The Dorset Walk – Portesham, Abbotsbury and the Hellstone
Matt Wilkinson and Dan Bold in the hills above the Fleet
Published in May ’11
Distance: 6 miles.
Terrain: Mostly very easy, on fieldpaths and tracks. The climb out of Abbotsbury is steep.
Start: In Front Street, Portesham. OS reference SY602857. Postcode DT3 4ET.
How to get there: Turn into Portesham from the B3157 coast road by the King’s Arms and you are in Front Street.
Maps: OS Explorer OL15 (Purbeck & South Dorset); OS Landranger 194 (Dorchester & Weymouth).
Refreshments: King’s Arms, Portesham. Pubs and tea-rooms in Abbotsbury.
This route of splendid sea views starts in Portesham, which is a pleasant enough village, but if you are making a day’s expedition out of this walk, the better place to spend extra time is Abbotsbury. As well as its famous swannery, which has been here since at least the 14th century, it is worth visiting the great Abbey Barn and the church of St Nicholas with the bullet holes in its pulpit dating from the Civil War when Abbotsbury was the scene of fierce fighting. The energetic may climb up to St Catherine’s Chapel, which also dates from the 14th century and was used as a sea-mark as well as a place of worship. St Catherine is the patron saint of spinsters and maidens would come here to pray for a husband.
A lot more ancient than the chapel or the swannery is the Hellstone, on the hill above Portesham. At least 5000 years old, it was once at the centre of a long burial mound. It consists of a sixteen-ton capstone on top of nine pillars or supports. It was much restored in the 19th century and there must be considerable doubt about the accuracy of the restoration. Nevertheless, it is one of those ancient sites that generates a powerful atmosphere and the ugly Hardy Monument, looking down from its inland ridge, seems a mere 167-year old interloper.
1. Walk down Front Street to the main road and turn right. Behind the wall and gate on the right is Portesham House, the home of Thomas Hardy (the admiral, not the writer) who was Nelson’s flag-captain on HMS Victory. Follow the pavement until its very end and then continue carefully for 100 yards before turning right up a track just beyond Millmead House. In front of the first set of farm buildings, bear right then left to continue along the track. It is the track-bed of the old Abbotsbury branch, which left the main line near Upwey. Where the track swings left into a field, continue straight ahead on what is now an enclosed path. Pass the stone engine shed that was part of the railway yard at Abbotsbury and go straight ahead through a gate onto a track. This leads down to the main road, where turn right.
2. Follow the pavement, crossing the road where it does, by the Swan Inn. Walk all the way into Abbotsbury via the sharp right-hand bend and opposite the Ilchester Arms turn right, alongside Strangways Hall; Fox Strangways is the family name of the Earls of Ilchester. In about 180 yards, just beyond White Hill Cottages, turn left up a track. Bear left and right and follow a path more steeply uphill. Go through a gate and the view to Chesil Beach and the sea opens up on the left. Where the path emerges onto the open hillside, continue straight ahead, still uphill. The path passes through two gates, at the first of which pause to admire the view, and after the second of which bear right to climb the hillside obliquely on a well-defined path.
3. Follow the path to a gate, beyond which parallel the right-hand edge of the field and then of the ridge. Go through the next gate and follow the fence on the right for about 100 yards. Where it curves away to the right, continue straight ahead along the highest part of the ridge, roughly parallel to a wood away to the left; the path is usually easy to discern in the long grass. Roughly in line with the end of the wood, pick up a fence on the left and follow it to a gate on the left. Go through this gate onto a track along the right-hand field-edge that leads down to a gate onto a road.
4. Turn left, and in 60 yards right through another gate, bearing left to track round the head of a combe. Cross the first stile on the left and walk up to another stile, after which continue in the same direction along the left-hand edge of the next field. In the next corner, bear left on a rough track, with Hardy’s Monument almost straight ahead. Follow the track as it goes downhill, bear left and then right in front of a barn to reach a lane. Turn left on the lane for 60 yards, then cross a stile on the right and walk along the right-hand edge of the next two fields. Just before the end of the second one, cross the wall on the right and walk up the right-hand side of the field to reach the Hellstone.
5. Retrace your steps to the main route, where turn right and continue down to the bottom right-hand corner of a third field. Cross a stile, a track and another (stone) stile. Follow the path through woodland to reach a track, where turn right and follow the track as it bends to the right and goes through the middle of some ruined farm buildings to a gate. Beyond the gate, stay on the track as it goes over the top of the hill and descends to go through the buildings of Portesham Farm. Beyond the farm it becomes a paved drive, curves round to the right and continues to descend. Where the drive joins a lane, turn right and walk down into Portesham. At the T-junction, turn left into Front Street and walk down to your car.