The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Dorset walk: Ringstead and South Down

Matt Wilkinson and Dan Bold breathe some sea breezes

Majestic views to Portland

Ringstead, at the bottom of a long, narrow lane, gives the impression of being in something of a time-warp. It is the sort of place where one can imagine the Famous Five’s Aunt Fanny and Uncle Quentin taking a house for the summer, with the beach, the low cliffs, the woods and the lush fields providing endless opportunities for adventure. The houses there are indeed mainly holiday homes, although there is a strong sense of community among those who live there all the year round. A few years ago, defence works further down the coast created eroding tidal flows that caused bits of Ringstead’s gardens to fall into the sea at an alarming rate, but a swift and vociferous campaign led to urgent remedial works.
The jewel of the walk is the church of St Catherine’s-by-the-Sea. Resembling nothing more than a garden shed, the tiny, timber-built church on the slopes of White Nothe has a setting as spectacular as any church in Dorset. It was erected in 1926 and has recently been completely restored, but its unique atmosphere remains. The engraved glass window above the altar is by Simon Whistler, son of Laurence, and is in memory of both Donald Wilkinson, who farmed at South Down for most of his life, and Rachel Nickell, victim of a notorious murder on Wimbledon Common in 1992.
Holworth may have been where John Keats spent his last night in England before sailing for Italy, and where he wrote the final version of his poem, ‘Bright star’. Most authorities say that he spent it at Lulworth, but there is also a convincing case for Holworth. South Down is the site of a Bronze Age barrow cemetery.

An azure sea, a blue sky with fluffy, white clouds: Dorset in all its glory

1 Walk away from South Down, across a cattle grid and back down the paved lane. Pass the turning down to Ringstead and in rather under ½ mile, just before a sharp right-hand bend, a paved track leads off to the left. Turn left here but ignore the track; instead, hug the left-hand edge of the field, go over the rise and down to a stile into woodland. Beyond the stile, follow a well-defined path down through the wood. Stay on the path as it reaches a series of pools on the right, followed by a gate and stile.

2 A few yards further on, with a ford on the right, turn left through a gate. In a few yards turn right, with the stream on the right initially, although it is soon crossed on a bridge. The path becomes quite narrow as it winds along just inside the edge of the wood, with an open field on the right. Reach a stile onto a track, cross the stile almost opposite, and very shortly reach the coast path.

Looking eastwards along the Jurassic Coast

3 Turn left and continue on the coast path until it emerges onto an open space in front of the houses at the western end of Ringstead. Follow the track that runs across this open space, parallel to the sea, until it swings away to the left just opposite a ramp down to the beach on the right. Take a rough track on the right, just before the kiosk and public conveniences. The track eventually narrows to a path and climbs increasingly steeply before emerging into an open grassy space. Follow the right-hand edge on an obvious path, which reaches a paved drive.

The jewel of the walk: the timber-built St Catherine's-by-the-sea

4 Continue up the drive past St Catherine’s-by-the-Sea. At the top of the drive, where it becomes a track again, bear left past a rather incongruous red letter-box, ignore a turning on the right and continue on the main track as it rises to emerge through a gate onto the open expanse of South Down. Follow the track along the down, back to your car.

Distance: About 4 miles.
Terrain: The woodland paths are muddy after a lot of rain. There are two quite demanding climbs.
Start: At the western end of South Down. (The route would in some ways be more satisfactory if it started at Ringstead, and it can be adapted to do so, but the charges for the car park there are so exorbitant that it is impossible to recommend it as a starting-point.)
How to get there: Turn south off the A352 Wool-Dorchester road at the Warmwell roundabout onto the A353 to Weymouth. Soon after Poxwell there is a sharp right-hand bend, followed by a very tight left-hand turn onto a lane to Upton. Follow the lane through Upton and past a turning to Ringstead on the right, all the way to its end. OS reference SY757825, postcode DT2 8NQ.
Maps: OS OL15 (Purbeck & South Dorset), OS Landranger 194 (Dorchester & Weymouth).
Refreshments: There is a kiosk at Ringstead.

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