Legging it in Dorset – Ashmore and Stubhampton
Rodney Legg in the wooded top-lands of Cranborne Chase
Published in October ’11
This is Dorset’s highest village. Ashmore, a corruption of Ash-mere, is named for its trees and the famous pond on the 700-feet plateau at the heart of Cranborne Chase. The water-table, effectively out of reach 300 feet below the cottages, is said to have been reached by a well, dug at the cost of £50 in 1825 but it proved impracticable to raise buckets from that depth. The work was so unpopular that the local youth rebelled and toppled the nearby maypole into the hole. The 40-feet pole blocked the shaft.
The circular pond, colonised by toad tadpoles, is 120 feet in diameter. When it dried out in drought years it was the custom to hold a feast, with the last taking place in 1887 – Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee year – when farmers hauled out ‘hundreds of cart-loads of mud which had accumulated on the bottom’, to spread as a fertiliser across their land. It then became ’16 feet deep opposite the Rectory’.
Archaeological finds, discovered during repairs to its man-made bed of clay, have proved the antiquity of the pond. These date back to the Romans and the Iron Age Celts, and longer, with the likely date of construction being 1000 BC in the Late Bronze Age. Current technology has brought a plastic membrane, installed in time to prevent cracks appearing during the 1994 heatwave, with Wessex Water having provided a cheap-rate supply for future topping up.
It is reasonable to assume there has been continuity of self-sufficient occupation at Ashmore for three millennia. In Roman times it was almost at the roadside as the agger or causeway of the Roman road from Badbury Rings to Bath can be traced across the hills and through the woods less than half a mile away. Hazel plantings have been coppiced for hurdles since Anglo-Saxon times; some being the very same trees as they continue to re-generate for as long as a 15-year interval cutting regime can be maintained. Rare woodland plants, along with the ubiquitous bluebells, prove that this is part of the largest block of primeval woodland in Dorset.
The Saxon hundred court of Long Barrow was held near Ashmore, probably on the mound across the Wiltshire boundary in Donhead St Mary, at a point which must have originally delineated the country line. The open field system survived until the parish’s Common Inclosure Act of 1856. Arable strips covered North Field, Sandpits Field and Broadridge Field. There were rights of pasture to Broadridge Common and Tenantry Sheep Down. The enclosures were completed in 1863, by which time the commons had been ploughed, ancient barrows and roads removed, and many coppices grubbed out.
In the front garden of Shepherd’s Cottage is the water tank provided by Robert Howard in 1897, to commemorate the 60th year of Queen Victoria’s reign, and itself celebrated by the seat opposite the pond. The replacement reservoir – in case you think villagers still drink from the pond – is on concrete pillars behind the church, screened by beech trees. It holds 10,000 gallons, pumped up from Fontmell Magna, and was completed in 1922.
Even in the 18th century, when it was down to a population of 150, Ashmore supported two public houses. The Three Horse Shoes was in Andrews’ Tenement and the Stag’s Head, in Noade Street, was named for its stone crest of the landowning Barber family. It was one of a succession of Robert Barbers who erected four octagonal towers – three of which survive – as summerhouses.
The Anglican National School opened in 1842, followed by the building of a Methodist Chapel, facing the parish church, in 1855. It was built at the expense of Stephen Hall. Around them the scene retains an idyllic perfection, with a warm mix of flint, cob and Flemish-bond brickwork. Several buildings incorporate earlier walls and fireplaces.
Stephen Fry and Mrs Sarah Gifford were the late Victorian shopkeepers. Mrs Emily Rideout was postmistress and Gideon Joyner the blacksmith at the Forge. The cobbler was George Wilkins and leather worker Henry Tuffin made shoes. John Davidge was the fish and balm dealer. Farmer Stephen Bealing was the local carrier. By the Great War thatcher Harry White had joined the list. All such commercial activity ceased with the closure of the village shop at the end of the 20th century.
St Nicholas parish church, dating from 1874, is embellished by a series of corbel carvings including hunting scenes on Cranborne Chase. These were sculpted by John Skeaping, in 1934, in memory of Charlotte and Eliot Fox Howard.
1 Set off down cul-de-sac Green Lane beside the pond, passing Bay Cottage, and then turn left in 50 yards beside Shepherd’s Hut. This track heads towards Tollard Royal. Pass the stables and go through the gate down to the dense hedgerow after the riding circuit. Here were turn right, leaving the Wessex Ridgeway two-counties path which was opened by Priscilla Houstoun in 1994.
2 Walk down through the scrub that marks the Wiltshire-Dorset boundary. Then continue straight ahead across stiles with woods to your left and parkland oaks to your right. At the end of the field we come to the line of the Roman road from Bath to Badbury Rings. On entering the main woods it is Wiltshire Copse to the left and Hookley Copse to the right. Fork right at the end of the woods with an arable field to your left. Continue through the next wood at Tollard Green.
3 After this wood the track swings to the right, uphill, beside a belt of scrub. On top of the hill, 30 yards after gates on each side, there is a path junction beside a big oak tree. Turn left into Ashmore Wood, for 400 yards.
4 Turn left through the gate, to leave the wood, into grassy Ashmore Bottom. Join the driveway at Ashmore Barn Farm and follow it into Stubhampton in a further half-mile.
5 Pass Holmes Lea and turn right at the road beside Little Pasture. Proceed to the corner in 150 yards. Take the centre gate into the field, towards Ashmore Wood.
6 After entering Hanging Coppice, continue to the end of the left-hand trees, and then turn immediately right. The uphill path follows the field fence.
7 Turn left in the trees, towards Ashmore, in two-thirds of a mile at the next signed path junction. Proceed to the end of the wood in Upper Broadridge Coppice. Continue straight ahead across Broadridge and pass through an outlying arm of the wood.
8 The track across the fields becomes double-hedged Halfpenny Lane, northwards and uphill, back into Ashmore village. Turn right to return to the pond.
Distance: 6 miles
Terrain: Gentle paths through downland combes and coppices.
Start: In Ashmore, in the High Street in the vicinity of the Methodist Chapel, the war memorial and Pond Cottage, at the approach to the village pond (Ordnance Survey map reference ST 913 178; postcode SP5 5AE).
How to get there: Turn east from the Higher Blandford Road, between Blandford and Shaftesbury, opposite the turning to Fontmell Magna.
Maps: Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 118 (Shaftesbury & Cranborne Chase); Landranger 184 (Salisbury and the Plain)