The Dorset drive: The valleys of the West and the scenic coast road
Matt Wilkinson takes to the roads and lanes to explore deepest West Dorset and to enjoy expansive views over Lyme Bay
Published in January ’14
Mention West Dorset and most people might think first of the coast with its spectacular features like Golden Cap, Chesil Beach and the cliffs at West Bay, but further north is a very different landscape where tiny settlements nestle in a series of steep-sided valleys, almost hidden from each other and the rest of the world. Here run tiny rivers like the Hooke and the Manger and other streams, too small to have been dignified by names, which nevertheless have played their part in carving out the magically intimate landscape which is the setting for the first half of this drive.
The second half celebrates the spectacular, following as it does the road from West Bay to Abbotsbury and up onto Black Down, surmounted by Hardy’s Monument. The long views to the south are magnificent, but it is worth looking the other way as well as the route passes the hill fort of Abbotsbury Castle and the long ridge that shelters Abbotsbury from northerly winds. Finally it winds round the greatest hill fort of them all, Maiden Castle, before returning to the centre of the county town.
The special nature of the West Dorset landscape means some very narrow and winding lanes, but these are mixed with some broader main roads.
1 From Top o’ Town head downhill past Thomas Hardy’s statue on the right, towards the A37 to Yeovil. Go across a roundabout and past the villages of Bradford Peverell and Stratton. Just after passing through Grimstone (which sounds as though it should be on the Yorkshire Moors instead of in pastoral Dorset), turn left on the A356 towards Crewkerne [4.6]. Go through Frampton and Maiden Newton, where the road bends to the left by the stump of the village cross. Drive out of Maiden Newton, which was once an important centre for its many outlying villages and hamlets, and continue up the hill.
2 At the top of the hill turn left, signed to Toller Porcorum and Powerstock [9.4]. Toller is the old name for the River Hooke, on which the village stands, and ‘Porcorum’ is Latin for ‘of the pigs’. It is usually assumed to be a reference to the number of pigs that were farmed there, but it could be an unflattering comparison to Toller Fratrum, ‘of the brothers’; ‘brothers’ refers to the Knights of St John, who once owned Toller Fratrum and might be assumed to be more refined than the agricultural peasantry of the neighbouring village. Go down the hill into Toller Porcorum, pass the old Swan Inn, which scandalously stood empty for years but is now being restored as a private house, and turn right up Kingcombe Road [10.4]. Follow this lane past Lower Kingcombe and Kingcombe Meadows Nature Reserve, which was one of the Dorset Wildlife Trust’s earliest reserves and remains one of its most important and most attractive. Continue to Higher Kingcombe and at the cross-roads in the middle of the hamlet turn left [12.3]. Go downhill on another narrow lane to reach a T-junction [13.3], where turn left then immediately right, signed to Wytherstone and Powerstock.
3 It is a pretty, winding road that leads downhill with views to Eggardon Hill on the left. Ignore the turning to Wytherstone on the left [14.6] and continue towards Powerstock and Bridport. Powerstock was once called ‘Poorstock’ and authorities solemnly claim that the name had to be changed when the village acquired a railway station on the Bridport branch, in case it was taken as a reference to the rolling stock; it’s a nice story but the present name is recorded well before the coming of the railway, in 1787. The lane descends steeply into Powerstock, where continue down through the village to a T-junction [16.0]. Turn right, signed to West Milton and Bridport. Follow the road as it turns sharply right and goes over a bridge [16.9] and through the village of West Milton. Follow the road round to the left at the end of the village and continue through Mangerton (home to a 17th-century watermill) and Bradpole to reach the A3066 [19.1].
4 Turn left and go straight on at the next roundabout. Do the same at the roundabout after that [20.4], where the main road into Bridport town centre runs off to the right. Continue down the A35 Bridport by-pass to another roundabout [21.1], where take the second exit, to the right of the Crown Inn, signed to West Bay. West Bay with its pretty harbour is well worth a diversion to the right, but the main route lies to the left just before shops that back onto the beach and heads up to a T-junction [22.7], where turn right onto the B3157 coast road, signed to Burton Bradstock and Weymouth. Enjoy the sensational views from the hill above Abbotsbury, then descend into the village. The Swannery, Great Barn and church and St Catherine’s Chapel are all good reasons to linger in Abbotsbury, but if not stopping, turn left into Back Street just before the Ilchester Arms on the right [30.6]. Continue out of the village and uphill. The road bends to the right on top of the ridge and leads to a cross-roads [33.0].
5 Go straight across and past Hardy’s Monument [33.7], which is to Thomas Masterman Hardy, Nelson’s captain (’Kiss me, Hardy’), not Thomas Hardy the writer. Descend to a T-junction [35.8], turn right and drive through Martinstown. Until recently, Martinstown held the record for the most rain to fall on one place in the UK over 24 hours – a staggering eleven inches on 19 July 1955. On the other side of the village a terraced hill rises to the right, opposite which fork left [37.1] and very shortly left at a T-junction. Follow the lane below the ramparts of Maiden Castle, one of the biggest Iron Age hill forts in the country, and through the tiny hamlet of Winterborne Monkton to reach the A354 [38.7]. Turn left and go straight across the two roundabouts by Dorchester Football Club and Tesco. Continue towards the town centre but at the traffic lights at the top of the hill [40.0] turn left. Go straight across the next lights into Cornwall Road, which leads back to Top o’ Town [40.5].
Distance: About 40 miles
Start: Top o’ Town roundabout in Dorchester. OS reference SY689907; postcode DT1 1UR
Maps: OS Explorer OL15 (Purbeck & South Dorset) and 117 (Cerne Abbas & Bere Regis). Landranger 194 (Dorchester & Weymouth) and 193 (Taunton & Lyme Regis).
Refreshments: Plenty of stops are available along the route at Maiden Newton, Powerstock, Bridport, West Bay, Burton Bradstock, Swyre, Abbotsbury, Martinstown and Dorchester.
[Milometer readings are given in square brackets. They should be generally reliable, but milometers do vary slightly.]