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Dorset historical walk: Martin Down Nature Reserve

Penbury Knoll's banks and ditches. <i>(Image: Edward Griffiths)</i>
Penbury Knoll's banks and ditches. (Image: Edward Griffiths)

During the 1947 excavations of Bokerley Dyke, archaeologist C.F.C. Hawkes proposed a construction date of 325 A.D. at the latter end of the Roman occupation. The four-mile-long Bokerley Dyke (or Ditch) earthworks, which straddles the Dorset/Hampshire border, was built as a protective barrier against the Saxons, who had settlements in the Avon Valley less than 10 miles away. Initially, the massive banks and ditches didn’t reach as far west as Bokerley Junction, where Ackling Dyke Roman road was already in use. However, it was extended shortly afterwards and temporarily blocked the Roman road. A way was then cut through, and Bokerley Dyke has straddled the road at this point, now the A354, ever since.

Great British Life: View from Penbury Knoll back down to Pentridge village. View from Penbury Knoll back down to Pentridge village. (Image: Edward Griffiths)

This intriguing area of ancient woodland and vast chalk downs is graced with Bronze Age barrows, an Iron Age hill fort on Pentridge Hill, and the northern terminal of the Dorset Cursus which strides across the Cranborne Chase between Thickthorn Down, near Gussage St Michael, and Bokerley Dyke. This enigmatic construction, consisting of two parallel lines of banks and ditches 6½ miles (10.25km) long by 300-400 feet (90-120m) apart, is the largest known Neolithic ceremonial or ritual monument anywhere. On this varied walk, we come across all these historic features as well as the occasional red kite circling in the skies over Penbury Knoll.

The Walk

1. Walk to the three information boards at the car park’s far end. Go around the cantilever barrier and follow the scrub-edged track into open chalk downs. Keep straight on, passing a low right bank. Immediately past the second right bank, turn right off the track and walk diagonally south-south-east on a faint meandering path to the visible gate in the far bank, becoming a track as you approach. Across a right-left track and past the gate in Bokerley Dyke’s gap, go through the bridleway-arrowed fence-opening. Follow the faint path across the field, aiming for the pines in the low tree line on the other side. Arriving at the tree line, turn left along the field’s edge. The end ash tree has three bridleway arrows, the crossing bridleway coming down the field and across the right valley. But stay in your field, following the right-hand trees and bushes.

Great British Life: The long barrow alongside Dorset CursusThe long barrow alongside Dorset Cursus (Image: Edward Griffiths)

2. You are now walking diagonally across the north-east end of the Dorset Cursus, only visible as soil or crop marks, which terminated on the left in your field. The clump of trees up to your left marks the Bronze Age long barrow which is aligned with the Cursus terminal. You can see the barrow better when you reach the end of this field. Swinging right, reach 1½ bridleway-gates. Through into a tracks’ junction, cross into the tree-shaded track, marked ‘bridleway’ on the O.S. map. You may see hares in the right field. Continue for ½ mile and, approaching the end at Whitey Top Cottage, the track frequently has flowing clear stream water. Continue through to where the sign says: ‘Restricted By-Way’, formerly a bridleway. Then follow the lane into Pentridge, passing Penbury Cottage, on the right corner.

Great British Life:  St Rumbold's Church, Pentridge. St Rumbold's Church, Pentridge. (Image: Edward Griffiths)

3. At right corner thatched Chestnut Cottage, continue through Pentridge. Nearing its far end, with Pentridge House left, go right up the bridleway-signed lane to visit St Rumbold’s Church. Returning to Pentridge House, continue along the left cob wall. At its end, go over the footpath-signed fence-stile left of Manor Farm drive. Walk up to the bank with left trees on which is the footpath-stile into a long ascending path between left trees and right hedged-field. Becoming slightly sunken, the left belt of trees suggests that this path was once more significant than it is now. Over the end footpath-stile, pass the right gate and keep straight up the field’s track with a long bank to your left. Looking back, notice the front outside face of the distant bottom-left pine wood. This is the exact line of the Dorset Cursus’ south-east edge, which still has clear banks in the wood and is still suggested by the sparse hedge-line continuing north-east at right-angles to your path.

Great British Life: View back to Penbury Knoll. View back to Penbury Knoll. (Image: Edward Griffiths)

4. Meander up the track, swinging left and passing a right barrow, to its ending in the high field. Here, bear right and walk south up to the un-arrowed fence-stile in front of Penbury Knoll hillfort’s pine-clad banks. Over this, walk straight up the outer bank and wander at will to explore, then continue south through to the right-left fence along the top of Pentridge Hill with fine views south-east over the dipping fields. Turn left along the fenced path but divert to visit the O.S. 185m (600ft) trig point. Continuing along the path onto Pentridge Down, with long views either side. Meandering and undulating along the ridge, see Whitey Top Cottage and Farm below left. Reaching a fork, left clearly swings to Whitey Top, so keep straight on near the right fence. When the track forks again, take the lesser right path down along the right hedge to the fence’s bridleway and Jubilee Trail half-gate.

Great British Life:  Bokerley Ditch and Martin Down. Bokerley Ditch and Martin Down. (Image: Edward Griffiths)

5. Through, walk through trees and, past the Jubilee Trail post, cross the field to the facing pine wood’s three-way signpost. Go right along the hedge and continue into the descending path with right trees and left fenced-field. Continue down into Blagdon Hill wood. Follow the leaf-strewn track through to 1½ bridleway-gates. Through, onto the bridleway track, turn right to the facing gate. Around it, take the instant-left reverse-fork bridleway-track along the right fence, past the right gate and into the sunken chalk path passing right barrows. Back through Bokerley Dyke into Martin Down, take the left green track down alongside Bokerley Dyke, ignoring the right fork and enjoying the expansive views and the ditch’s enormity. Further down, at a crossing in a shallow valley, don’t go left or right. Cross over and ascend onto the downs again.

6. Meander right/left across Grim’s Ditch, part of a complex of boundary ditches of a system of land allotment between Bronze Age and Romano-British times, before swinging back to Bokerley Dyke track. Keep straight on. When descent becomes ascent, the track veers slightly away from the ditch, but stay on it, ignoring any right tracks from here on. Then, continue along a very high section of the bank until, after a left green metal box, reach the high military bank right. Take the green path before it. At the far end, join the grass track T-junction and go left. Pass the bank’s end and five lower left banks until, in about ¼ mile, arrive back at the car park where you started.

Compass Points

Distance: 5 miles/8km

Time: 3½ hours

Start: Martin Down Nature Reserve Car Park south-east of A354 near Woodyates (Grid Ref: SU036201)

Exertion: Moderate. One long gentle ascent. Take two large plastic bags to cover boots for one short section of firm-bottomed bridleway with a stream flowing over it!

Map: OS Landranger Sheet 184

Public Transport: Damory Coaches 20 and 23 Blandford to Salisbury

Dogs: On leads when requested, follow The Countryside Code

Refreshments: Cranborne Garden Centre Tea Rooms for light lunches and teas

 



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