The Dorset drive: Valleys, hills and views
Matt Wilkinson takes to the roads for a drive through some of Dorset’s prettiest countryside
Published in January ’13
This drive is defined rather less by the area it physically covers, but more the area which can be seen from some of the viewpoints along the route, views which are among the finest in Dorset. It takes in or approaches some very fine former stately homes, a model village, a sculpture park, the burial place of one and a bit great English poets, two unusual churches, four Winterbornes, two Piddles and a Tincle.
It is a drive best planned for a clear day when the views will unfold and, for best value from the distant views, after the mist has burnt off. It is also worth saying that some of the unclassified roads in the middle section of the route are best not driven when snow and ice prevail. It’s a compact route compared to our normal drives – about three-quarters of the length of last year’s, for example, but there is some enjoyable driving, (in Spring) green tunnels, and with some very interesting up and down sections. Special care should be taken to follow the instructions between the portion of the route between Ibberton and Delcombe.
This is proper rural Dorset: narrow wooded valleys – with villages and hamlets whose houses are strung along roads and rivers like washing on the line, then up to the hills and views off to the Mendips one way and (almost) to the coast within a few miles of driving.
Our starting point is not especially relevant in the context of the drive, so you can join it anywhere, but it is, for the sake of ease of following the instructions and to maximise the number of left turns and minimise the number of right turns, best to use the same generally anti-clockwise direction of travel as our route.
1. Head towards Wimborne on the A31, fork onto the first turning on the left [0.6] and continue into Winterborne Kingston. In front of the village hall and war memorial, turn left into West Street [1.7]. Continue to Winterborne Whitechurch, where turn right onto the A354 [4.4] and in 100 yards left into Whatcombe Lane to head up the Winterborne valley. A winterborne is a stream that only flows in the winter, and there are legends of people who have kept watch over such a river to see when it starts to run; yet somehow, they are always called away or distracted at the vital moment. Pass Whatcombe House, formerly the base for a religious community, now a family home again. Next is Winterborne Clenston with its church spire – unusual in Dorset – and graves of the Mansel-Pleydell family. Related to the Mansels of Smedmore on Purbeck, they were the landowning family hereabouts and one of their number endowed an annual prize for the best essay about Dorset’s local, cultural or natural history. Here also, the road passes an ancient barn with an unusual chequerboard roof and enters Winterborne Stickland, whose carved wooden village sign (on the green on the left) vividly depicts the history and activities of the village. At Turnworth, the decoration on the pillars in St Mary’s Church was designed by Thomas Hardy when he was a young architect.
2. The road breasts Okeford Hill [10.8] and reveals a breathtaking view over the whole of North Dorset and into Somerset. Hambledon and Duncliffe Hills and King Alfred’s Tower above Stourhead are just some of the easily identifiable landmarks. Continue down the hill to a T-junction [11.8], where turn left. Ignore all turnings and follow the main road into Ibberton. In the centre of the village there is an optional diversion to the left to the village pub and church, which has a beautiful outlook and the unusual dedication to St Eustachius, but the main route bends right then left before forking left, signed to Bulbarrow, on the next right-hand bend [14.1]. Climb to a T-junction [14.6], where turn right and head up the flank of what is technically Ibberton Hill, followed by Woolland Hill, then Bulbarrow Hill but is usually lumped together under the last name. Again there are stunning views to the right, looking rather more north-west than the northerly view from Okeford Hill.
3. At the top of the hill [15.9] double back to the left, then take the first fork on the right [16.2] and drive through Delcombe Woods, which in the spring offer one of Dorset’s best displays of bluebells. Lovely 18th-century Delcombe Manor is hidden by the woods and slope to the right. At the next T-junction [18.4] turn right and admire the view that unfolds to the south, down to the Purbeck Hills. Thus in the space of only three miles, you have gone from looking at the Mendip Hills to being able to see almost to the Channel coast. In a dip, a turning to the right has a brown sign to Milton Abbey [19.1]. Turn here and drive down the picturesque main street of Milton Abbas. The model village was created in the 1780s by Joseph Damer, who demolished the town of Middleton because it spoiled the view from his grand new house, Milton Abbey, and moved the inhabitants round the corner to this valley. At the bottom of the street [19.7] turn right and follow the road through the woods to emerge with the house and the abbey magnificently sited beyond the trim playing fields of the school whose home this now is. Continue through Hilton and to a T-junction [22.1], where turn right.
4. Take the next turn on the left [22.3] and continue through Ansty, Melcombe Bingham (not to be confused with nearby Bingham’s Melcombe). Reaching Cheselbourne, turn right immediately after the village school [25.2] and cross the watershed to descend to the B3143 Piddle Valley road at Piddletrenthide [29.0]. The odd name comes from the fact that a hide was an ancient unit for measuring area and at the time of the Domesday Book the village on the River Piddle covered thirty (‘trente’ in French) hides. Stay on the B3143 as it runs down to Dorchester, latterly with a panoramic view of the county town. At a T-junction on the edge of Dorchester [35.6], turn left, then at the roundabout [36.0] take the second exit, signed to Kingston Maurward inter alia. Immediately off this road is Stinsford, in whose churchyard the heart of Thomas Hardy lies buried (the rest of his remains are in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey). It is often forgotten that also buried in the churchyard is another poet – and a great admirer of Hardy, hence his request to be buried as close as possible to him) who, unlike Hardy, achieved the post of Poet Laureate: Cecil Day-Lewis. About a mile further on, a diversion to the left leads up to the tiny picturesque cottage in a part of Stinsford Parish known as Upper Bockhampton, where Hardy was born and wrote his first novel. Before that and on a rather different scale is Kingston Maurward, to be seen on the right. This impressive mansion was built in 1720 by George Pitt, a cousin of William Pitt. It was built in red brick but after a visit by George III and his tersely derogatory question – ‘Brick, Pitt? Brick?’ – Pitt re-faced the whole thing in Portland stone. Such toadyism surely improved the look of the house but was not rewarded: the monarch never visited again. Today the house and grounds are home to a college specialising in land-based subjects.
5. Continue through Tincleton with its attractive bell-coted church. The pretty name comes from ‘tin la ton’, which meant ‘farm in a valley’. At Pallington, anglers have given way to art-lovers: the fishery has closed and the new owner, sculptor Simon Gudgeon, has set up a sculpture park which is open to the public but only by pre-booking. At Waddock Cross [42.3], famous for its watercress beds, go straight across the B3390. Pass a turning on the right that leads to T E Lawrence’s cottage at Clouds Hill, Bovington Camp and the Tank Museum. Cross a tank driving training area and reach a T-junction where turn left [45.1]. Follow this road up to Bere Regis and a roundabout, where take the first exit. This leads to the roundabout that was the starting point for the drive [48.3].
Distance: A little under 50 miles
Start: The roundabout to the north-east of Bere Regis, where the A31 and A35 meet. OS reference SY852953. Postcode BH20 7JZ.
Maps: OS Explorer 117 (Cerne Abbas & Bere Regis) and 129 (Yeovil & Sherborne). Landranger 194 (Dorchester & Weymouth).
Refreshments: On the route at Winterborne Whitechurch, Winterborne Stickland, Milton Abbas, Ansty, Piddletrenthide and Piddlehinton. Just off the route at Winterborne Kingston, Ibberton, Dorchester and Bere Regis.
[Milometer readings are given in square brackets. They should be generally reliable, but milometers do vary slightly.]