The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Legging it in Dorset — Cann and Compton Abbas

Rodney Legg goes up and over Melbury Beacon

Distance: 6 miles
Terrain: Mostly across valley grassland but with one real climb near the start.
Start: Lay-by opposite the Old Orchard at the bottom of Foot’s Hill, Cann, beside its junction with the main road. OS map reference ST873208; postcode SP7 0BW.
How to get there: Turn east off the A350 beside Cann Bridge, in the hollow a mile south of Shaftesbury, and then park.
Maps: OS Explorer OL118 (Shaftesbury & Cranborne Chase); OS Landranger 183 (Yeovil & Frome).
Refreshments: None en route, so allow time for going into Shaftesbury (but don’t think of doing so on foot).

Melbury Abbas Mill

Higher than Shaftesbury, Melbury Beacon is one of Dorset’s great hills, looking across to the hilltop Saxon town from the chalk escarpment that draws a line between Cranborne Chase above and the Blackmore Vale below. More than a square mile of these uplands and their combes is owned by the National Trust. As its 862-feet summit, Melbury had an Armada-period beacon in 1588, as a key link in the chain from Plymouth to London. It was brought back into use when French invasion threatened in 1804.

Above, it can now be a busy sky, as this is the main flight path for the light aircraft from Compton Abbas aerodrome, which is one of the highest airfields in the country. Established by Shaftesbury Flying Club in 1962, it was taken over by millionaire businessman Alan Curtis in 1975. Planes take off from 810 feet (so Melbury Beacon is the only higher ground they have to worry about) into the prevailing westerly wind, with instant altitude as they soar over the vale. The next airfield, at Henstridge, is down at 184 feet above sea level.

Closer to the ground, the herb-rich downland turf supports several species of skipper and blue butterflies. The breeding bird list of the grasslands and adjoining scrub includes nightingale, turtle dove, skylark and several species of warblers. Kestrels and buzzards are commonplace.

Between conical Melbury and the wide Shaftesbury plateau lies the valley that is the parish of Cann, which started off as the southern suburb of the town, with its original parish church standing at the edge of Saxon Shaston, a mile north of the present church.

This dates from 1840 and a faculty providing ‘for taking down the Church of Shaston St Rumbold, otherwise Cann, and rebuilding the same’ down in the village. Only the 12th-century font and a wooden panel with the royal arms of Queen Anne survived the move. In the 1970s the building was declared redundant and became a school assembly room.

Looking north-west from halfway up Melbury Hill towards Shaftesbury, with West Melbury below

Compton Abbas, the other village on this walk, has also moved with its church, in 1867, although in its case the original time-warp churchyard remains, with a medieval cross, tall greensand tower and a horse mounting-block beside the gate. Both this and the replacement, in trees to the left at the point where the walk crosses the main road, are dedicated to St Mary.

Historically, the old church and Clubmen’s Down above the hillside lane – called Capstitch – are remembered for Rev. Thomas Bravell, the rector, who galvanised a 3000-strong gathering of club-wielding protesters on these downs, on 25 May 1645. Their message to King Charles and Oliver Cromwell was that the English Civil War had dragged on too long and that both sides should henceforth leave Dorset’s farmers and peasantry alone. They ended up being surprised by a unit of the New Model Army on Hambledon Hill and dispersed after twelve of the ‘Clubmen’ were killed and others locked away for the night in Shroton church.

Coal Pit Copse, below Writh Farm, commemorates the attempts at discovering a Dorset coalfield, beginning in 1720. The explorers found the oil-bearing bituminous shale in beds of Kimmeridge clay, together with reptile vertebrae and shells which found their way into Dr John Woodward’s collection in Cambridge University. The search resumed in 1791, led by Dr Richard Pew from Shaftesbury, who as the ultimate optimist then turned his attention to alchemy, producing a paper to explain ‘the Art of making Gold and Silver’.

The most noticeable collection of buildings in the landscape comprises the Young Offender Institution at Guy’s Marsh, which grew out of a wartime military hospital between the outer tentacles of St James’s Common. Previously known as Youth Custody Centres, these establishments were generally called Borstals, after the first at Borstal in Kent. Guy’s Marsh received a glowing report from Sir Stephen Tumim when, as Chief Inspector of Prisons, he particularly praised ‘the effectiveness and training value of the farming activity’.

A dramatic chalk escarpment on the way down from Melbury Hill

Cann Mill was re-built in 1881, a year after its predecessor and the miller’s house had been burnt to the ground, and is a rarity these days in that it is still in daily commercial use as a corn-mill. Long-established operators VM Miles and Son were bought out by Norman Stoate in 1947. In 1971 he added a windmill, the first in Dorset in recent times, built to a Portuguese design. It was more than a contribution to the landscape as it powered two grinding stones, of millstone grit, weighing fifteen hundredweight apiece. Cann Mills continues to produce ‘Stoate’s Stoneground Flour’ under the slogan ‘The Making of Baking’.

The bridleway to East Compton, with Clubmen’s Down in the top left of the photograph

1. Set off by turning left along the main road, to cross Cann Bridge, and turn left across the stile in 75 yards. There are two paths across this field. Head straight ahead across both the first and second pastures. Cross stiles at the bottom end of the hedgerow facing you. Keep the stream to your left and also pass to the right of the immaculately tended grounds of Melbury Abbas Mill, to the lane beside its idyllic mill pool.

2. Turn right, passing Shelford Cottage, up the road to the Village Hall. Turn right, continuing uphill, and pass Trigon House. Also pass the junction at Trehurst and approach the main road in half a mile.

3. Turn left beside the hedge between the post-box and the house named The Paddocks. Climb straight ahead, across the first two fields, into National Trust land on Melbury Hill. Stay on the main path which peaks on gorse-covered Melbury Beacon, with its Ordnance Survey triangulation pillar.

4. Turn left along the ridge for half a mile, parallel to the ditch of a prehistoric ranch boundary and crossing an Iron Age cross-dyke earthwork, for half a mile. Then turn right along a bridleway that descends from the open downland into a wide, flat, arable valley. Follow the track into the ancient end of Compton Abbas village, which is now the hamlet of East Compton.

5. Turn left and then follow the corner around to the right, in 30 yards, to pass the historic churchyard and greensand tower of St Mary’s Church. Follow the lane to Twintown and Lot’s Cottage. Continue straight ahead at the junction, up beside thatched Horders to the 1911-dated Old Reading Room and the Old Forge with its vintage signs.

6. Cross the main road onto the track on the other side, westwards up and over the hill, and down into the valley. Bear right and then keep the stream to your left as you climb the right-hand slope to the second of two oaks. Continue uphill for 15 yards and cross a stile in the hedge. The footpath follows this hedgerow down to gates and Drones Lane which passes to the right of Bere Knap Cottage.

7. Here turn right, through a gate beside the parking area, and take the right-hand of two paths over the field. Turn right in 40 yards, across stiles through the hedge, and cross the centre of the next field, to a footbridge over Twyford Brook. Cross a farm track on the other side of the next field and bear right and then left to follow the farmyard fence to a roadside gate to the right of Budden’s Farm.

8. Turn right, up the slope, to the corner in 150 yards. Turn left, through the field gate, and follow the hedgerow straight ahead to the end of the second field. Now follow the hedge around the top of the slope to Allan’s Farm. Join its drive.

9. Turn right up the road, away from Guy’s Marsh Young Offender Institution, and pass Writh Farm.

10. Turn left at the cross-roads, after Cornhill Cottage, down French Mill Lane. This passes Greystones, Shepherd’s Hay and Poacher’s Cottage, to the stream below Horder’s Farm.

11. Turn right, across the stile, between the gates just before French Mill and its audible waterfall. Bear a little to the right and cross two stiles. Keep the stream down to the left. On reaching the next two stiles the path follows the stream. Then cross a footbridge and turn right. The next stile brings the path to Cann Mills.

12. Follow its drive uphill, beside the Mill Pond, to the main road. Cross with care to return to your car.

Victorian St Mary

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