The Dorset walk: Charlton Marshall, Gorcombe and Spetisbury
Matt Wilkinson and Andy Farrer venture south-east from Blandford
Published in March ’17
Walks can sometimes be a pleasant surprise. When it was decided that it was time for a route on the downland to the south of Blandford, I found it difficult to get excited about walking in a landscape which is far from spectacular. Unspectacular it may be, but I had forgotten what delightful countryside it is and I thoroughly enjoyed the variety and the contrasts that the route provided.
The main roads from Dorchester to Salisbury and from Poole to the north intersect at Blandford St Mary, and traffic can be heard on parts of the walk if the wind is in the wrong direction, but most of the route is blessedly peaceful. At the same time, it graphically illustrates the changes in the countryside, passing as it does farms that have been turned into offices, industrial units and a centre for extreme sports, as well as an array of solar panels covering, by my estimation, more than forty acres.
The beginning and end of the walk make use of the trackbed of the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway, which ran from Bournemouth West to Bath until its closure in 1966. Held in great affection because of the attractive countryside through which it ran, the ‘S and D’ also reflected some of the more laid-back attitudes of country life, which earned it the nickname of ‘Slow and Dirty’. The track makes for splendid flat walking: when the leaves are off the trees, there are views on either side, and in high summer, identifying all the various trees and plants along the line will tax the keenest naturalist.
Both Spetisbury and Charlton Marshall were stops on the line. Both are bisected by the busy A350 and Charlton Marshall has suffered from a lot of undistinguished modern building. Spetisbury has fared rather better and can boast the Iron Age hill-fort, Spetisbury Rings.
Distance: About 8 miles
Terrain: Generally very good underfoot, being mostly farm tracks and the old railway. The fields and field gates can be very muddy in wet weather, though. The climbs are gentle.
Start: In the long lay-by on the east side of the A350, between the Charlton Inn and the parish church. Map reference ST901040. Postcode DT11 9NH.
How to get there: Charlton Marshall is on the A350, about 1¼ miles south of Blandford and 4¾ miles north of the junction with the A31.
Maps: OS Explorer 118 (Shaftesbury & Cranborne Chase), OS Landranger 195 (Bournemouth & Purbeck) and 194 (Dorchester & Weymouth).
Refreshments: The Charlton Inn is about 100 yards from the start/finish of the walk.
1 Cross the road and turn right to walk towards Blandford. Cross Church Lane and continue along the main road to Park Hill on the left. Walk up this lane to two rather overgrown bridge parapets. Just before them, turn left and descend to the platform of the old Charlton Marshall station. Turn right and follow the course of the former railway for rather over ¾ mile until it ends at a gate. Towards the end of this stretch, you can see both the squat 14th-century tower of Blandford St Mary parish church and the rather more imposing Georgian tower of the church of St Peter and St Paul in Blandford.
2 Turn left beyond the gate on a track which is Ward’s Drove and was one of the main east-west routes for the movement of livestock in this part of Dorset. The first buildings on the left, in about 2/3 mile, are Ward’s Drove Cottages. Go past them and cross a stile to turn left onto a track that runs down the side of the cottages. The track bends to the right, then the left, and enters the buildings of Higher Dairy. In the middle of the buildings, turn right and follow the track round to the left, past a house on the right to a junction with a paved track.
3 Turn left and in a few yards right to reach two gates. Ignore the one on the right but go straight ahead along the bottom of a large open field, heading for two silos visible above the roof of a light-coloured building. In the next field, bear slightly left to an opening on the far side, next to an evergreen hedge. Follow the path down to the car park of Birch Close Farm, then cross a lane and follow a paved track. Cross a cattle grid and as the track bends to the right, bear left on a track past a white house with a slate roof. After the house, the track briefly becomes a path before reaching a gate with a track beyond.
4 Turn right and follow the track uphill. At the top of the hill, continue straight ahead, past a gate into an open field on either side, onto an enclosed path. This descends and leads out onto the open area next to Gorcombe Farm. Continue straight ahead, uphill, on a paved lane. Near the top of the rise, just after Little Gorcombe, the lane bends to the right. Continue ahead and almost immediately turn left down a track.
5 Go across a cross-tracks and continue downhill, now on a path. At the bottom of the slope, go through a gate, turn immediately left and walk diagonally across to an opening in the far corner of the field. In the next field, follow the right-hand edge of the next field, then pick up a track along the right-hand edge of the field after that, with a wood on the right. At the end of the wood, stay on the track between two open fields and follow it as it bends to the right towards the buildings of North Farm. Turn left in front of the buildings. In about 120 yards, there is a patch of concrete just after a block wall on the right and almost opposite an opening into the field on the left.
6 Turn right here into an open space and leave it by its top left-hand corner, with an old stable to the right. Head on uphill on a track up the left-hand side of an open field. At the top of the field, cross a cross-tracks and bear very slightly right to cross the field ahead to its far side and a narrow opening which is not easy to see until you are quite close to it. In the next field, walk straight down to the buildings of – logically enough – South Farm. Turn left in front of them on a track which soon becomes a paved lane. Walk along the lane to an over-bridge. Towards the end of this stretch, Spetisbury Rings can be seen ahead and to the right.
7 Immediately before the over-bridge, turn left on a path that leads up onto the old track-bed. Turn left and in almost 1½ miles, reach a bridge parapet on either side. In a further 80 yards there is another pair of parapets. Immediately before these, just after a bench on the right-hand side of the path, turn left down some steps to reach a lane. Turn right, walk down to a T-junction and turn right. At the main road, turn right again and cross the road to your car.