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The Dorset walk: 2 – Wynford Eagle to Toller Fratrum

Teresa Ridout walks a route larded with history

The stone adornment on the manor house marking it as having been a holding of the Norman landowner Gilbert de Aquila

Entering this deep valley, which has been carved out by chalk streams (Wynford coming from the Celtic name for a tributary of the River Frome and meaning white or bright), is like stepping back through the centuries. Wynford Eagle has a road junction at the centre that is dominated by a Ham Hill stone manor house with mullioned windows and tiled roof. The west porch entrance is dominated by a stone eagle, a reminder of when it formed part of the numerous estates held ‘of the Honour of the Eagle’ and ruled by the Norman, Gilbert de Aquila from his Pevensey castle. In 1545 the manor was purchased by the Somerset family of Sydenham. The house as it is seen today was rebuilt in 1630 by William Sydenham.
William and Mary Sydenham appear to have led a peaceful family life with their ten children until William and his sons, William, Thomas, Francis and John, declared for Parliament and took up arms against Charles I. Although the lives of English women must have been affected by the conflict, their task was to stay home and struggle to make a living; very few events or deeds involving women were considered sufficiently important to be recorded by historians, but the story of Mary Sydenham is one such episode. In 1644, after Dorchester had been held against Royalist attack, a successful defence that involved the Sydenham brothers, Mary Sydenham was murdered on the steps of her home by Major Williams, who led a group of Royalist troops to Wynford Eagle. Her murder was subsequently avenged by her son, Francis, who reputedly shot Major Williams.
Thomas Sydenham fought – as did his father and brothers – during the Civil War and he was present alongside his avenging brother Francis at the successful defence of Dorchester in 1644, but is known for altogether more benign reasons.

The valley with Wynford Eagle's stone-built manor house

He is referred to as the ‘English Hippocrates’, was a close friend of pioneering scientist Robert Boyle and was a leading physician in London. He based his treatments on careful observation of his patients, telling one of his students: ‘You must go to the bedside; it is there alone you can learn disease’. He was convinced that recovery was based on ‘a vigorous effort by Nature to throw off the disease-causing matter’. Amongst his stock of commonsense approaches were his insistence on fresh air in sick-rooms, a refusal to prescribe ‘traditional’ medicine and treatments unless he had observed their effectiveness, and his use of quinine for malaria. Sir Frederick Treves wrote: ‘he threw aside the jargon and ridiculous traditions with which medicine was then hampered, and applied to the study of it sound common sense.’
• For more on the Sydenham family, see ‘A Dorset tragedy’ on page 48 of the November 2013 issue of Dorset Life.

St Lawrence church in Wynford Eagle. St Lawrence is the 3rd-century priest who, when ordered to hand over the church's wealth to the Emperor Valerian, distributed it all to the crippled, sick and poor instead. He was subsequently executed and later canonised.

The walk
1 Walk past St Lawrence Church (on the left side) and continue, as the road rises, to a row of cottages. Opposite the first pair of cottages is a track signed to Toller Fratrum. Follow this track, which rises up hill. Continue to follow the clearly marked path, which flattens out, to a gateway which enters the centre of a field. Cross the middle of the field towards the next gateway. NB: don’t go through this gateway but take the green pathway on the left.
Continue along this path with the hedge on the right and pass a galvanised barn, also on the right, until reaching a single gate. There is a signpost lying in the hedge on the right of this gate marked straight on to Toller Fratrum. Cross the field downhill to an opening marked with a Dorset CC arrow on the left. Follow the path downhill to a gate into a field, pass through this gateway and continue downhill, keeping the hedge on the right to a hedge-lined track which leads to a lane and Toller Fratrum.
2 At the lane turn left. The path travels downhill and passes cottages on the left. A short distance after the cottages, the path curves slightly to the left, then rises slightly uphill and is open to fields on the left and hedge on the right. The track has now become a grass-lined green lane and Wynford Wood can be seen on the left in the distance. Halfway along this stretch of green lane is a sign indicating left to Wynford Eagle – this can be taken to shorten the walk back to Wynford Eagle, or follow the indication marked Shatcombe Lane for the full walk. Continue straight along this lane until it is blocked by two gates – the first is not marked but the second has a Dorset CC marker on the left side. Follow the markers and enter a lightly wooded area called Prestwood.
3 The path continues clearly through the wood and at the end is a gateway into a field; there is a Dorset CC arrow. Keep to the top of the field with the hedge on the left, eventually passing Ferndown Farm and other properties behind the hedge. At the far side of the field is a gateway and signpost (maybe hidden in hedge), where follow the marker towards Shatcombe Lane.

There are a couple of steepish climbs on the walk

The walk continues to the south on an unmade but well-kept drive (it states ‘Private Track’, but this is the correct route). As the path opens out to fields, look for a blue Dorset CC marker post on the left and go through the gateway, following the route uphill and keeping the fence on the left. At the summit of the field a single gate can be seen, again marked with a Dorset CC marker – go through this gate and cross a small field of scrubland to the next single gate. Pass through that gate and immediately turn right, keeping the hedge close on the right-hand side, and pass though the next gateway.
4 After the gate, immediately turn left and descend downhill, keeping the hedge on the left. At the bottom of the hill is a small boggy area and then the path continues steeply uphill with Wynford Wood on the left side. Follow along the edge of the trees as the route curves from the west and flattens out and continues along the south of the wood until it meets a hedgerow. There’s a locked gate at this point in the hedge, so turn right and walk towards Sheephouse Barn which can be seen a short distance away. On meeting the road at this point, turn left and follow the road downhill back into Wynford Eagle.

Interested observers along the walk

Distance: Approximately 4 miles.
Terrain: Mixture of tracks and field edges, some of which become very muddy after rain. Mixed gradients with a couple of quite steep hills.
Start: There is no designated parking area in Wynford Eagle so please park considerately on the roadside. OS reference SY 582960.
Postcode DT2 0ER.
How to get there: Follow the A356 through Maiden Newton and as the village comes to an end, take a turning on the left signposted to Wynford Eagle, West Compton and Bridport, then take the second turning on the right signposted Wynford Eagle 1 mile.
Refreshments: The nearest refreshments and toilets are in Maiden Newton or Toller Porcorum.
Maps: OS Explorer Map 115, Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis.

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