The Dorset Walk – Hod and Hambledon
Matt Wilkinson and Dan Bold on two of Dorset’s iconic high places
Published in November ’12
Hod Hill was an Iron Age hillfort covering about 52 acres, with most of the settlement in the south-east corner. Here was a large round-house, which was blitzed by a hail of ballista bolts from Vespasian’s all-conquering Roman army in 43 or 44 AD. Some hasty attempts at improving the defences had been made by the Durotriges, but in vain: the chieftain was killed before he even had time to pick up his spear. Unusually, the Romans then made a fort of their own on the site, covering about 7 acres in the north-west corner, and called it Dunium. It seems likely that the original occupants were allowed to stay on to provide services and labour to their conquerors. Possibly because of the lack of a road, the Roman occupation of Dunium seems to have been short-lived. Today, Hod is especially popular with lepidopterists for its number and variety of butterflies.
Hambledon Hill is both higher and larger in area than its near neighbour. It was also fortified by ditches and ramparts in the Iron Age, but some historians believe that the settlement here was abandoned in favour of Hod before Vespasian’s conquest. Its main historical interest comes from a millennium and a half later, when country folk, fed up with the privations caused by the Civil War, formed the Clubmen to oppose Royalists and Parliamentarians alike. Some hope: as they made their last stand on Hambledon, 2000 Dorset Clubmen were seen off by 50 of Cromwell’s dragoons, many of them escaping by sliding down the hill on their bottoms.
Today, Hambledon’s chalk grassland is a National Nature Reserve.
The route passes Hanford, built by the Seymer family in the Jacobean period and now a girls’ school. On the way down from Hambledon, three significant Dorset houses can be seen simultaneously: to the left, the 19th-century house designed by Alfred Waterhouse for Lord Wolverton that is now Clayesmore School; ahead, Ranston, where lived the Ryves family, great benefactors of Blandford, and which is now the home of James Gibson Fleming, Dorset’s Vice Lord Lieutenant; to the right, Stepleton House, where the Italian composer, Muzio Clementi, lived for seven years under the patronage of the Beckford family, who, rather incongruously, were also keen huntsmen and writers on hunting.
The walk goes through three attractive North Dorset villages in Shroton, Stourpaine and Child Okeford, each overshadowed by one of the great hillforts.
1 Cross the stile onto the cricket ground and bear left to walk across grass for a short distance before picking up a track that runs alongside a light-coloured wall on the left, then a metal railing fence. At a track junction, turn left for a few yards then right to take the lower or left-hand of two tracks that both curve to the right. The track follows a fence on the left and some power lines on the right. Cross under the power lines between two gates in quick succession, the second of which leads into an open field. Bear left to follow the left-hand edge down to a gate onto a lane, on which turn right.
2 Walk for 1/3 mile to Keeper’s Cottage on the right. Here turn left through a gate onto a track that curves to the left and climbs up the side of the hill. Follow this increasingly grassy track as it curves first right and then left, steeply uphill. As it reaches a slightly flatter section, turn right, aiming for the corner of a wood visible over the brow of the hill. At the wood, join a path that leads through a gate, then bear left up and over the ramparts of Hod Hill. Continue in the same direction to walk diagonally across the hillfort (or for a longer alternative with even better views, walk round the ramparts in either direction). As the path starts to descend from the hillfort’s highest point, it curves gently to the right. Follow it to the first gap in the ramparts that becomes visible, where the path bends to the right through the inner ring and to the left through the outer to reach a stile onto an enclosed path.
3 Take this downhill, bearing right at the bottom to follow the little River Iwerne for a while before the path bends to the left to reach a lane. At a T-junction continue straight ahead and take the first turning on the right into Havelins opposite Willow Cottage and in front of Corner Cottage. At the end of the lane, turn right into Hod Drive, which quickly becomes a track. Stay on this track as it bends left and descends gently to meet the River Stour. Turn right and follow the riverside path until the river bends sharply to the left and the path bears away to the right, through woodland, to meet a road.
4 Turn left and walk for ½ mile to a turning on the left marked ‘No Through Road’, just past the main building of Hanford School. Turn left here, take the first turning on the right, and in 20 yards bear left in front of a beech hedge onto a narrow path. Beyond a stile, go straight ahead into an open field and follow the right-hand edge. In the next corner, cross a stile on the right and walk up the field beyond, paralleling the left-hand edge. Cross a stile about 60 yards up from the far left-hand corner and continue in the same direction across the next field.
5 Cross a stile and turn left onto a track. At the bottom of the slope, follow the track as it bends sharply round to the right and leads up to Melway Farm, where it becomes a drive and then a road. At the top of the road turn right, then left at the T-junction to walk up through Child Okeford. Just past the Baker Arms on the left and the war memorial on the right (but not actually at the war memorial) turn right, signed to Iwerne Minster and Shaftesbury. In 250 yards, opposite Yew Hedge House, turn right up the drive to Manor Barn and in 10 yards up a bank to a gate. Turn left to follow the left-hand field-edge. In the next corner, cross a stile on the left, and in a few yards go through a kissing gate on the right onto a narrow path.
6 Where this emerges into the open through another kissing gate, continue in the same direction, more or less straight up the imposing flank of Hambledon Hill. Keep aiming for the highest point ahead and on reaching the top of the hill, bear right to track along its length. Leave the hillfort by a gate at its very further end and continue up the path to a trig point. Here turn left on a track running across the middle of the field. Follow this down to the bottom, where turn left on the track alongside the light-coloured wall, then cross the grass to reach the stile by the cricket ground, beyond which is the road where your car is parked.
Distance: About 7¾ miles.
Terrain: After wet weather, some of the paths and tracks can be muddy, but there are usually diversions round the worst patches. As might be expected on a route named after two of Dorset’s most prominent hills, there are two steep climbs.
Start: On the road outside the cricket ground at Shroton.
How to get there: Turn west off the A350 Blandford-Shaftesbury road, ½ mile north of the Stepleton bends or 1¼ miles south of Iwerne Minster, signed ‘Shroton (Iwerne Courtney)’. Follow the road into the village and turn left into Fairfield Road, signed to Child Okeford, Farrington and The Orchards. The cricket ground is on the left. OS reference ST859125, postcode DT11 8QA.
Maps: OS Explorer 118 (Shaftesbury & Cranborne Chase), with a few hundred yards on 117 (Cerne Abbas & Bere Regis). OS Landranger 194 (Dorchester & Weymouth).
Refreshments: The Baker Arms and village shop in Child Okeford. The Cricketers at Shroton is near the start/finish and the White Horse at Stourpaine is just off the route.