Dorset walk – Up Cerne, Minterne Parva and Minterne Magna
Matt Wilkinson and Dan Bold enjoy the upper Cerne Valley
Published in April ’15
This route lies pretty much at the geographical centre of Dorset, depending how you measure it. That is appropriate because apart from the sea, it has all the features of an archetypical Dorset walk: hills, woodland, streams, cornfields, pasture, expansive views and pretty hamlets. Much of the walk is over land that has been in the care of the Digby family since a scion of the Digbys of Sherborne Castle bought Minterne House in 1768. Among his descendants were the Captain of HMS Africa at the Battle of Trafalgar, Jane Digby – who created scandals by her generous attitude to men and took Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab, twenty years her junior, as her fourth husband and who is buried in Damascus, and Pamela Harriman, who was Bill Clinton’s Ambassador in Paris. The last was the sister of the present Lord Digby, who was a popular and successful Lord Lieutenant of Dorset from 1984 to 1999 and who still lives at Minterne.
Before the Digbys, the property belonged to the Churchill family (see page 42) and the Napier family, whose name survives in Nappers Mite in Dorchester, originally the Napier Almshouses. They rented the property from Winchester College, to whom it had been granted after the Dissolution of the Monasteries had taken it away from its previous owners, Cerne Abbey.
The present Minterne House was built in the early 20th century. The overbearing tower on the east front (built to house a water tank) prevents it from being a beautiful building, but its abiding glory is its gardens. They are constructed around a chain of small lakes, waterfalls and streams and over one and a half miles of walks. Palm trees and towering rhododendrons, framed by tall cedar and beech trees, provide a new vista at each turn. They contain an important collection of Himalayan rhododendrons and azaleas from the Wilson, Rock, Forrest, and Kingdon Ward expeditions to the Himalayas. These are combined with spring bulbs, cherries, maples and many fine and rare trees; the garden is noted for its autumn colouring.
The walk earlier passes a great Dorset house much older (and more beautiful) than Minterne. The gabled Up Cerne Manor is, in the opinion of many good judges, among the finest of Dorset manor houses. It was built in around 1600, mostly using stone from the ruins of Cerne Abbey, and for a while was owned by Sir Walter Raleigh. Much of the interior was destroyed by fire in the 1800s. But with the 15th-century church next door, Up Cerne is a place to be savoured by even the most demanding connoisseur of beautiful things in Dorset.
Distance: About 6½ miles
Terrain: Mostly good underfoot, although the enclosed paths may be muddy after rain. Two significant climbs – up each side of the Cerne Valley.
Start: Hilfield Local Nature Reserve car park on Hilfield Hill. OS reference ST636039. Postcode DR2 7BE (this is actually the postcode of the nearest postal address, Hilfield Friary, which is some way to the north and at the bottom of the hill).
How to get there: The car park is on the road that runs from Evershot to Minterne Magna. From the west, turn east off the A37 Dorchester-Yeovil road at the staggered cross-roads signed to Evershot the other way. From the east, turn west off the A352 Dorchester-Sherborne road about ½ mile north of Minterne Magna.
Maps: OS Explorer 117 (Cerne Abbas & Bere Regis), OS Landranger 194 (Dorchester & Weymouth).
Refreshments: None on the walk. The closest are in Cerne Abbas or Evershot.
1 Turn left out of the car park and in 175 yards right into an open field. Walk along the ride in the middle of the field towards a wood, the top of which is visible over the brow of the field. On reaching the wood, bear right, following its edge and then the edge of an open field. At the bottom of the field turn right, then left through an opening in about 80 yards. Turn immediately left on a path which soon becomes a track which descends to reach a lane at the bottom of the hill. Turn left and walk past the manor house and church in Up Cerne, then straight ahead on the lane, uphill at first, to reach the main road.
2 Go straight across onto a path that bears left to run through woodland parallel to the road and reaches a lane. Turn right and walk up through Minterne Parva (not much more than a single farm). At the end of the buildings, follow what is now a track round to the right. Soon reach a cross-tracks and go straight ahead, up a very grassy track. It climbs the hillside, curving to the left, and enters woodland through a gate. Stay on the track as Minterne House comes into view on the left and at the top of the hill, go through another gate and turn left at the T-junction. This track runs through woodland but eventually emerges with an open field on the left.
3 In 60 yards, go through a gate on the left and bear right to go obliquely along the hillside, losing height only gradually. In 200 yards, bear left and go more directly downhill, leaving the field by a gate at the left-hand end of a small wood. Head down to a gate visible in the next corner of the field beyond, then continue to descend, following the track along the right-hand edge of the next field. After a gate, bear left to a ford, and at a fork in about 50 yards, take the right-hand option and walk up to the main road next to St Andrew’s church. Go straight across, up the left-hand edge of a patch of grass. Turn right onto a track and in 25 yards right onto a path. This leads to another track, where turn left and head straight uphill. The track passes just inside the right-hand end of a wood and continues uphill to a line of trees ahead.
4 Don’t enter the trees but turn right and follow the left-hand field-edge. Turn right at the first corner and left through an opening in a further 100 yards. Turn right to walk up the right-hand field-edge to about 150 yards before the top corner. Here go through a gate on the right and turn left on a lane. Follow the lane round a sharp left-hand bend and in a further 200 yards turn left down a narrow path into an open field. Turn right to follow the right-hand field-edge for between ¾ mile and a mile to reach the place where you entered the field near the start of the walk. Turn right through the gate and left on the lane to return to the car park. ◗