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Following in Roman footsteps

Roger Guttridge has traced the Roman road from Lake Gates, near Wimborne, to the county boundary just beyond Woodyates. Sylvie Guttridge took the photographs.

Eyebridge at dawn as a family of swans glides serenely downstream. The Romans crossed the Stour upstream from here.

It was the Spaghetti Junction of its day, a communications hub from which five roads fanned out, one of them leading up from Hamworthy, the others heading into the newly-conquered hills, forests and villages beyond. Most of the site today sits in a triangle bordered by the western section of the Wimborne bypass, the old A31 road from Lake Gates into Wimborne and the stretch of the River Stour from Julians Bridge to Merley.

When the Romans began their conquest of south-west England in AD 45, they chose Lake as their main base camp and hastily constructed a road from their new port at Hamworthy across Upton Heath and what is now Corfe Mullen. The camp covered forty acres and was occupied for at least fifteen years. From there, according to the late archaeologist Norman Field, four other roads led off towards Wareham, Dorchester, Winchester and the pre-Roman hillfort of Badbury, where the road met Ackling Dyke, which connected London and Exeter.

Much of the road from Hamworthy to Lake can still be followed, but our walk began from a lay-by between Julians Bridge and the Lake Gates roundabout. For those who wish to follow our route, OS Explorer Map 118 (Shaftesbury and Cranborne Chase) covers the whole of it, and it began at map reference SY997992. A few yards west of the roundabout, we entered the fields where the Roman road to Badbury once headed in a typically straight line to Cowgrove, where it forded the River Stour. Today’s traveller must take a less direct route via several stiles and a small footbridge to reach Eyebridge, a few hundred yards downstream from the Roman crossing. These fields range from soggy to floodplain and are best avoided after heavy rain. But it is good terrain for swans and on the day of our visit, twenty or thirty of them appeared to be setting up in competition with Abbotsbury.

Sheep graze the Iron Age hillfort of Badbury Rings, where the Roman road from Lake to Bath crosses the Exeter to London route known as Ackling Dyke

A walker lingering at Eyebridge will soon observe other wildlife, perhaps including the resident kingfisher, a heron or one of the little egrets who have spread out from Poole Harbour in recent years to gain a firm foothold in the south.

From Eyebridge, we followed the steeply ascending road to Pamphill. Centuries of development around the heart of the Kingston Lacy Estate have made the Roman road impossible to follow or even locate hereabouts, but it was still a pleasant walk as we passed the Vine Inn, the village school in its long, low 17th-century building, Pamphill Green, the cricket field in its idyllic, tree-lined setting and the gravel drive to St Stephen’s Church, built by the Bankes family 100 years ago to replace a 13th-century ruin.

From the church, the path meanders through the woods, to the right, and emerges beside the Wimborne-Blandford road before making its way through the woods parallel to the road. The path winds around the swamps and ponds in the wood (and abundant snowdrops if it is early in the year) to come out by the main entrance gates to Kingston Lacy House.

Ackling Dyke can be seen in the distance above the mossy roof of The Buildings at Manswood, said to be the longest thatch in England

From here to the Badbury Rings avenue of beech trees is a short but tricky walk along the main road. Just before the avenue on the right is Lodge Farm, a 13th-century hall house, royal hunting lodge and one of the oldest surviving homes in Dorset. The house stands partly on the Roman road, which in turn went over the site of an Iron Age dwelling. Some claim to have seen the ghostly image of a Roman legion marching past Lodge Farm, although visible only from the knees up – due, presumably, to changes in ground level over 2000 years. Today’s walker can either backtrack a few yards towards Wimborne and follow the track to Badbury Rings that runs parallel to the Roman route, or continue along the beech avenue and turn right at the main entrance to the Rings, where the track more or less follows the line of Ackling Dyke as it heads north-east from Shapwick.

Badbury must have been one of the first Durotriges communities to fall in AD 45 and the conquering Romans renamed it Vindocladia. North of the defensive Rings, the road from Lake to Bath crosses Ackling Dyke, the Roman road from Exeter to London. Turning right to follow Ackling Dyke north-north-east, we were now heading for London.

Although the best is yet to come, the road does at least resume its Roman straightness here, continuing as a bridleway for more than a mile, hemmed in by high hedges which obscure most of the views and passing close to the site of a Roman villa at Hemsworth. Soon after Hemsworth to the left and Bradford Farm to the right, the bridleway turns into a metalled lane, which crosses first the Tarrant Rawston to Witchampton road, then Sheephouse Drove, before becoming a track once again.

Looking back towards The Rookery from Cock Road, where the Roman road survives as a clear track across the open field

Approaching Manswood Common, we passed The Old School to the left, an ornate confection of red brick and much fancy woodwork and, across another road, a cluster of cottages that includes one of Dorset’s best-kept secrets – The Buildings at Manswood, a terrace of no less than twelve thatched cottages that are said to be the longest continuously thatched building in England. One of the cottages was Manswood Post Office until 1985 and is today known as Penny Black.

From The Buildings, the track continues uphill and into a wooded area known as The Rookery, where a stand of mature conifers, planted in rows, create a green archway into an avenue or ride. Suddenly the walker is transported into a different world whose stillness is evocative of an ancient forest. Deer can sometimes be seen skipping nervously in search of cover. On misty mornings giant, dew-covered cobwebs stretch from tree to tree, the spiders at their centres growing fat on the passing trade. The Roman road bisects the trees and the raised level can still be seen, albeit much ploughed or eroded. It continues across an open field to Cock Road, beyond which the original route has been absorbed into a field. While it is possible to cross the field to the gap in the far right-hand corner, an easier option is to take a small diversion by turning right along Cock Road, then left after 100 yards onto the bridleway opposite The Lodge. After a few hundred yards this track rejoins Ackling Dyke and leads down to a ford and footbridge north-west of Moor Crichel. Turning left onto the metalled road and immediately right took us up the edge of a field which climbs fairly steeply to the busy Ringwood to Shaftesbury road.

Crossing onto the footpath beyond, we had our first view of a Roman road in something approaching its original state. When the Romans arrived in Britain, they found a land where the only roads were tracks that had evolved naturally over many years. Roman road-builders rarely diverted from a straight line and built up their British roads with large blocks of stone topped by a gravel running surface just wide enough to allow two vehicles to pass. On either side of the causeway was a drainage ditch.

Norwood Park and Coppice from the footbridge and Roman ford north-west of Moor Crichel

Part way down the steep descent to the Gussage St Michael to Gussage All Saints road, the causeway takes a rare diversion, skirting round a chalk quarry. It is disused today but did it once provide raw material for the Roman road-builders? Behind the chalk pit is Sovell Plantation, where in 1913 a young woman from Gussage St Michael, Winnie Mitchell, met a gruesome end – blasted to death with a shotgun by her lover, Bill Burton, and buried in a shallow grave. Burton met his own end on the Dorchester gallows. Beyond the quarry, the track plunges into a leafy tunnel which forms part of a nature reserve.

From the road above the Gussage villages to Handley Cross is about four miles and for much of this distance the Roman causeway survives intact. In places beech saplings line the route and beyond them, dense mixed woodland forms an impenetrable barrier. While a few short stretches can be comfortably walked, most of the causeway today amounts to a linear forest of hawthorn, privet, hazel and other native trees and shrubs, providing a haven for wildlife but making the ridge impassable in many places. Instead the modern traveller is forced to use what would originally have been the drainage ditch – often with the Roman road surface at shoulder or head height alongside.

From the Gussages, Ackling Dyke rises steadily onto the chalk downs that characterise Cranborne Chase and soon the buildings of Sixpenny Handley come into view a couple of miles to the north-west. The barrows that dot the landscape are a reminder that prehistoric people flourished here long before even the Romans arrived. Soon after crossing the low-lying road north-west of Monkton-up-Wimborne, the Roman road is itself crossed by a route that is 3000 years older than itself. The mysterious Dorset Cursus runs for six miles from its starting point in the hills above Gussage St Michael to the Wiltshire border north of Pentridge.

Prehistoric barrows stud the skyline to the north-west as Ackling Dyke makes its way through the undulating chalk downland

In many ways this is the finest stretch of Ackling Dyke, especially for the ornithologically inclined. On almost any winter or autumn day, flocks of chattering finches can be seen alternately feasting on the seeds and berries that are abundant on the Roman carriageway and swooping along the dyke and fields in animated waves. Occasionally a sparrowhawk will be seen sweeping below hedge level, or a buzzard soaring high above. Red kites have also been seen here recently, southwardly mobile descendants, presumably, of those re-introduced to Berkshire and Oxfordshire a few years back.

From its angled junction with the Cursus, Ackling Dyke climbs steadily once again to cross a much younger thoroughfare, the B3081 road near Handley Cross. Beyond, the landscape opens out as the Roman route continues as a raised swathe of rough grazing land, perhaps the most elongated field in England, being only a few yards wide but extending more than a mile to the point where it joins the Blandford-Salisbury road south-west of Woodyates. It crosses Bokerley Dyke into Wiltshire soon after, before continuing its long, straight journey to Old Sarum and ultimately London.

Looking down from the B3081, it is not hard to imagine the Roman road in its heyday, being used by legions heading for battle and, with the conquest complete, by traders and carriers moving the necessities and luxuries of empire to their destinations. That so much of it remains after almost 2000 years is a tribute to Roman road-builders, and perhaps also to our own more recent ancestors.

From the B3081 road near Handley Cross, Ackling Dyke drives relentlessly on across the open landscape to join the modern Blandford-Salisbury road more than a mile distant

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