The face of Dorset — Cranborne Chase
John Chaffey in a ‘fascinating, timeless landscape’
Published in December ’09
‘It is a bold landscape, an unexpectedly big landscape, with the satisfying amplitude that makes line more important than colour.’ So wrote Desmond Hawkins, in his book, Cranborne Chase. Two viewpoints confirm this appreciation of the landscape of the Chase. Standing near the beech copse on the summit of Win Green, just inside Wiltshire, the observer looks southwards across high, seemingly limitless, chalk downland into which deeply incised valleys have been cut; these give way to the more intimate densely wooded character of the heart of the Chase, and the rolling landscape of its lower margins around Sixpenny Handley. Beyond is the more distant wooded and pasture land upon which Bournemouth’s urban fringe still encroaches. In the far distance, the Isle of Wight’s bluish central ridge ends at the Needles with a flash of white chalk at the Needles and Scratchell’s Bay.
Six miles to the south-east of Win Green, the view northwards from the Roman Ackling Dyke reveals the essence of the Chase heartland. Huge rolling fields, best seen in late summer when the golden cereals are ready for harvest, are fringed on the north by the Chase’s woods and coppices: ‘one of the few remaining woodlands of undoubtedly primeval date’, as Hardy described these ancient trees in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Hidden from view in the folds of the landscape are the core villages of the Chase: Wiltshire’s Tollard Royal, Dorset’s Farnham, Chettle and lofty Ashmore, the county’s highest village.
Few people agree on the limits of Cranborne Chase, simply because there are several quite justifiable ways of defining its extent. It spreads across two counties, including part of both Dorset and Wiltshire. However, the core area of the Chase, sometimes referred to as the Inner Bounds, lies almost entirely within Dorset. To the west, the Chase ends in the magnificent escarpment that runs southwards from Melbury Hill to Hambledon and Hod Hills. Northwards, another equally impressive escarpment extends eastwards from Charlton Down in Dorset to Wiltshire’s Win Green and beyond. On the east, the ancient earthwork of Bokerley Dyke may be taken as a limit since the landscape beyond has a different feel about it nearer the Avon Valley. Southwards, the line of the River Allen may be taken as a suitable boundary, for south-eastwards the Chalk gives way to the sands and clays that underlie much of East Dorset.
Within these suggested bounds, the landscape of Cranborne Chase shows some remarkable variation. The most dramatic scenery is in the north near the Wiltshire boundary. Here the high chalk downland rises from the crest of the great escarpment to the rounded summits of Breeze Hill and Win Green, with their characteristic clumps of beeches. This downland is deeply dissected by dry valleys, carved by streams during the periglacial climate of a million years ago, such as the impressive Melbury Bottom, with its textbook examples of neatly interlocking spurs. However, there are surprising tracts of almost level ground such as that occupied by Compton Abbas airfield. Seen from its buildings, distant Melbury Hill appears almost like an island rising above the flat, sea-like expanses of the airfield. This is a very ancient landscape, the end product of millions of year of erosion by rain and rivers.
Southwards, beyond the great expanses of woodland which extend from Ashmore Wood in the west to Vernditch Chase in the east, the landscape begins to open out, cut by much shallower dry valleys that are eventually occupied by streams farther to the south. Thus Stubhampton, Chettle, Farnham and Sixpenny Handley all stand near the head of these valleys in which clear, bright streams flourish downstream. It is here that villages neatly line the valleys, such as the Tarrants, the Crichels and the Gussages, and the eponymous Cranborne stands as the highest village in the valley of the Crane.
South of the somnolent and almost hidden village of Pentridge, a new element appears in the lower parts of the Chase landscape. Tree-crowned Penbury Knoll rises as the summit of Pentridge Hill: this is the remnant of another Chalk escarpment, formed of the hard Belemnite Chalk and rising from the gently rolling landscape of the lower land of the Chase. The escarpment stretches away eastwards into Hampshire, rising again in Windmill Hill overlooking Martin and Damerham.
The hand of prehistory rests strongly on the Chase. Nowhere is this better seen than in the country to the south of the road between Blandford and Salisbury. Barrows and other ancient earthworks proliferate here, as they do on Wyke Down and Gussage Down. The Chase is also the land of the unusual Dorset Cursus, that runs from Thickthorn Down north-eastwards almost to Bokerley Down. Constructed in Neolithic times, bounded by raised embankments and ditches on either side and terminated by similar ridges, its purpose and function are still not fully understood.
Cutting through the landscape in a broadly similar direction is Ackling Dyke, part of the Roman road that linked Badbury Rings with Old Sarum. Its tree-lined course is a distinctive landscape feature between Harley Gap and Wyke Down; beyond, to the north-east, it is followed for a short distance by the main Blandford to Salisbury road, only to leave it again at Bokerley Junction and run along the margin of the woodlands of Vernditch Chase. At the Junction it crosses the great defensive feature of Bokerley Dyke that runs south-eastwards for four miles to Blagdon Hill.
Although Bokerley Dyke may trace its origins to the Bronze Age Grim’s Ditch, most of the existing feature is post-Roman. It was built as a defensive position against possible incursions by the Saxons from the north-east. It is preserved as a remarkable ridge, some twenty feet above the protective ditch to the north.
Hardy’s ‘woodlands of undoubtedly primeval date’ have played an important part in the evolution of the Chase landscape. At one time they formed part of a huge extent of woodland that extended almost from Southampton to Bath. The long history of hunting in the Chase required that forestry was taken seriously to provide the right environment in which deer could flourish. Much forest remains, although in the 18th century land was extensively cleared for crop growing, and some antipathy inevitably developed between farmer and forester.
Later, the coming of the great country estates after the dissolution of the monasteries introduced a new element into the Chase landscape that still survives today. On the south-eastern fringes of the Chase are Cranborne Manor, home of the Cecils, and St Giles House, home of the Ashley Coopers. St Giles Park is Dorset parkland at its most beguiling. On the northern fringes lies Rushmoor Park, most of which is in Wiltshire.
The Chase’s villages are mostly secretive places, since few of them are found on the main roads that cut across the Chase or keep to its margins. The settlements that line the valleys of the northern tributaries of the Allen all have a distinctive appeal but the intimacy bestowed by the Chase is only truly experienced in the Inner Bounds. Sixpenny Handley, with its flourishing school, several shops and busy road plays the role of minor service centre without losing its essential rural character. The disastrous fire of 1892 rendered 186 people homeless and many traditional homes were lost, replaced by housing of a less vernacular style.
Chettle, by contrast, is a quiet rural retreat at the head of the valley that leads down to Veiny Cheese Pond and the Crichels. It has some fine brick and thatch cottages and a delightful greensand and flint church. It is dominated by Chettle House, built by Thomas Archer for George Chafin MP in 1710. Leafy Farnham is another secluded and attractive village, notable for its white thatched cottages arranged with gable ends on to the main street. Here too is the Old School House, one of the smallest in the county. At a height of 720 feet, Ashmore is one of Dorset’s most remote and most appealing villages. At its centre is its well-known pond, possibly a type of dew pond that only dries out rarely. The village possesses many cottages from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century that employ a particularly pleasing blend of brick, local building materials and thatch.
The Chase is one of Dorset’s most open landscapes, yet in its wooded valleys and quiet villages a degree of rural intimacy can still be found. Prehistoric burial sites and ancient earthworks suggest a long occupation by people of a landscape of even greater antiquity. Today’s farmers, woodsmen and gamekeepers are the inheritors of country traditions that have left their mark on the fascinating, timeless landscape of Cranborne Chase.