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Legging it in Dorset — Woods of Cranborne Chase

Rodney Legg explores the area around Shire Rack, Dorset’s longest border path

Cranborne Chase

An ivy-covered oak in Garston Wood

Dorset’s longest border path stays within spitting distance of Wiltshire. The Chase Woods run continuously across the toplands of Cranborne Chase for five miles from Tollard Royal to an 84-acre nature reserve at Garston Wood. This was acquired by the RSPB in 1985. It has 22 native species of trees and shrubs including large field maples and whitebeam. One of these on the nearby county boundary, which is coppiced and 15 yards wide, coincides with a charter marker of 956 AD. Much ‘high forest’ is oak and ash, below which the hazel scrub has been cropped since Saxon times for hurdles and wattling.

Ground flora includes bird’s nest orchids, bluebells, columbine, dog’s mercury, greater butterfly orchids, primroses, ramsons, Solomon’s seal, toothwort, wood anemones and wood spurge. Woodland birds, notably, are jay, marsh tit, nuthatch, treecreeper and woodpecker. The coppices provide cover for nightingales, turtle doves and warblers. Deer are also present, usually roe bucks and does in ones and twos, though fallow herds are present through the winter in the heartland of the medieval hunting ground towards Rushmore Park. A notice posted by Jonathan McGowan asks visitors for sightings of big cats, strange footprints and odd-looking carcasses. Keep an eye out for black panther, leopard, puma and lynx. Report any signs of rib-cage of rambler.

The woods and their clearings contain numerous signs of the prehistoric past that enabled Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt-Rivers to establish his reputation as the father of archaeology in the last two decades of the 19th century. His spirit hangs over the landscape and under foot beside Woodcutts Common, where a major Romano-British settlement of Celtic farmers was excavated and left better than he found it. Stones mark the sites of two wells. The western well is three feet in diameter and 136 feet deep and the central one 188 feet deep. Both are now grassy dips with stones recording their discovery by General Pitt-Rivers in 1882.

His principal home, at Rushmore House, now houses Sandroyd School and top-quality heritage parkland around it is shared with a golf course. It is crossed on this eight-mile walk. The estate’s great beech avenue, known as Bridmore Ride, is also crossed and then re-crossed. One section is as the General would have known it but the other has been re-planted. Another ride, known ironically as Oxford Street, has lost all feelings of carriages and Victorian leisure.

Deanland hamlet is en route and Woodcutts is in sight. These days neither has any facilities. Their Primitive Methodist and Wesleyan chapels have closed. There is only an Old School at Woodcutts. Not everything was puritan, though business may not have been that good, as the Hop and Barleycorn at Deanland is now a private house. Woodcutts was an historic manor, and Deanland a relatively recent encroachment into the Chase woodlands, with both gaining ground after de facto enclosures were legitimised in 1797. All this walk lies inside the 6000-acre expanse of Sixpenny Handley parish.

Walking conditions throughout are benign, with easily found and well-marked woodland paths where the route is usually straight ahead. The trees conceal combes and valleys but their slopes are dips and rises rather than escarpments and inclines. There are only a couple of small arable fields to be crossed (as the big ones have been successfully circumvented). If only all walks could be like this!

Distance: 8 miles
Terrain: Woods and pastures with no serious climbs
Start: Garston Wood car park, in trees beside the road to Bowerchalke, 2 miles north of Sixpenny Handley village. OS reference SU004196; postcode SP5 5PB.
How to get there: From the south, turn off the A354 to Sixpenny Handley at the B3081 roundabout. In the village, turn right to Deanland and follow signs to Bowerchalke. From the north, turn off the A30 onto the B3081 to Tollard Royal and Sixpenny Handley. Turn left to Deanland and follow signs to Bowerchalke.
Maps: OS Explorer 118 (Shaftesbury & Cranborne Chase); OS Landranger 184 (Salisbury & The Plain) Refreshments: The Roebuck Inn in Sixpenny Handley and the King John in Tollard Royal are both nearby.

Cranborne Chase

Cherry Tree Cottage at Deanland

1. Set off into the wood, uphill, with your back to the road. Proceed straight ahead from the end of the RSPB’s nature reserve, through the gate, and walk across an arable field. Turn left on reaching the projecting corner of hedgerow, along a farm track on the other side of it, and pass Rookery Cottages. Follow the field fence beyond and keep all the farm buildings to the left.

2. Turn right on reaching the farmyard, along the track, with the buildings of Upwood across the pasture to the left. This becomes a double-hedged green lane which drops into the hamlet of Deanland. Continue straight ahead on reaching the first houses and follow the hedgerow down to the road at Kete Cottage.

Cranborne Chase

Deer leaping in Rushmore Park

3. Turn left and pass thatched Cherry Tree Cottage and former licensed premises at Barleycorn House. Leave the hamlet at Pitfield House and proceed to the telegraph pole on the right-hand corner. Turn right along the second of two paths from this point, a bridleway, into a double-hedged green lane. Turn right on emerging from it beside the expanse of former Handley Common, along a tarred road to the rookery in Barber’s Coppice, opposite Barber’s Close Farm. Continue along the road to Hunt Corner Farm, run by the appropriately named Woodget family, and Snowpuddle Farm. Follow what is now a green lane to the woods in ½ mile.

4. Cross a stile into the field to the left of the wood. Keep the woodland fence to your right for ½ mile. Do the same for half the length of an arable field and then turn right across a stile into the trees. The path runs straight ahead between the deer fences of Brockwell Coppice to the left and Withywind Coppice to the right. Cross the magnificent beech avenue at Bridmore Ride. In a further 300 yards the track passes one of the ditched burial mounds of Scrubbity Barrows, which live up to their name, to the right of the path. Proceed straight across track in the valley. Also continue ahead on leaving the woods, into a grassy strip between oak trees, one with a stalker’s platform.

5. Turn right on reaching the droveway from Woodcutts hamlet, to the left with its 1853-dated Wesleyan chapel facing the arable fields, and follow this green lane to a gate. On the other side, in the pasture, the path passes to the right of the banks and ditches of a Romano-British settlement. Beyond it the path enters and crosses Rushmore Park Golf Course. Beware of golfers and their balls, which will be swinging from the left. Walk straight ahead, down to the footpath signs to the right of the thatched cottage, on the other side of the fairway.

Cranborne Chase

Butcher's broom once formed a spiky boundary between Dorset and Wiltshire on the Shire Rack path

6. Turn right here, leaving the bridleway, on to a public path which follows the edge of the wood. In 250 yards, at a corner with the next signs, the public path enters the woods and then turns instantly right. Continue to keep the golf course across to your right. This path is Shire Rack, which marks the county boundary. The golf course remains to the right until the path drops down to an unpaved road in the valley. Cross this and climb the slope. Continue straight ahead across a re-planted section of Bridmore Ride with saplings inside traditional iron tree guards. Also continue straight ahead on crossing a bridleway in the dip beside Great Shaftesbury Coppice. On the next ridge the Shire Rack track passes beside the conifers of Great Forlorn with old oaks to the right. Proceed straight ahead at the next path junction in a dip. On top the border path stays within the wooded Dorset side and fields to the left are in Wiltshire. Clumps of holly and butcher’s broom, which is even spikier, once formed an impenetrable boundary hedge.

7. Then Shire Rack descends through hazels to a five-way junction of path options at Shermel Gate. This is now the entrance to West Chase. Cross its access road to the second of the tracks to the right of the drive at Stonedown House. This path goes into a gap between a farm road, a hedge and an electricity pole, with red and yellow waymark signs. Follow the hedgerow up and over the hill, keeping it to the left, and grassland with oaks to the right. These become Mistleberry Wood. Wiltshire pastures are again across to the left. Ditch and bank earthworks in the coppice to the right encircle a small Iron Age hill-fort.

8. After this, at the end of the second field to the left, ignore blue bridleway signs at Sessions Gate. Continue inside the edge of the wood. Follow Shire Rack down to the road. Turn right, downhill for 100 yards, to return to the car park in Garston Wood.

Cranborne Chase

The magnificent beech avenue of Bridmore Ride

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