Until the end of the 19th century, the Sixpenny Handley parish had no outlying settlements to the east. Upwood Farm, which we visit on this walk, was established around 1790 although the present buildings are dated as ‘modern’ in the 1975 Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (RCHM) volume, whilst Deanland and New Town, which we also encounter, are mentioned as ‘18th and 19th-century encroachments on the woodland’.

Garston Wood Nature Reserve has been managed by the RSPB since 1986. Most of the 84 acres (34 hectares) is a part of the ancient woodland. Not as well-known as other Dorset reserves, Garston Wood remains quiet and peaceful, a genuine haven for a vast array of wildlife. To round off this delightful walk along the Dorset/Wiltshire border, we explore Garston Wood on a circular route embracing the central ‘high wood’ of older and larger trees where fallow and other species of deer tend to congregate, as well as many woodland birds which will be in full voice at this time of year. Surrounding the high wood is an ancient hazel coppice which has been harvested in this traditional way for over 300 years. This habitat is home to dormice, bats and badgers. The coppice is still being worked today, on a 15-year cycle, the typically straight branches being used mostly for hazel fencing (hurdles).

Great British Life: Garston Wood path along Shire Rack, the border with Wiltshire.Garston Wood path along Shire Rack, the border with Wiltshire. (Image: Edward Griffiths)

The Walk

1. Out from the car park, turn left (north) but only for 100 yards to the ‘Cobley’ signed footpath right. But take the left signed footpath, Sixpenny Handley Round Walk (SHRW), onto Garston Wood’s northern edge path. Beginning the gradual ascent, with prominent hazel bushes and early wild garlic, notice the remnants of the flint-based bank, planted with trees and bushes, running between this path and the right fields. This linear bank marks the county boundary between Dorset and Wiltshire. Reaching a right fence-gate, turn left on the bridleway and SHRW arrowed path. Only a few yards along the wire-fence, the bridleway goes straight on but turn right on the arrowed footpath, still inside the wood’s edge. This is now Mistleberry Wood, more open now on the left and carpeted with wild garlic at this time of year, followed by bluebells.

2. Soon, see the ditch and bank over to your left. These are the defensive earthworks of the Mistleberry Wood hillfort. The defences, which comprise a single bank with an external ditch, have been left unfinished on the south-west side but, if complete, would enclose an oval of just over 2-acres. At its best, the bank is 24ft across and 4ft high and the ditch is of similar dimensions as the soil for the bank was excavated from the ditch. After the hillfort, between 475ft and 500ft above sea level is the highest point on this walk, the path levels and then begins a descent through beech wood, becoming steeper to the lane. Past the SHRW arrow at the bottom, there are bridleway and footpath pointers at the lane with Deanland to your left and ‘Private’ West Chase Farm in the valley on your right.

Great British Life: Deanland, one of a handful of settlements around Sixpenny Handley. Deanland, one of a handful of settlements around Sixpenny Handley. (Image: Edward Griffiths)

3. Turn left along the valley lane with field left and tree slopes right, then hedged both sides until two right cottages, The Chase and Holly Cottage. Deanland is one of a number of settlements around Sixpenny Handley together with New Town, Woodcutts, Cobley and Woodyates. Deanland and West Chase Farm both stand on a remaining stretch of the same medieval road from Ebbesbourne Wake, just over the border in Wiltshire, to Sixpenny Handley church. After Holly Cottage, at the nearby crossing, signed ‘Newton Only’ right, take the left bridleway-signed drive. Pass the instant-right cottage’s drive and continue around the right bend, climbing gently, hedged and with a central grass strip. Near the top, pass the left stone-mullioned ‘1899’ brick house, then look down on the village houses along the lane below. Continue onto the grass track and meet the bridleway coming up from Deanland at a T-junction. Turn left up the green hedged track, levelling out under the avenue of large trees. Through the facing 1½ bridleway-gates, and past right and left gates, continue along the enclosed track, noticing Upwood Farmhouse across the right field.

Great British Life: Approaching Upwood Farm track. Approaching Upwood Farm track. (Image: Edward Griffiths)

4. Reaching the busy farmyard, don’t go in! Forsaking whatever your O.S. map says, turn left at the bridleway sign on the right electricity post and (confirmed by farm-produced notices) onto the grass track along the field’s right edge above the now-right farm. Reaching the track coming reverse-right out from the farm, also bridleway-signed, walk on past right Rookery Cottages. Continue along the track with right hedge, then woods, with left fields, meandering then hedged again. When the left field ends at a hedge, the track bends left. Don’t go that way, instead turn right onto the footpath-posted path heading north-east across the field to a green track into the woods with a left deer fence. Go through the RSPB Garston Wood ‘Dogs on Leads’ footpath-gate.

5. Follow the path, passing another left gate, to a T-junction of green tracks. Fork right. Walk down and pass a left turn. Keep straight on with mostly coppiced hazel, then rising again. Over to a T-junction of paths, turn right and keep meandering on, meeting the right boundary deer fence on the way. Continue down until approaching the facing 1½ deer fence gates with the Sixpenny Handley road outside, but follow the path sharply round to the left, rising again. At the next left turn, continue parallel to the road. The path soon begins to veer away from the road and rises to a tracks/paths crossing. Turn right, rising and passing another right path. Continue to a T-junction with a wider green track. Turn right down to the ‘Garston Wood’ deer-fence gate back into the car park where you started.

Compass Points

Distance: 4 miles/6.5 km

Time: 3 hours

Exertion: Moderate. Gentle ascents. No stiles

Map: OS Landranger Sheet 184

Start: RSPB Garston Wood Nature Reserve car park. Take the ‘Broad Chalk’ road out of Sixpenny Handley and fork right after ½ mile (Grid Ref: SU003194)

Public Transport: None

Dogs: On leads in nature reserve and on farmland. Follow The Countryside Code

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