The Dorset Walk – Maiden Castle and Martinstown
Matt Wilkinson and Dan Bold visit Dorset’s biggest hillfort
Published in August ’11
Maiden Castle, which dominates the beginning and end of this walk, can claim to be Dorset’s most significant historic monument in terms not only of size – at 16 acres (6.4 hectares), that is beyond dispute – but of importance. Mortimer Wheeler’s excavations in the 1930s revealed fascinating detail about the social and economic lives of the Durotriges, the Celtic tribe who inhabited the hillfort, and about its capture by Vespasian’s Roman army in 44AD.
The taking of Maiden Castle is vividly illustrated by Wheeler’s find of the skeleton of a Durotrigian defender with a Roman ballista bolt embedded in his spine, now on display in the Dorset County Museum. But to get a proper sense of awe at the scale of Maiden Castle, you must go there. Only then do you truly realise what a staggering feat it must have been to throw up these great ramparts, with their deep dividing ditches, at a time when only primitive tools were available. As impressive is the realisation of the skill and courage that the Romans must have needed to overcome the almost sheer banks and well-defended entrances.
The views from the hillfort are spectacular, south to the Ridgeway and north over Dorchester and far into Dorset; even Poundbury’s well-meaning ghastliness is softened when viewed from Maiden Castle. It is one of the best spots in Dorset for skylarks, too.
Martinstown has spread up the sides of the valley of the South Winterborne but still has a strong feeling of a village about it. The font in the parish church of St Martin dates from 1125, about the time when the oldest part of the church was built. A native of the village, John Adams, was hung, drawn and quartered in 1586, one of the Catholic martyrs during the reign of Elizabeth I. Until recently overtaken, Martinstown was the unlikely holder of the UK record for the highest rainfall in a day: 11 inches (28 cm) on 19 July 1955.
1 Leave the car park by the well-trodden path that runs up to the right-hand end of the earthwork on the skyline. Turn left through the ramparts at the Western Entrance and follow the fence on the left as it bends to the right and then swings sharply to the left to reach a gate leading into the central area of the hillfort. After the gate bear left, up onto the highest, innermost rampart. Walk in a clockwise direction almost all the way round the rampart, but just before completing the circuit, descend to a kissing-gate, after which turn left to cross the ramparts. On the rampart before the outer ditch, turn left. As the rampart doubles back on itself to form the other wall of the outer ditch, bear left to a stile. On the other side of the stile, turn left on a path and follow it down to a gate onto a lane.
2 Turn right and follow the lane up to a junction with a road. Turn left and walk carefully down the road for 60 yards before turning right into the drive of Higher Ashton Farm. Follow the paved track as it goes through the farm buildings, then swings round them to the right and goes uphill. As the paved track ends at the entrance to a field, go straight ahead to cross the field diagonally to the far left-hand corner. Here go through the gate on the left and follow the right-hand field-edge for about 120 yards to the second gate. Go through it and bear left to cross the next field diagonally, passing a row of often sheep-topped tumuli on the right. In the next field, turn left to follow the edge and at the top, turn right onto the Ridgeway.
3 Continue along the Ridgeway until just before the first of the pylon lines which sadly blight this part of Dorset, where turn right through rather more than ninety degrees onto a rough field-track, passing between the pylon line on the left and a conspicuous tumulus on the right. In the next field the track passes to the left of another tumulus, then bears slightly round to the right. Here move gradually away from it to the left, downhill towards a gate and signpost visible in the left-hand field-edge. Beyond this gate, walk along the side of the valley, gradually descending to the end of the field.
4 Here turn left on an unpaved track. Soon after the track has curved to the right and another track has joined from the left, do not go through the gateposts ahead but bear slightly right to follow the left-hand edge of a long, narrow field. Follow the path as it goes through a gate and uphill through a patch of woodland. At the end of the woodland, go through a gate and parallel the right-hand edge of the field beyond. On the far side, go straight ahead on a paved track that runs down to cross the South Winterborne and join the main street through Martinstown, almost opposite the church of St Martin.
5 Turn right for about 200 yards, then left on a track immediately after Fishers Barn, passing Stevens Farmhouse on the right. Just after a red-brick bungalow on the right, turn right through a gate into an open field and follow the right-hand edge. In the first corner, go through a gate and follow the right-hand edge of the next field down to a three-way road junction. Walk straight across towards Clandon Hill with its distinctive barrow on top, and enter a rough track. Pass through the large complex of farm buildings at Clandon; a right-left, left-right double dog-leg is necessary at the end of the buildings. Continue along the track and soon Maiden Castle comes into view again. Reaching a gate at the end of the track, turn right onto a lane to return to your car.
Distance: About 7 miles.
Terrain: Moderate – some steepish but short climbs and at worst slightly muddy underfoot.
Start: The English Heritage car park to the north of Maiden Castle. OS ref. 668889. Postcode DT1 2HH.
How to get there: Turn west off the B3147 Weymouth Road, near the southern edge of Dorchester, into Maiden Castle Road. There is a brown sign to Maiden Castle. The road ends in the car park.
Maps: OS Explorer OL15 (Purbeck & South Dorset); OS Landranger 194 (Dorchester & Weymouth).
Refreshments: The Brewers Arms and a farm shop with ‘coffee parlour’ are both just off the route in Martinstown.