bounded by the chalk escarpment and crossed by a couple of limestone ridges. The prominent one is Waddon, meaning ‘woad hill’ in Old English, for the plant which produced blue dye and still grows there.

Colonel Bullen Reymes inherited the manor of Waddon through his wife in 1651 and started the process of gentrifying its principal house. Henry Chafin finished the job, elegantly encapsulating Waddon House with Portland stone, in about 1700. For a couple of years it was even grander, before losing a west wing to fire in 1704. It was still impressive enough in 1966 to be chosen by film-maker John Schlesinger for Squire Boldwood’s home in the cinema version of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. A branch of the Chafin family, represented by Mr Charles Chaffyn-Grove, is still in residence.

Little Waddon, just down Winter’s Lane, has 17th-century Swallow Cottage with attic rooms under a hipped and gabled roof. There is a cluster of contemporary vernacular farm buildings down in the valley at Shilvinghampton. A branch line of the Great Western Railway briefly followed Pucksey Brook from Upwey to Abbotsbury.

Friar Waddon is east of Waddon and takes the ecclesiastical element of its name from ownership of the manor at the time of the Domesday survey by the nunnery of St Mary, Montevilliers, in France. House footings in the corner of the present farmyard indicate that it is on the site of earlier buildings. A Tudor chimney, re-set window and a few other pieces of carved stone in the present late 18th-century house have been incorporated from its predecessor. Outbuildings and barns retained their thatched roofs.

An intact cottage, complete with two inglenook fireplaces and a bread-oven, remains at Corton, with a datestone from 1684. There the ancient free chapel of St Bartholomew stands in the field between the hamlet and the hill. It is a simple rectangular building, forty feet long, with a Purbeck stone altar table which is one of the few to have survived the Reformation. The 13th-century chancel may have been added to a smaller Norman church, which now forms the nave, and the altar re-used from it.

The earliest documentary reference is from 1341 when Corton was held by Hugh Courtney, Earl of Devon. The first element of the name may not be for him but have the same origins as Corfe – for a gap through the hills – giving it the meaning of a ‘farm in the pass’. Nearby Coryates was the ‘gateway to the gap’.

The limestone geology of the area, exposed and probed at various times at Friar Waddon Pumping Station, is that it was deposited as freshwater lagoon 100 million years ago during an era of crocodiles and turtles, in tandem with the main stone beds of the Isle of Purbeck. The rocks came to life again in landslips and mud-flows at the epicentre of the storm in a spectacular deluge on 18-19 July 1955. N I Symonds’s rain-gauge measurement of 11 inches from across the hill in Martinstown is accepted as the national record – still unbroken. Avoid choosing that sort of day for a walk.

Weymouth walk-the ridgeway

Looking west along the Ridgeway to Hardy’s Monument

1. Set off along the lane, continuing away from Portesham, with the field up to the left beyond Waddon House being terraced with strip lynchets. Turn left at the junction below Corton Hill, uphill to the next corner in 150 yards, and turn left into a farm road. Proceed straight ahead up a track with crushed oyster shells used as scalpings. Turn right and then left on approaching Shilvinghampton Barn, to cross two stiles in the hedgerow, and then turn left. Follow the far side of the hedge up to a badger sett and water tanks on the summit.

2. Turn right along the Ridgeway and pass under the pylon lines. At the end of the following field there is a gate and the bridleway passes between two large prehistoric burial mounds. Then approach another pair of barrows.

Weymouth walk-friar waddon

Friar Waddon

3. Turn right through a gate onto a footpath which crosses the right-hand end of an arable field to the stile on the other side. Here the path skirts the right-hand side of a deep combe. Descend to the farmyard, in the left-hand cluster of buildings, and cross the road beside the entrance to Friar Waddon Farm.
4. Take the farm road ahead up and over barrow-studded Friar Waddon Hill, heading towards Weymouth and Chesil Beach. The derelict shell of Friar Waddon Dairy House is across to the left, in the big arable field, isolated in a plot of trees. In a mile, having crossed a disused railway line and Pucksey Brook, the farm track starts to climb Hewish Hill, but the public footpath bears left, diagonally across the field, to join a hilltop path inside the same field.

Weymouth walk

The view towards Weymouth from its hilly hinterland

5. Turn right along the ridge, under the pylon lines, and pass to the right of a wood and ruin at Corton Dairy House. Follow the hilltop for a further ¾ mile, above East Shilvinghampton, to a gate into a pasture which overlooks the coast road. Bear right across this pasture to a stile in the hedgerow to the left of the cottage.
6. Turn right and pass West Mead Cottage and Crickhollow, which share a thatched roof. Then pass the buildings of West Shilvinghampton and traces of its medieval lost hamlet, to the road junction. Turn left into Cheese Lane and pass Cockwell Coppice.

Weymouth walk-Waddon House

Waddon House

7. Prepare to turn right, on passing a farm track and a hedgerow, across a couple of footbridges in the roadside scrub, 100 yards before the iron gates and drive to Rodden Barn Farm. Follow the hedgerow, go over a stile in the fence, and turn right across the next stile in 50 yards. Go through the hedge and pass the barn at Socketty Hock. Then walk straight ahead across the pasture directly towards the distinctive three-storey profile of Waddon House. On the far side of the field the footpath joins the drive from Waddon Dairy House. Proceed straight ahead up the slope to return to Waddon House and Winter’s Lane.

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