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Melbury Hill, Compton Abbas and Fontmell Down

Peter Booton heads north to tackle a walk boasting some of the most glorious views in Dorset

At 263 metres the summit of Melbury Hill, Melbury Beacon, is one of the highest points in Dorset. An Armada beacon sited here in 1588 formed part of the chain of signal beacons stretching between London and Plymouth and which included others in the county at Okeford Hill, Lewesdon Hill and Rawlsbury Camp.
Melbury Hill lies on the high chalk escarpment of the North Dorset Downs that separate the Blackmore Vale from Cranborne Chase. From Melbury Beacon summit on a clear day there are superb panoramic views of both, as well as of the Saxon hilltop town of Shaftesbury less than two miles to the north.

View south-west of Blackmore Vale from Melbury Beacon. The A350 can just be seen on the left.

In 1977 the National Trust purchased by public subscription an initial 60 hectares of neighbouring Fontmell Down in memory of Thomas Hardy and in recognition of the site’s valuable combination of natural history, landscape and archaeology. Further land on adjoining Compton Down and Melbury Hill has been acquired since.
As an important chalk flora and fauna conservation site Fontmell Down is part-managed today by the Dorset Wildlife Trust who has established a number of Nature Reserves in the area, one of which, The Curlews and Burys, borders this walk where it crosses the south facing slopes of Fontmell Down.

A section of the Iron Age cross-dyke on Fontmell Down

The chalk downland turf abounds with more than 90 species of flowers and grasses, including early purple orchids, birds-foot trefoil, aromatic wild thyme and clustered bellflower in spring and early summer. The downland is also a popular breeding ground for birds – kestrels and buzzards are a familiar sight – and more than 30 species of butterfly have been recorded on The Curlews and Burys Nature Reserve alone.

The Victorian St Mary’s Church at Compton Abbas

Nestling in the lee of Fontmell Down is the parish and village of Compton Abbas, its name derived from ‘Cumb-ton’ – village in a narrow valley, and ‘abbas’, signifying that its land once belonged to the abbess of Shaftesbury. In spite of its picturesque location at the foot of the downs the population of the village has shrunk from 456 1861 Census to 200 in 2001.
Along the busy and meandering A350, the former turnpike that divided the old villages of East Compton and West Compton when it was constructed, stands the Church of St. Mary designed by George Evans of Wimborne and consecrated by the Bishop of Salisbury in 1868. Victorian St. Mary’s replaces a medieval church of the same name of which only its 15th-century greensand tower survives in a stone walled churchyard at East Compton where it is accompanied by a number of graves, two unidentified table tombs and the remains of a medieval cross. All are now in the ownership and care of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Two bells from the tower, the oldest of which is believed to date from 1500 and bears the inscription ‘Maria’, were relocated in its Victorian successor along with a carved stone font that has been re-cut since and placed on a new pedestal. Another item of note is the Indian sanctuary lamp originally from a Hindu temple near Mumbai which hangs above the side chapel altar.
A former rector of old St Mary’s, Reverend Thomas Bravell, is renowned for being one of the leaders of the ‘Clubmen’, an armed band of people between 2000 and 4000 strong, who fought Oliver Cromwell’s troops on Hambledon Hill in August 1645 in protest at the damage caused to their lands and livelihood by both sides during the protracted English Civil War. One of their banners proclaimed, ‘If you offer to plunder or take our cattel, rest assured we will bid you battel’.
The Clubmen were easily defeated, but although many were wounded, only a few were killed. A number of the protesters were held captive in Shroton church overnight before being released the next day. However, Reverend Bravell and the other ringleaders were retained. The place near East Compton where they assembled before the battle is known today as Clubmen’s Down.
Don’t be surprised by the frequent sight and sound of light aircraft on this walk, particularly during the early and late stages, because privately owned Compton Abbas airfield is barely ½ mile east of the starting point on Spreadeagle Hill. At 210 metres this is one of the highest airfields in England and certainly one of the most picturesquely situated with superb panoramic views from its public viewing area and licensed restaurant which is open 360 days of the year. During summer the airfield hosts a number of spectacular aerobatic displays and fly-ins, regularly involving historic aircraft.

The walk:
1. Facing the road, turn left out of the car park onto a narrow bridleway and follow alongside the C13 for 300 yards where pass through a gate onto grassy downland leading to Melbury Beacon in 1 mile. After a north-south bridleway that crosses half way (you will return to this later) there is a fairly strenuous climb to the summit. Cross a fence-stile on your left to reach the viewpoint and OS triangulation pillar.
2. Having admired the superb views of Shaftesbury and the Blackmore Vale, retrace your steps for ½ mile to the bridleway on your right and head SSW downhill to a metal farm gate. Pass through this and a second metal gate almost immediately after onto a farm track crossing an open field and leading to East Compton in 500 yards.
3. On reaching village lane turn left and after only a few yards fork right. Ahead is the churchyard and surviving greensand tower of 15th century St Mary’s church. Pause to view the churchyard and then continue along the lane, with the church on your right.

4. Walk past Melbury Hill House and Twintown uphill to within a few yards of the A350. Turn left and ascend stone steps leading to the footpath through woodland and passing former Compton Abbas school and schoolhouse (now a private dwelling) to reach St Mary’s church.

5. After visiting the church turn left out of the gate onto a downhill track and in 50 yards descend wooden steps on your right to a path with the appearance of a minor watercourse leading to a metalled lane in 100 yards. Turn left (ignore public footpath sign pointing right) for 200 yards to a wooden finger post on the right, signed ‘Gore Clump 1½ m’.

6. Follow this bridleway past Willis’ Farm, on the left, through a tree-lined sunken lane to the gate at end where enter an open field and, keeping the fence on your right, to a metal farm gate at foot of Fontmell Down.

Fontmell Magna view from Fore Top on Fontmell Down

7. A bridleway sign at this point gives two options: left or straight ahead. Choose the latter. Keep the fence on your right and head for the far side of the field, where turn left for a short distance to reach a grassy slope ascending to a bridle gate and NT sign ‘Fontmell Down’. Continue uphill, taking great care because this mud over chalk track gets very slippery following rain.

8. Shortly after the ground levels out, a single gate in the fence on your right provides an opportunity to divert to the viewpoint at The Border on Fontmell Down which offers a superb view, on a clear day, of the delightful village of Fontmell Magna nestling in the vale below. If you would prefer to return to your vehicle, ignore the gate and continue straight ahead for 1100 yards to the car park.

Duncliffe Wood (just right of centre in the distance) view from The Border with the spire of Victorian St Mary’s church just visible below it

9. For this additional 1¼ mile section of the walk across gently undulating and open grassy downland, pass through the gate at 8. and head diagonally over the rise for the clump of trees on the skyline (almost due south). On reaching the trees, keep the fence on your left and, after pausing to admire the view of Fontmell Magna below, continue for 200 yards and go through a single gate on your left, noting that this is a NT designated path and not a public right of way. Longcombe Bottom is on your right.

10. With the fence on your left, aim towards the right hand end of a clump of trees where go through two gates 60 yards apart and continue ahead, passing the fence-stile on right accessing The Curlews and Burys Nature Reserve, to an Iron Age cross-dyke. On reaching this follow its course to a track where turn right and follow to end alongside the Upper Blandford to Shaftesbury Road. The gate on your left opens onto a narrow track beside the road which leads to the car park in 250 yards.

Distance: 4½ miles + 1¼ miles for excursion to Fore Top.
Terrain: Mostly downland turf with a few possibly muddy tracks and some quiet, tarmacked village lanes. Dog owners please note that sheep and cattle may be grazing on Fontmell Down.
Start: National Trust free car park at the top of Spreadeagle Hill. OS grid reference ST886 187. Postcode SP5 5AP (Compton Abbas airfield, not NT car park).
How to get there: Turn eastwards off A350 at Fontmell Magna. Follow road past Springhead Trust, uphill for 1¼ miles to cross-roads on C13 (Upper Blandford to Shaftesbury Road) where turn left and continue for 1¼ miles to NT car park on left at brow of Spreadeagle Hill.
Maps: OS Explorer 118 Shaftesbury and Cranborne Chase. OS Landranger 183 Yeovil and Frome.
Refreshments: Licensed restaurant and light refreshments at Compton Abbas airfield, ½ mile east of Spreadeagle Hill car park. ‘Milestones’ 17th-century Tea Room near St. Mary’s church alongside the A350.
Public transport: None to start point on Spreadeagle Hill. Apart from taxis, the only alternative is by bus from Shaftesbury or Blandford to Compton Abbas village and join walk at 5 (St. Mary’s church).

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