The best of Dorset in words and pictures

The face of Dorset — The hills of West Dorset

The first in a new series in which John Chaffey looks at the origins of Dorset’s varied landscapes

The Knoll, Punchknowle

The Knoll, Puncknowle

From the main road leading west from Dorchester over the high chalk downland of Askerswell beyond Winterbourne Abbas, the eye of the observer will be drawn northwards to a westward-facing eminence crowned by a prominent hill fort. This is Eggardon Hill, rising to 810 feet (247 metres) and a last bastion of the chalklands of central Dorset. It is from the summit of Eggardon that the hills of West Dorset can best be appreciated from the east. Northwards the eye is drawn to the surging line of downs that flow westwards to envelop Beaminster: southwards a view towards the coast picks out isolated hills such as The Knoll above Puncknowle and further west the coastal summits of Thorncombe Beacon and Golden Cap dominating the waters of Lyme Bay glinting in the sun. Between these two enclosing vistas the central hills of West Dorset begin to surge and fill the western horizon with Pilsdon Pen and Lewesdon Hill, Dorset’s two highest points dominating the rural scene.

Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of William, spent two years at the end of the 18th century with her brother at Racedown, in the shadow of Pilsdon Pen, and offered the following comment on the West Dorset scene: ‘We have hills, which, seen from a distance, almost take on the character of mountains, some cultivated almost to their summits, others in their wild state, covered with furze and broom. These delight me the most, as they remind me of our native wilds.’ Although this comparison with the Lake District fells may seem a somewhat exaggerated one, it encapsulates the truly hilly nature of much of West Dorset. Pilsdon and Lewesdon indeed dominate, although not perhaps to the detriment of the lower but no less attractive hills. A glimpse at the geology map will confirm the background to the seemingly restless billowing of the West Dorset hills.

Colmer's Hill, Symondsbury

Colmer’s Hill, Symondsbury

Beyond the western rim of the Chalk downs of mid-Dorset, the tough Upper Greensand emerges to form much of the higher ground. It first appears on the western slopes of Eggardon itself, as the hard Eggardon Grit, which actually forms short vertical rock faces below the Bell Stone and makes some contribution to the extended flow of Eggardon towards the west. It becomes of much greater significance to the west, where it forms the high summits of Pilsdon Pen and Lewesdon Hill, and re-appears again to the south-west in Lambert’s Castle Hill, and Coney’s Castle. It forms the summits of the prominent coastal features of Stonebarrow Hill, Hardown Hill and Langdon Hill, as well as the capping of coastal cliffs such as Golden Cap and Thorncombe Beacon. Towards the east it appears again in the summits of The Knoll and the boat-shaped Shipton Hill. Within the beds of the Upper Greensand are layers of very tough and resistant siliceous chert, which erodes only slowly and is responsible for the upstanding nature of the hills.

Within this encircling rim of the Greensand Hills, other aspects of the underlying geology are responsible for the lesser but no less interesting hills. The thin rubbly limestones of the Inferior Oolite form the hilly country to the east of Walditch, around Powerstock and to the west around Broadwindsor. It is near Bridport that the lower hills present some of the most interesting geology. The iconic Colmer’s Hill to the west with its summit cluster of pines is composed of the bright yellow sandstones of the Bridport Sands, as is Coneygar Hill to the east. Both Allington Hill and Watton Hill are capped with Inferior Oolite.

Lewesdon Hill

Lewesdon Hill

Pilsdon Pen and Lewesdon Hill have long vied for the distinction of being Dorset’s highest summit. For a long time Pilsdon Pen seemed to have been traditionally regarded as Dorset’s highest, but today’s OS maps confirm Lewesdon as the higher. Pilsdon is now shown as 277 metres (908 feet), while Lewesdon exceeds this by just two metres at 279 metres (915 feet). Both lofty eminences dominate the tranquil rurality of the Vale of Marshwood to the south. Treves quotes a local rhyme referring to their similarity: ‘As much akin / As Lew’son Hill and Pilsdon Pen.’ A contemporary view might note that any similarities end with the approximate coincidence of their heights. Pilsdon Pen has an angularity, partly the result of the layers of tough chert beds, whereas Lewesdon has, as Treves noted, ‘the woods that make beautiful the slopes of Lewesdon’. Lewesdon, whose summit cherts have been quarried in the past, either for building stone (chert is broadly similar to flint, but is lighter in colour and has a sugary texture) or roadstone, looks down benignly on its villages of Broadwindsor and Stoke Abbott. Beaminster lies more distantly in its shadow to the east. William Crowe, the rector of Stoke Abott penned the poem ‘Lewesdon Hill’, extolling in part the riverine virtues of the tiny stream, a headwater of the River Char that rises on the slopes of Lewesdon. Water from Lewesdon springs was once bottled and sold as ‘Lewesdon Spring’.

Pilsdon Pen differs from Lewesdon in another significant way. Its summit, with distant views of the Blackdown Hills, the Quantock Hills and the Mendip Hills, carries an important Iron Age Hill fort, although traces of a smaller fort on Lewesdon may have been quarried away. It may well have replaced the earlier fortifications on Lambert’s Castle and Coney’s Castle, as well as the possible smaller one on Lewesdon. The summit chert was put to good use in the ramparts of the fort, which enclosed Iron Age huts (one with a small goldsmith’s workshop) and a later medieval rabbit warren with the characteristic ‘pillow mounds’ for the breeding of rabbits. The discovery of a Roman ballista suggests some conflict in the past – the nearest Roman fort is on Waddon Hill, some two miles to the east. Like Hod Hill overlooking the Stour near Shillingstone, the Roman fort may have been built on the site of an earlier Iron Age fort.

Looking south-west from Pilsdon Pen

Looking south-west from Pilsdon Pen over the Vale of Marshwood to the sea

Several miles away to the south-west are two other prominent hills of West Dorset. Both Lambert’s Castle Hill and Coney’s Castle are partly wooded and both carry small Iron Age forts. Treves writes: ‘Lambert’s Castle is a fine ridge, terminating in a truculent headland distinguished by a clump of fir trees. The view from the summit is maintained by many to be the view of the county. From hence can be seen Portland, the sea breaking on the Chesil Beach, the Fleet, a long stretch of the Devon coast and far inland, the uplands of Wiltshire and Somerset.’ Few would disagree with Treves’s description – although he might have added ‘on a fine day’! Lambert’s Castle Hill had its annual fair, held within the fort walls, from 1709 to 1947; low earthworks mark the sites of the stalls and sheep enclosures. An Admiralty Shutter Telegraph Station was set up on Lambert’s Castle Hill by George Roebuck in 1805-06 and was part of a system known as the Plymouth Line, with lookouts using telescopes to view the next stations along the line. It was said that news of an invasion in the West Country could have reached London on a fine day in about thirty minutes. The system was replaced by semaphore in 1822 and by the electric telegraph in 1847. Both of these hill forts are earlier and lesser structures than the massive fortification on Pilsdon Pen – Coney’s Castle is double-banked and Lambert’s Castle is single-banked – but they add some historical character to both of these hills, now, like Pilsdon and Lewesdon, administered by the National Trust.

Much nearer the coast are the Greensand hills of Hardown and Stonebarrow. Hardown has a series of barrows on its summit. The hill was intensively worked for its chert; a festoon of pits lies just below the summit, and some adits actually ran into the hill. Chert from Hardown was used as far west as Exeter for road-building, and can be seen in cottages and churches in Charmouth, Morecombelake, Whitchurch Canonicorum and in the little church at Catherston Leweston, where the chert has been used in polygonal walling. Stonebarrow Hill is much nearer the coast and at one time carried the road from Morecombelake to Charmouth. Like many of the Greensand hills of West Dorset, it is much prone to landslides, particularly at the coastal margin, where a wartime radar station slipped down the cliff in 1942.

The view from Lambert's Castle

The view from Lambert’s Castle so admired by Frederick Treves

It is the Greensand hills that contribute most to the dramatic scenery of West Dorset – almost a forerunner of the more powerful, Greensand-dominated landscapes of East Devon to the west. Not only are they major elements in the landscape, but they mark the sites of ancient settlement in the area and have yielded valuable mineral resources for building and road metal. However, the lesser hills around Bridport and Beaminster and along the coastal margin play a no less important role in establishing the West Dorset hills as one of southern England’s finest landscapes.

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