The Dorset walk: Knighton Heath, Winfrith Newburgh and Winfrith Heath
Teresa Rideout goes in search of Hardy's Egdon Heath
Published in June ’13
Thomas Hardy’s collective name for the heaths that stretch from his childhood home at Higher Bockhampton towards Bere Regis in the east is described evocatively in The Return of the Native: ‘A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment.’
The last reactor of Winfrith’s UKEA research centre was shut down in 1995 and now the site is split between the Winfrith Technology Centre and the headquarters of the Dorset Police. As the site is gradually decommissioned, and the area reverts back to nature under the management of Dorset Wildlife Trust, it is once again becoming part of a heathland corridor that stretches across Dorset and is being managed to provide a habitat for endangered plant and animal species.
The acid soils of heathland areas have always presented a challenge to farmers, and scarcely populated settlements such as West Burton and West Fossil dwindled and declined from the mid 16th century until they were finally deserted.
The Domesday Book calls the village Winfrode, an old Celtic river name meaning white or bright stream; it became double-barrelled when Robert de Newburgh obtained the manor from Henry I for providing service to royalty (a basin of water and a towel for the king’s ablutions).
By the time the Weld family bought the de Newburgh estate in 1641 the south part of the parish was successfully providing crops of wheat, oats and barley and the village was keeping a considerable number of sheep on the chalk downs. The smallholders of Winfrith lost common grazing rights in the 18th century, but some of the freeholders of Winfrith Newburgh, despite initial interest, had second thoughts and petitioned against the Enclosure Bill arguing that their ‘Estates must be totally ruined thereby’. Their protests were unsuccessful.
James Frampton of Moreton, later renowned for transporting the Tolpuddle Martyrs, arrived at a rising at Winfrith to read the Riot Act to a crowd of militant workers and their heckling families. According to Mary Frampton’s diary, her brother James ‘collared one man, but in giving him in charge, he slipped from his captors by leaving his smock frock in their hands.’
Although ‘Egdon Heath’ was never quite the wild or huge moor that Hardy depicted, when you stand on one of its relatively deserted tracks surrounded by heather and bracken, it is still possible to conjure up the character of the landscape and imagine the isolation of the people that he described.
1 Park in the car park at The Countryman Inn. Walk down Blacknoll Lane to the A352 and cross the main road, bearing slightly to the left (east) towards a signpost. Follow the path up the green lane between two thatched cottages – keeping Hillside Cottage to the left. Go through the gate at the top of the lane and maintain a straight path across the field. Pass through the gate at the far side of this field and cross the next field remaining on the edge with the hedge on the left hand side – while walking this stretch, a white painted thatched cottage can be viewed in the distance. On the far side of this field there is a small gate, pass through and turn right (west) into Claypits Lane.
2 Walk along Claypits Lane, past Rush Pond Cottage on the left and the road becomes School Lane. Just after Rush Pond pass a junction on the left, ignore this and continue walking along School Lane past a ‘Purbeck Way’ signpost follow the marker towards Winfrith and West Lulworth. A few yards after the post enter Winfrith Newburgh passing the 30 mile an hour restriction signs and then Old Dairy Cottage on your left. Continue along School Lane, past Lulworth and Winfrith C of E School on the right. Walk to the end of School Lane and turn left into Winfrith High Street. (The village Post Office and shop can be found by turning right at the end of School Lane). The Crown Inn described as ‘den of iniquity’ previously stood on the site of the current Post Office and walk a few steps further north to find Cheriton House, site of the reading of the Riot Act in 1830.
3 Continue south down High Street past the Malt House – an attractive 18th-century cob walled building. On the sharp left-hand bend is situated St Christopher’s Church. The Parish Church of St Christopher dates to C12, with subsequent additions and also C19th restoration.
4 Turning away from the church, continue through the gate situated on the south side of the bridge and signposted ‘Riverside Walk’. The path meanders by the side of the river and then veers left, continue to follow the path with the hedge on the right-hand side. Go through the green gate to the road and follow to the right (Winfrith Village Trail – Winfrith Heath).
Keep the cottages on the left, passing the Old Bakery and walk to the side of 37 Thornicks (Cow Cottage) follow the small green footpath next to the cottage. Go through the gate and walk across the edge of the field, keeping the hedge on the right side. Continuing through the next gate – look straight across the field, noticing the back of a line of cottages which front onto the A352 – cross this field – there is a faint path diagonally across the centre – to the far left of the cottages. Climb over the stile next to the far left thatched cottage.
5 Cross the A352 – caution this is a fast and dangerous stretch of road – on the other side of the road, follow the path which is signposted ‘The Drove, Winfrith Heath’, continue along the straight track with hedgerow either side for just under half a mile until you reach the heath, here you pass through a five-bar gate marked Dorset Nature Trust. After the gate, continue to follow the path straight ahead for a further quarter mile with fields to the left and heath on the right until you reach a marker post (indicated by the ‘sycamore leaf’ disc) which indicates following the path to the right. Cross the heath to the east until joining the ‘C’ road. Turn right onto the road and walk south east for 0.2 miles until crossing a cattle-grid at the junction to Gatemore Road.
6 Turn right onto Gatemore Road and walk south passing Knoll Park on the left. A few steps after Knoll Park turn left onto an un-made road – Blacknoll Lane and follow this lane for just under half a mile until reaching a right hand bend where the track leads back to The Countryman Inn.
Distance: Approximately 4 miles
Terrain: Mostly a flat and easy walk with muddy and boggy stretches – uneven in places. Field, road, track, river bank & heath.
Start: The Countryman Inn, Blacknoll Lane, East Knighton, DT2 8LL off the A352
How to get there: A352 Between Wool and turning to Winfrith Newburgh
Maps: Ordnance Survey OS Explorer Map OL15 Purbeck and South Dorset. OS Landranger 194 Dorchester and Weymouth.
Refreshments: The Countryman Inn, off-route – shop in Winfrith Newburgh and The Red Lion, Winfrith Newburgh.
Wildlife: Birds include hobby, nightjar, woodlark and Dartford warbler. Many interesting dragon and damselflies live in the wetter areas, while silver-studded blue butterflies can be found on the open heaths. Flowers include greater burnet and marsh cinquefoil in the meadows and bog asphodel, heath orchids and sphagnum mosses in the wet areas.