The best of Dorset in words and pictures

The face of Dorset – Rural East Dorset

John Chaffey continues his exploration of the landscapes of Dorset

East Dorset offers a pleasing mix of open rolling countryside, a more intimate combination of pasture and woodland, valued heathland and more extensive areas of forest. Broadly it can be said to lie between the River Allen to the west, the River Avon and the Hampshire boundary in the east and the River Stour to the south: three towns mark the apices of this triangle, Wimborne Minster in the south-west and the two Hampshire towns of Fordingbridge in the north-east, and Ringwood in the east.

Walford Bridge and the River Allen, Wimborne

Walford Bridge and the River Allen, Wimborne

North-westwards, its small strip of chalk countryside merges imperceptibly with the open landscapes of Cranborne Chase; eastwards its areas of heathland and coniferous plantations find greater and more expansive expression in the New Forest while southwards its leafy suburban estates in Verwood and West Moors look towards their parent conurbation of Bournemouth and Poole.

Knowlton Church: the unique church within a henge

Knowlton Church: the unique church within a henge

Geologically, East Dorset displays some considerable variety; chalk underlies a western strip from Hinton Parva northwards to Cranborne, the younger Tertiary beds to the south-east make their first appearance in the feathered edge of the Reading Beds with some isolated patches to the west.
London Clay outcrops in a broad belt from Furzehill in the south to Cripplestyle and supports good farmland and woodland. It forms a small escarpment best seen at Chalbury and Edmondsham. Eastwards, the Bagshot Beds result in poorer, more acid soils and large fragments of heathland, such as Holt Heath, which still survive as ecologically valuable parts of the land-use mosaic. Evidence of a low escarpment in the Bagshot Beds
can be seen at Holt Heath, Horton Common and
Cranborne Common.

The Holt Heath National Nature reserve (NNR) covers an area of 488 Ha (1205 acres)

The Holt Heath National Nature reserve (NNR) covers an area of 488 Ha (1205 acres)

The Bracklesham Beds outcrop to the south and east, high river terraces overlook the Avon valley in the east and, in the south, the terraces culminate in East Dorset’s one really incomparable viewpoint, St. Catherine’s Hill above Christchurch. The lower terraces of the Stour to the south still support fertile farmland that has not succumbed to suburban spread.
Wimborne Minster is the town that most identifies itself with East Dorset. The image of the twin towers of the Minster rising above the buildings of the town and the floodplain of the Stour is a familiar and cherished one. Built of Portland Limestone, Purbeck Limestone and the mellowed brown heathstone, it possesses much of architectural merit.
It includes the work of stonemasons over many centuries. Its central tower and nave are Norman, and the later western tower was added in the 15th century, when it was realized that the earlier tower would not support the bells. The original tower also had a spire, which collapsed in 1600, but was never replaced. Wimborne still retains some of its mediaeval core, with narrow streets leading away from the Minster to the Cornmarket and The Square, which was created on the site of the old St. Peter’s Church in the 19th century.

Ashford Water at  Alderholt Mill

Allen River at Alderholt Mill

Leading away from the centre, East Street, West Street and East Borough all display fine 18th- and 19th-century buildings, but Wimborne’s finest architecture is found in West Borough, where the Tivoli Theatre occupies the former Borough House. The River Allen flows through the town’s centre, its clear waters resulting from its passage over the chalklands. Following the Allen northwards out of Wimborne, it leads into the open country of rural East Dorset. The village of Stanbridge, or Hinton Parva, displays its delightful rustic thatched lodge and its now redundant church dedicated to St. Kenelm. Tucked away on a side road is its twin village of Hinton Martell, with its unusual street fountain – Treves thought it incongruous ‘even for a street memorial’.

Rising away from Hinton Martell to the east is what Treves describes as a ‘deep Devonshire lane’ that leads to the narrow side road to Chalbury Hill. Here gravels cap the London Clay to form a hill-top which, although only 335 feet high, has commanding views in almost every direction that reveal much of the character of this part of East Dorset. Hutchins records that ‘on top of the hill was a very high elm tree, which before the great storm of 1703 (when nearly a third part was broken off from the top) served as a landmark to those who sailed in the Channel and might be plainly discerned from the hills that lie above Yarmouth in the Isle of Wight’.

View from St. Catherine’s Hill looking towards the Isle of Wight

View from St. Catherine’s Hill looking towards the Isle of Wight

To the north are Monmouth’s country, Wimborne St. Giles and Cranborne Chase, the long backs of bushless down and the wild heath. To the south are the water meadows of the Stour, the Purbeck Hills and the Needles. Trees have somewhat obscured many of these views, but the panorama from the churchyard looking to the south-west towards the Purbeck Hills is still remarkably fine.
Treves thought little better of Horton village than its nearby tower, finding it ‘most unattractive’. Its tower, a brick folly, was built in the mid-18th century by the local landowner, Humphrey Sturt, to watch the local hunt when he could no longer ride with it.
Two miles or so to the north of Horton is the abandoned mediaeval village of Knowlton. The desolate church still survives within a Neolithic henge structure, with a raised bank and ditch within it. A much larger henge site has now been almost ploughed out, as have two smaller ones, while numerous round barrows are also found in the immediate vicinity. The church (built mostly of heathstone and flint) has a 12th-century nave and chancel; the tower is 14th century. The roof collapsed in the 18th century and it has remained derelict.
Cottages and farms cluster thickly on the London Clay outcrop with Gaunt’s Common, God’s Blessing Green and Holt all enjoying the benefits of good farming country. Holt was originally the centre of the Royal Forest of Wimborne; Holt Wood to the north recalls memories of past silviculture (woodland management). Farther to the north the linear village of Woodlands evokes similar memories, and is still surrounded by well-wooded country.
On the outcrop of the Bagshot Beds, important areas of heathland survive. The largest is Holt Heath, a National Nature Reserve, with patches of gravel overlying the Bagshot Beds. It is high enough to have extensive views over much of East Dorset. Both dry and wet heath occur within its limits and its habitats include valley bogs.
East Dorset’s open nature has an immediate appeal and provides a welcome contrast to the more intimate farmscape and dense woodland fragments nearby. Horton Heath and Horton Common are similar smaller fragments of heathland to the north, and Cranborne Common south of Alderholt is another smaller area of dry and wet heath.
Alderholt village itself is located on the Bagshot Beds and its church, dating from the mid-19th century, is remarkably built almost entirely of local heathstone. Small farms and cottages reveal a struggle to farm the difficult soils: modern development suggests commuting to Bournemouth or Salisbury. Its brick-built mill on the clear waters of Ashford Water almost seems like a distant echo of Walford Mill at Wimborne.
Verwood, West Moors and Ashley Heath, together with Ferndown to the south, all have a similar story to tell. Their names suggest difficult and unrewarding farming conditions, where heathcroppers, as the subsistence farmers were known, struggled to survive.
The coming of the railways to East Dorset in the mid-19th century opened up these scattered settlements to outside influence, but it was the mid-to-late 20th century that saw their great expansion. Now they are part, albeit still leafy and quasi-rural, of one of the south coast’s great conurbations.
Rural East Dorset reveals a fascinating variety of landscapes. From Bournemouth’s burgeoning housing estates on its southern margins to the open landscapes of Cranborne Chase on the north, East Dorset includes prosperous farming communities, dense woodlands, open heathlands and rapidly expanding commuter settlements. Such a mix can inevitably involve both physical and human conflict, requiring sensible compromise, aimed at preserving the best in this urban fringeland of Dorset.

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