The Dorset walk 2 – Plush
Teresa Rabbetts goes walking near to the centre of the county
Published in August ’15
Farming, still one of the key economic activities of Dorset, has been widely practised in the county since the Neolithic period; once many parts of the landscape, especially the chalk downs, would have born evidence of the activities of pre-historic farmers. To explore the remote village of Plush, which is hidden in the Piddle Valley, is to step back through centuries; on the heights above the village are traces of small rectangular fields part of the pre-historic field system which once covered large parts of southern England, now they can only be found in places where they have managed to survive the ploughing of the medieval period. The hillsides all around Plush and across to Lyscombe in the east, are imprinted with the regular artificial terraces of strip lynchets that medieval farmers carved into the sides of the valley to enable them to plough the steep slopes.
Plush is situated very close to the Wessex Ridgeway – the chalk ridge top route that creates the backbone of Dorset and which forms part of the ancient trading highway between Devon and Norfolk. On the route of this walk is Folly, now a private house but, once a resting place for medieval drovers moving their stock around the country by networks of drove trails, also a significant place for travellers using the nearby crossing of Dorsetshire Gap which is an intriguing and atmospheric junction of five tracks and an important road crossing up to the nineteenth century.
In Plush itself, the houses sit next to twisting lanes and consist of a mixture of cob and thatched cottages and brick and flint homes. At the heart of the village sits The Brace of Pheasants pub. The original pub was opened here during the 1930s and was converted from the village forge and a pair of cottages of flint and brick which dated from the sixteenth century. Unfortunately, the pub was badly gutted by fire in March 1979 but has since been rebuilt in its original form – with a long thatched roof, the white-painted pub displays a wrought-iron cock-pheasant on the exterior wall by the entrance and two straw birds perch on the ridge of the thatched roof; the unique inn sign consists of a brace of stuffed pheasants in a glass case over the door.
Earlier in the twentieth century, the pub had been called The Hankey Arms, a tribute to estate and racehorse owner, and proprietor of Dorset Orchids Mr Barnard-Hankey. He was a famed breeder of orchids and ran the largest privately owned orchid farm in the country however, when he and his wife decided to retire to Scotland in 1955, the entire Plush Estate came up for auction. The sale included The Manor House, four farms, various other village properties and the free-house The Hankey Arms later renamed The Brace of Pheasants.
Plush Manor was built in 1785 and has an important place in the life of the Plush, not only is it available to rent as an exclusive wedding venue but it also plays host to a series of concerts featuring world-class musicians and which are regularly broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Every summer, between June and August, for the past nineteen years Plush has hosted a concert series of classical, contemporary and jazz music directed by cellist Adrian Brendel. Plush Festival evolved from an intimate chamber music concert, given for friends by Alfred Brendel and conductor William Lacey, into a thriving concert series featuring leading musicians from around the world. Performances take place in the once derelict and redundant Church of St. John the Baptist which was restored and transformed into a performance space in 1992. Over the last two years the festival has begun to offer the Young Musicians Education Workshop, collaboration between local schools and music groups where students between 10 and 18 years are led by the performing musicians and teachers in a day of musical discovery with sessions which are designed to motivate young musicians, meet musicians and provide an opportunity to perform in an in-house concert. Plush festival continues to be an intimate place where musicians can meet and escape the pressures of their travelling schedules and has resulted in the formation of many new musical partnerships.
1 Park in the lay-by next to the Church of St John the Baptist and begin by walking south-easterly towards Plush – the sign for the village comes into view after a couple of minutes.
2 Follow the road and on entering the village pass the Old School House and the Brace of Pheasants is situated in front, continue on the lane as it forks round a left-hand bend and look out for the bridle-path sign marked Church Hill 1 mile on the right. The path is a chalk and flint green lane lined with greenery and follows a steady rise uphill for just under half a mile.
3 Continue until reaching a green gate – the right-hand gatepost is marked with three path signs – Dorset County Council Public Bridleway, Countryside Access and Wessex Ridgeway Farm Walks.
4 Continue on the grass path that now travels across the top of Watcombe Plain with fine views of Plush and beyond on the right. On reaching a stone way-marker, take the left hand route and continue across the field towards the hedgerow in the distance which is interrupted by a stile and is where this walk meets up with the Wessex Ridgeway – the stile is a good point to pause to take in the breathtaking view miles across the Blackmore Vale.
5Don’t cross this stile but turn right, keeping the hedge on the left and Plush to the right, and follow the grass path as it heads along the hill-top in an easterly direction. On the right is Watcombe Wood and a clearly defined square which is a Celtic Enclosure.
The path now leads towards a wooded area, walk towards the metal gate in the right-hand corner (not the five bar metal gate to the left side of the trees).
After walking through a short wooded stretch turn left going through the gateway into a field, the path continues towards a sole weather-beaten tree, and cross the field keeping the hedge to the left. Pass through a further two metal gates as the route leaves the fields and begins to descend and enters another sunken stone green lane.
6 Continue down Ball Hill until meeting up with the tarmac lane which leads back to Plush – turn right and follow the lane back to St John the Baptist Church. ◗
Distance: 3½ – 4 miles
Terrain: Mixed terrain – track, farmland and road – some uneven areas stretches and starts with a steady uphill climb.
Parking & Start: Park considerately in the lay-by next to the Church of St John the Baptist – this is a busy route for tractors.
Maps: OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas & Bere Regis, OS Landranger 194 Dorchester, Weymouth & surrounding area.