The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Legging it in Dorset — Thorncombe and Forde

Rodney Legg explores the wild west of Dorset


The hamlet of Hewood

Dorset’s wild west used to be in Devon. In an 1844 border change the historic Devon parish of Thorncombe – including Forde Abbey – came to Dorset. Then in 1896, by way of delayed exchange, Dorset’s parish of Hawkchurch was handed to Devon. Both places were only recently out of the woods, as you may spot on this 12-mile walk, from what remains plus the general hedgerow flora which has come from the forest floor. Another boundary is the River Axe, with third county Somerset, and Chard and Winsham are glimpsed on the other side.

This is a beautiful but challenging walk for a full day in midsummer. There are refreshments available en route at each corner of a contorted triangle, namely at Thorncombe, Hawkchurch and Forde Abbey. If, however, you have to opt out, just follow the next sign for Thorncombe.

The 12th-century Cistercian monastery of Forde Abbey has lost its great church but otherwise remains the most complete medieval monastery in Dorset, with tapestry hangings in what to me is the best room in Dorset. Two names still matter. John of Forde, the Abbot from 1191, wrote elegant Latin Sermons on the Final Verses of the Song of Songs, which remain in print to this day. In 1906, Freeman Roper’s wife, Elizabeth, inherited Forde Abbey from a cousin, William Herbert Evans. The Roper family are now into their second century of ownership.

Norman and Early English carvings in St John the Baptist Church at Hawkchurch range from fierce fighting dragons to a monk reading a book and there is a viol-playing ram facing a goat on pan-pipes. These date from 1200. Nearby Wyld Court, home of the Moore and Wyndham families, provided a refuge at the end of the Civil War for runaway monarch Charles II on the penultimate stage of his escape across the Channel. St Mary’s Church at Thorncombe is far less interesting – having been rebuilt in 1866 – with the site of its medieval predecessor lying under the churchyard grass. Much, however, was recycled into the replacement building.

Holditch Court was a 16th-century gatehouse for the Brook family’s fortified manor house, of which an ivy-clad tower survives. It is 12 feet square on the inside. Descriptions from a century ago also mention a keep, a substantial cart-sized archway with a footpath arch beside it, an ancient fishpond, and the shell of chapel being used as a barn half a mile away.

Distance: 12 miles Terrain: Damp and overgrown through to rough and stony with everything between. Start: In the vicinity of St Mary’s Church at Thorncombe. OS map reference 376033; postcode TA20 4NE. How to get there: Main road approaches are via the A35 from the south-east or the A35 from the north-east, linked by the B3165 between Raymond’s Hill and Crewkerne. Turn westwards for Thorncombe at Birdsmoorgate or Kittwhistle. Maps: OS Explorer 116 (Lyme Regis & Bridport); OS Landranger 193 (Taunton & Lyme Regis).
Refreshments: The Royal Oak at Thorncombe is near the start/finish of the walk. The Old Inn at Hawkchurch is at the southern extremity. Forde Abbey tea-rooms are beside the northern far point.

1. Set off from the junction facing 1881-dated Thorncombe Chapel and the village pump beside Jubilee House on the corner of Chard Street and Fore Street. Climb the High Street to Golden House in 100 yards.
2. Turn right, through the gate beside Little Orchard, and then left through the second gate into the pasture. Head uphill. Cross the second field, diagonally, to a gate. Cross the road and pass between Thorncombe Social Club and the cricket field. To the right of the closest goal-posts there is a stile in the Leylandii hedge. Cross the field to a gap in the hedge 50 yards up from the right-hand corner. Drop down into the dip and cross a stile beneath the spreading oak tree.
3. Turn left in the wood and follow the upper track, keeping the fence and fields as close to your left as possible, and cross a stream in 250 yards. Now follow the muddy ride which bends uphill to the right and then curves left down across a couple of tiny streams in 200 yards. Climb the slope to a gate and cross a rushy pasture to fence bars on the other side. Follow an old bank straight ahead, into Shedbush Coppice, through a clearing and then the scrub. Cross stiles at the stream on the other side.
4. Climb the slope and turn left along a farm track, up through the pastures, to Hewood hamlet. Turn left at the road, up to the triangular junction, at Pince’s Knap. Cross the road from the Red Post into the left-hand of the gates facing you. Follow the hedgerow, passing the lone pine, and keep it to your right. Cross the lane at the top.

The porch of Forde Abbey

The porch of Forde Abbey, the most complete medieval monastery in Dorset

5. Enter the pasture, into a bridleway, but turn immediately right into a second public path which branches off across an arable field. This is on the Monarch’s Way. Cross the field diagonally to a stile to the left of the trees at the opposite corner. Follow the hedgerow straight ahead, keeping it to the left, into the valley. Cross another stile and continue downhill with a copse to the left. Turn left through the gate and follow the track down into Beerhall Farm.
6. Join its drive on the other side, as far as the corner, but not along the bitumen road. Instead enter the field and continue straight ahead, across the bridge into Devon, uphill to the skyline gate. Proceed straight up the hill and approach the left-hand end of the wood. Cross the stile to the left of the trees and carry on into the next field, crossing it to a stile in the corner to the right of the nearest houses.
7. Turn right, along a bridleway, to a junction of grassy tracks beneath power cables. Here there is a diversion. The left-hand path enters the churchyard at of St John the Baptist Church at Hawkchurch, with thatched Church Cottage to the left and the Old Inn across the road.
8. The onward route of the bridleway, northwards from the path junction beneath the power cables, is downhill through gates beside the coppices. Cross a bridge over the Blackwater River and back into Dorset. Continue straight ahead, uphill, on the other side. Head for New House Farm and pass between the garden and the duck pen. Join the drive and proceed uphill to pass the medieval tower and remnant of wall shrouded in ivy. The main track goes through the farmyard

The parkland and lake near Forde Abbey

The parkland and lake near Forde Abbey

9. Turn right beside the garden of Holditch Court. The path across the field joins another that veers left from Yawling’s Farm to join the other end of the short length of cattle track that runs north from Holditch Court.
10. Here go through a field gate and take the centre option of the three available paths towards roofs in the lower part of Holditch. This emerges across stiles and follows a farm track to Linden Lea. Cross the road and walk between the lime tree and the Hamstone frontage of Manor Farm to enter the gateway of Little Thatch. Bear right, through the yard, into a delightful green lane.
11. Beyond it, turn right, down to the left-hand side of Carolina Wood. Follow the hedgerow up to a hunting gate just after James Lears Cottage. Turn left up the track and then right through a field gate into the paddock. Cross a stile at the end of the pasture and walk up the slope to join a drive from the wood to the lane at Higher Holditch.
12. Turn left, uphill to Headstock Cross, and continue straight ahead into a stony Partway Lane, which descends beside ribbons of woodland to a ford. Continue straight on, uphill between woods, to a cross-roads of tracks in the fields.
13. Turn left and then leave the main track to pass to the left of Forde Abbey Farm. This footpath is a section of the Liberty Trail. Follow it ahead and downhill into the large arable field. Descend to the right-hand extremity of Black Lawns Coppice. Cross the road to the track across flat ground on the other side, to Westmills Plantation beside the River Axe, where the path turns right and then left, into the meadows. Cross the footbridge. Keep both the riverbank and Forde Abbey across to the right. The path crosses parkland to a gate and stile beside the road.

Thorncombe Wood

Thorncombe Wood

14. Turn right and cross 16th-century Forde Bridge. Turn left across the stile opposite the main entrance gates to Forde Abbey (now confusingly signed for Bokerley Dyke, which is 90 miles away at the other end of the Ramblers’ Association Jubilee Trail). Bear right, diagonally across the pasture, up and over the rise, across a trickle of a stream and up to the stile beside the second gate. Turn left on the other side and then right in 150 yards. Cross the field to Forde Grange Farm. 15. Turn right, towards Chard, to the corner just beyond the farm. Turn left, into the drive, and then immediately right across a stile and ditch. Bear left and follow the hedgerow, along a track and across stiles, to the end of the paddock. Then take the right-hand of two stiles in front, into an arable field, and continue to keep the hedgerow to the left.
16. In ½ mile the path crosses a field and goes into a wood. Continue straight ahead through the trees between a series of hollows enclosed by denuded banks. Exit across a stile into a pasture and follow the hedgerow straight ahead to pass to the right of Gribb View. After the houses a path to the left heads for Chard Street and the path ahead returns to the High Street in Thorncombe.

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