The Dorset Walk 1: Badbury Rings and The Oaks
Teresa Rabbets skirts a highpoint with plenty of historical interest
Published in October ’16
‘One of the great Wessex hillforts’ is Nikolaus Pevsner’s slightly bland description of Badbury Rings, not really doing justice to this most impressive of archaeological sites in a rolling Dorset landscape.
Badbury Rings was a huge fort established from 700 BC and inhabited by the Durotriges tribe; the surrounding area is littered with burial barrows, and archaeological finds indicate that the area had been settled since about 2000 BC. Situated on a dramatic and strategic vantage point, such an obviously important site soon came under the control of the Second Augusta Legion when they invaded in AD 44; the Romans wasted no time in scattering the inhabitants and establishing their own fortified Vindocladia halfway to nearby Shapwick, leaving Badbury Rings as a crossroads for the most important routes that the Romans used to traverse the south of the country – Bath to Hamworthy and Dorchester to Old Sarum. The most famous road was Ackling Dyke, which still stands out clearly in the landscape today.
Unusually, Badbury Rings was re-occupied after the Romans left Britain and, for those who enjoy a touch of romance with their history, this is one of several sites around England that lays claim to being the legendary site of King Arthur’s Mount Badon, his epic and victorious battle against the then-invading Saxons. There is no certainty about either the date or the location of this battle due to the lack of written sources, but it is believed that the battle did occur either with or without King Arthur and was responsible for holding back the advancing Saxons for roughly another thirty years.
In slightly more recent times, in 1645, the fort was a meeting-ground for the poorly armed Dorset Clubmen. Tired of the Civil War and of being caught between the plundering troops of both sides, they congregated at the fort to hear speeches encouraging them to declare Dorset a neutral zone until King and Parliament could come to agreement. By late 1645 Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell had routed Dorset’s Clubmen.
The mile-long avenue of beech trees lining the approach to Badbury Rings, on what is now the B3082 but was then the main driveway to the manor house, is one of the iconic images of Dorset and one which continues to give pleasure and to be admired through the changing seasons. In 1835 Lady Bankes received this impressive gift from her son, William John Bankes, when he inherited the Kingston Lacy estate. Originally and reputedly there were 365 trees along one side of the road and 366 along the other, to symbolise one for every day of the year and with an extra on the opposite side for a leap year.
After over 180 years, unsurprisingly some of the trees have weakened or contracted the parasite Kretzshmaria deusta and died. Although it can live for hundreds of years, recent studies have shown that the beech tree is susceptible to the effects of climate change and in particular to water logging. Although the National Trust has an ongoing management programme to keep the trees alive for as long as possible, they have also realised that a re-planting scheme was necessary and so, in a bid to maintain the landscape but with a species that was more suited to modern conditions, they have begun to replace with hornbeam, which is more resilient to the conditions along the busy B3082 but provides a similar cover to the beech.
Nearby is another key area of the National Trust’s wood management programme – The Oaks. Originally known as Stereley Bushes, this wood is over 700 years old and although previously used to provide shelter for young cattle and to supply wood to the Kingston Lacy Estate, the trees are now allowed to live out their natural lives and the fallen limbs are left to rot and produce a rare fungus – oak polypore – which is an endangered fungus which thrives in rotting wood and in turn maintains an ideal breeding and feeding cycle for the rare European beetle (Sphaerites glabratus). This scheme has been so successful that the National Trust even brings in dead wood from other areas.
How to get there: Badbury Rings is on the north-side of the B3082 between Blandford and Wimborne.
Parking & start: National Trust car parks clearly signposted from the B3082. Begin at the smaller car park on the Wimborne (east) side of the B3082.
Terrain: Some inclines but otherwise an easy walk on maintained gravel tracks. Lots of opportunities to lengthen or shorten this route.
Distance: 2 ½ miles.
Maps: OS Landranger 195, OS Explorer 118 Shaftesbury & Cranborne Chase.
Refreshments: Pub in the nearby village of Shapwick – The Anchor; café at Pamphill.
1 Leave the small National Trust car park and follow the gravel path as it rises up a slight incline until you reach a crossroad of tracks; there are views of the east side of Badbury Rings here. Ignore the tracks on the left and right and continue straight ahead. The track descends between the hedgerows of two fields.
2 At the crossroads there is a signpost; continue straight on, following the marker which indicates Witchampton. The track passes King Down Farm on the right (there is a restored medieval tiled barn here), and rises slightly with The Oaks to the left of the route. As the track forks (there are wonderful views straight ahead looking along the Roman Road over rolling fields and towards Witchampton), take the left-hand route, keeping the The Oaks to the left.
3 Continue to follow the path as it edges the treeline until reaching a fork where you turn right (if you miss this turning you will find yourself circling the woods and back at the signpost). Walk a short distance further through oak trees and then the path opens out between hedges (further fantastic views across downland, this time towards Tarrant Keyneston) until reaching a gate into Badbury Rings. Follow the path which leads to the larger National Trust car park.
4 Once at the car park, follow the gravel track across the parking area and back to the B3082 (as you leave the car park you can see three Bronze Age burial mounds), turn left to where there is a grass track which runs parallel to the road and back to the car park.