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The Dorset Walk: Middlebere and Wytch Heaths

Matt Wilkinson and Dan Bold explore an easy route on the fields and heathland of Purbeck

Corfe Castle stands sentry to the gap in the Purbeck Hills

The sheer variety of the Isle of Purbeck is one of its unending surprises and delights. Barely five miles as the crow flies from the forbidding rocky headlands of its coast is the completely different landscape of Middlebere Heath: flat, grassy and apparently benign. It is typical Purbeck heathland, its heather and gorse providing a habitat for a wide range of wildlife; the adjoining Hartland Moor is a National Nature Reserve. It is also of interest to industrial archaeologists, having been crossed by the Middlebere Plateway, which carried clay in horse-drawn wagons from the pits at Norden to Middlebere Lake, an arm of Poole Harbour, where it was loaded into barges. Built in 1805, the plateway was in use for a century until replaced by Fayle’s Tramway.
The route sums up north-east Purbeck. At one point Corfe Castle can be clearly seen a mile or so to the south; later, the walk runs close to Wych Lake, another arm of Poole Harbour, into which the Corfe River flows. On the way it passes the huge oil gathering station at Wytch Farm (note the contrarily different spelling from Wych Lake), built by BP in the late 1980s to serve the Wytch Farm oilfield. Not everyone would agree, but on the whole BP provided a model of how to establish a major industrial operation while remaining sensitive to the environment and the local population. Today the oilfield is operated by the French company, Perenco, who bought BP’s Purbeck interests in 2011.

Some interesting farm accessories along the walk

Distance: About 5 miles.
Terrain: Very flat. Usually good underfoot, but with muddy patches after rain.
Start: In the parking area by the drive to Middlebere Farm.
How to get there: Turn east off the main road through Stoborough (immediately south of Wareham) into Nutcrack Lane, signed to Ridge. Take the third turning on the right, in 2 miles, and the drive to Middlebere Farm is on the left in a further 1 mile. OS reference SY96358535, postcode BH20 5BJ.
Maps: OS Explorer OL15 (Purbeck & South Dorset), OS Landranger 195 (Bournemouth & Purbeck).
Refreshments: None on the route.

1 Opposite the drive to Middlebere Farm is a gate marked ‘Hartland Way’. Go through this gate and follow the broad, firm track beyond (actually the track-bed of the Middlebere Plateway) for about ¾ mile. Where the track bends right then left, go straight on across a narrow cattle grid and follow the fence on the right. In a little under 300 yards, bear left down an enclosed grassy track. Follow this track down to a gate with a small house on the left. Go through the gate and continue straight ahead to reach another gate. Beyond it, turn left on a rough track that leads to a lane on a bend. Go straight ahead and, on the next bend, ahead again, up the drive of Scotland Farm. Turn right in front of a thatched barn, then in quick succession turn left round the end of the barn, go through a field gate, bear right to a smaller gate giving onto a short path alongside a farm building, go through a kissing gate, turn right to cut the corner of a field and go through another kissing gate.

2 Start down the left-hand edge of the open field, but in rather under 100 yards, turn left through the hedge and walk along the next field to go through a gap in the middle of the far end. Bear left to an opening near the middle of the left-hand edge of the next field. In the field after that, bear very slightly right to a footbridge about 100 yards short of the far right-hand corner. Cross it and bear left, soon crossing the Corfe River, which runs through a pipe at this point. Immediately after crossing it, turn right to a gate in the right-hand edge of the field.

There is shade and firm walking on later parts of the walk

3 Do a short left-right dog-leg over a road and walk up a path through the woods, which soon becomes a grassy track with a wood on the left. Follow it to a lane, where turn left and walk up past the oil gathering station. Continue ahead towards Poole Harbour, ignoring turnings to the right and left. Where a track leads off right into the buildings of the original Wytch Farm, turn left through the right-hand of two gates. In front of the next gate, turn left down a track with a hedge on the right and a fence on the left. Follow the track as it wends through woodland and runs down to a gate.

4 Turn left along a broad track which bends right, away from the oil gathering station, and runs between open fields to reach two gates. Continue ahead through a kissing gate, ignoring a private track to the left. Follow the right-hand field-edge at first, then bear left round the bottom of a hillock, after which bear right into the next field, keeping the Corfe River on the right. Go through the first gate on the right onto a stone bridge and through another gate. Follow the right-hand edge of the field and in the first corner, go through a gate and continue up the path beyond. After the next gate, where the path turns left, continue straight ahead, slightly uphill, to reach a lane. Turn right to return to your car.

Corfe Castle in the distance again greets the walker

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