The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Dorset Walk

Teresa Rabbetts visits Knowlton and Gussage All Saints

Knowlton Church and Henge, sacred site through the centuries

Knowlton Church and Henge, sacred site through the centuries

Just a short trip north of Wimborne sits one of the most evocative places in Dorset. At first sight Knowlton Church is little more than a ruined building, albeit sitting in splendid solitude against a breath-taking panoramic setting. However, study the landscape for a little longer and even on the brightest spring day, with the regular background noise of passing of traffic on the B3078, you begin to sense that there is more going on. It is an atmospheric place with hints of mystery and voices from past ages that permeate as the magic of the setting spellbinds visitors. Archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, perhaps visiting on a less sunny day, wrote: ‘There lingers in the air some flavour of the sinister and macabre.’
Knowlton Church is surrounded by one of several earthworks in the area known as henges; these, together with nearby round barrows, ring-ditches and the mysterious banks of chalk known as the Dorset Cursus, show this to be one of the busiest ceremonial landscapes in the country. The location has had remarkably little archaeological investigation to explain the riddles that it presents, but it is believed that the henge was constructed sometime at the end of the Neolithic period (c2500-2000 BC) and although the site was eventually abandoned, it continued to be an important place for ritual.
In theory, Britain was Christianised under the Romans, but for the Saxons, the old beliefs persisted and the fact that they built a chapel on a site of such importance demonstrates an eclectic mix of paganism and superstition struggling to integrate with Christianity – there can be few better places that symbolise the uneasy transition from pagan to Christian worship.
The conquering Normans, keen to stamp their mark upon the subjugated Saxons and thousands of years of ancient British religious custom and practice, built their own church on the site of the Saxon chapel. Located west of the church on the banks of the River Allen, Knowlton was a Royal manor at the time of the Domesday Book and a thriving community that was able to boast a regular fair, although this later migrated to the nearby village of Woodlands (together with the 12th-century font from the church). Knowlton village was eventually abandoned in the 17th century, the community possibly depleted by the Black Death. Some kind of a revival in the 18th century led to the church being brought back into use and a north aisle was added to the building, but when the roof collapsed and a church was built at Woodlands, Knowlton church was finally abandoned.

A yew tree at the Knowlton earthworks, bedecked with  memorial ribbons

A yew tree at the Knowlton earthworks, bedecked with memorial ribbons

Many visitors seeking a spiritual experience come to Knowlton and, as is inevitable at such an evocative place, there are tales of ghostly hauntings and visits by the Devil. But to continue with the parallels between paganism and Christianity, there are some wonderful examples of the iconic yew tree around the site. The yew holds a place of importance to paganism as well as to Christianity. At what was once the south entrance to the site, a clump of yew trees have been decorated with tributes and commemorations to loved ones; ribbons tied to branches and other tokens provide possible hints at the more mystical. Held sacred by druids, the yew symbolised longevity and immortality; likewise for the Celts, with their many gods, the yew embodied death and resurrection. When St Augustine, attributed as being a founder of the English Church, first landed in Kent in 597AD, it is claimed that he sheltered beneath a yew tree and the yew, now synonymous with British churchyards, has remained revered in Christianity since, the evergreen tree symbolising eternal life, immortality and resurrection and therefore playing an important role at Easter.
Inevitably, agricultural activity has damaged or destroyed many of the earthworks and until the 1960s the survival of the church was threatened by decay and vegetation. Today, however, Knowlton Church and Earthworks are protected and maintained by English Heritage: an inspiring and spacious spot frequented by dog-walkers, parents and children letting off steam.

So larded in history is this area that even the road signs are ancient

So larded in history is this area that even the road signs are ancient

How to get there: From Wimborne, drive on the B3078 towards Cranborne. Knowlton Church is signposted on the left of the road.
Parking & start: There is limited parking on the roadside by the entrance to Knowlton.
Terrain: Varied mixture of green lanes & tracks and quiet lanes – seasonally very muddy stretches.
Distance: 2½ miles.
Maps: OS Landranger 195 Bournemouth, Purbeck & surrounding area, OS Explorer 118 Shaftesbury & Cranborne Chase.
Refreshments: The Drovers Inn, Gussage All Saints.

0170 Map - April

THE WALK
1 Leaving Knowlton, continue down Lumber Lane with the B3078 behind you for approximately ½ a mile, en route pass Brockington Farm on the right and a short distance after that pass a track marked Brockington Cottages, also on the right. Keep going until the lane ends at a T-junction and turn left here (signposted Gussage All Saints).
2 Continue on the lane and, as it rises slightly, turn off to the right to follow a wide track (there is a signpost but the fingerpost is broken off) and through a wide metal gate. The wide track continues to a crossroads – take the left-hand turning and carry on this path until it descends into Gussage All Saints and comes out on the road next to The Drovers Inn.
3 Turn left and walk through the village to the crossroads named Amen Corner. From here, go straight across towards Bowerswain and follow the lane until it goes downhill. Just as the lane bears to the right over a bridge, turn left onto a track with the stream on your right.
4 After a short distance the wide track bears left and narrows between the hedgerows. Keep on this route between the hedges until it widens out again at a T-junction, turn left here. Passing cottages on the left, keep on until reaching the lane with Brockington Farm in front. Turn right and walk back to Knowlton church.

In memory of Gary Williams 1940 – 2016
One of his favourite places.

Dorset Directory