The Dorset Walk 2: Shroton and Hambledon Hill
Teresa Rabbetts on a magical and historically significant place
Published in July ’16
Hambledon Hill is an exceptional place: one of the few areas of Dorset’s once common chalk grassland, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a National Nature Reserve, also a Scheduled Ancient Monument and an area over which man has had a profound influence for the last 5000 years. The Iron Age hillfort is one of the most impressive earthworks in England, a place not just for defence, but where people lived and carried out their daily lives; there are many small circular areas inside the ramparts which show the position of a small town of Iron Age huts and just to the south of Hambledon Hill lies a complex of Neolithic enclosures. The hill was also the ground for a slightly more recent showdown when Oliver Cromwell met up and routed one of the last significant groups of resistance in Dorset.
By 1645 the countrymen of Dorset were weary of war. They tried to live out their lives as normally as possible but, caught in the middle of both Royalist and Parliamentarian troops, they suffered repeated deprivations as plundering forces from both sides looted villages, damaged crops and land. There was little sympathy for either the monarchy or Parliament and so, with a view to protecting their interests and declaring Dorset a neutral zone, a third faction, consisting mostly of ordinary tradesmen, clergy and yeomen, came into existence.
As an organised force, the Clubmen first appeared in Shropshire in 1644 when, led by a local parson and minor gentry, they assembled to protest against plundering troops. The movement spread rapidly through the counties on the Welsh border and then travelled on through Worcestershire, Herefordshire and into Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset – all areas that had suffered badly from troops from both sides demanding free quartering and depredation.
The formation of Cromwell’s New Model Army had mostly turned an ill-disciplined mob into a professional soldiering force and so, when Sir Thomas Fairfax met with a deputation of Dorset Clubmen in July 1645, he promised that he would ensure the behaviour of parliamentary troops stating that ‘justice shall be done and satisfaction given’. Much to the surprise of the villagers, Fairfax’s men actually paid for their quarters and passed through Dorset without incident.
However, many areas of Dorset were still a stronghold for Royalists; the castles at Sherborne, Portland and Corfe held out against Parliament. the Clubmen were led by many ex-Royalist soldiers and so when there were further incidents of looting by renegade Roundhead soldiers, there was soon a resurgence and strengthening of the pro-Royalist views of the Clubmen. At several mass meetings, notably at Badbury Rings and Sturminster Newton, wearing their uniform white cockade and displaying their banners inscribed with the motto: ‘If you offer to plunder or take our cattle, be assured we will bid you battle’, they displayed their limited array of weaponry, mostly consisting of the clubs from which they took their name, scythes and pitchforks. More alarmingly for the Parliamentarians, they also demonstrated the true size of their force and Fairfax recognised that the movement was a serious threat that potentially stood between him and victory for Parliament. When he swept through the county to attack Sherborne Castle and the Clubmen cut off supplies and held up his messengers, he acted swiftly, rounding up and arresting fifty of the ringleaders, who swiftly found themselves imprisoned in Shaftesbury.
Hambledon Hill in north Dorset was a renowned landmark. Fortified by Iron Age ditches and ramparts, the ancient earthwork was a distinctive place for a stand-off, but it was here that the Clubmen suffered a crushing defeat. On 4 August 1645 Cromwell himself led a cavalry detachment of approximately fifty soldiers to Hambledon Hill, where several thousand Clubmen had gathered.
Cromwell’s rout of the Clubmen was humiliating, swift and easy. It was reported that some escaped by sliding down the hill on their bottoms, records of the number killed vary from twelve to fifty, and around three hundred were taken prisoner, including four rectors and their curates. Cromwell locked them up in Shroton church overnight referring to them as ‘poor silly creatures’ and then, with an unexpected display of leniency, he merely lectured them before releasing all but the ringleaders the next day and allowing them to return to their homes having promised that they would ‘be hanged before they come out again’.
Ten days later, the Parliamentary army stormed and claimed Sherborne Castle; although Corfe and Portland castles held out until early 1646, Royalist resistance in Dorset was a hopeless cause. The Dorset Clubmen kept their promise and disappeared from history.
How to get there: Approximately four miles north-west of Blandford. Take the A350 from Blandford to Shaftesbury and turn left signposted to Iwerne Courtney or Shroton. Follow the road into the centre of the village, passing the village pump and St Mary’s Church on the left.
Parking & start: There is a small car park opposite the church or park on the roadside in the village with care. Begin the walk from Fairfield Road (first left after the church, signposted to Child Okeford, Farringdon and the Orchards).
Terrain: The path from Shroton is a chalk track which rises for the first mile and is likely to be slippery in wet weather. Cattle are grazing on the hill-fort so it is vital to keep dogs on a lead at all times.
Distance: 4½ miles (can be lengthened or shortened!)
Maps: OS Explorer 118
Refreshments: The Cricketers
1 The walk begins from the cricket pitch in Fairfield Road. Enter the field through the metal gate to the left of the cricket pavilion and follow the grass path up the slope towards the chalk track. Pass through the metal gate and follow the right-hand track. The track now rises uphill steadily with views of Shroton on the right – part-way up is a bench where you can enjoy the view of distant Melbury Hill and Duncliffe, a good excuse for a brief rest.
2 As the route continues uphill, you are accompanied by the song of the skylark and occasional brown flashes as they dart vertically into the sky, drawing attention away from their young hidden on the ground. The path joins with the Stour Valley Way at the trig point on top; turn right and follow a slightly descending grass path to a gate and the National Trust signpost. Enter the hill fort.
3 Hambledon Hill is a SSSI and a National Nature Reserve, bought by the National Trust in 2014, and an area that is considered to be of nationally important landscape value – not only is it one of the best preserved Neolithic landscapes in Europe, but it is also a calcareous grassland which produces short and hardy plants and is a crucial habitat for insects, an incredible 28 species of butterfly have been recorded on the hill, including the Adonis blue and chalk-hill blue. The eco-system is maintained by cattle that graze the top of the hill, which encourages short, tight turf: vital to bind the soil together and protect the archaeology.
4 There are various ways to explore the hillfort – it is tempting to range the top to admire the surrounding views but if you want to follow a route, on passing the marker post, bear right and follow the rampart (not the lower path with the fence on the right). The path, with the steepest part of the earthworks on the left, gradually curves anti-clockwise round the hill before there is a break in the ramparts and a short climb to the top.
It is possible to extend the walk at the north-west side and to follow the pathway down to Child Okeford – see OS Map 118.
5 On returning to retrace your steps out of the hillfort, follow the path back to the trig point (follow the sign to Iwerne Courtney for a shortened route) and instead of turning left, follow the path straight ahead onto the Stour Valley Way. The route continues along a grass path between fences and then descends downhill, with Hod Hill in sight, then bears left around Coombe Wood. Go through a gate by a corrugated hut (ignore the track to the right) and continue with the hedge on the left.
6 At the bottom of the field, turn left through the gate and follow through the trees and pass through another gate. The route continues along the bottom of the downland and, as the path meets a chalk track, turn right and continue straight on, keeping the strip of wooded area on the right. Continue on the track until it meets with the route of the outward journey and returns to the cricket pavilion and village.