East Dorset – Dorset
This eastern corner of Dorset, part of the ancient kingdom of Wessex, is irrigated by the river Stour. It is a beautiful, undulating landscape of chalk escarpments and downland dotted with wild flowers, ancient forests and mysterious neolithic earthworks.
Starting high up on the western downs, the six-mile-long cursus, an avenue with parallel earth banks, was built around 5,500 years ago, possibly as a processional route that linked to the nearby earth henge at Knowlton. Here, around the ruined Norman church that sits in the earthworks, ancient yews – trees worshipped long ago as deities – survive as a reminder of how our pagan and Christian sites are sometimes inextricably linked.
For more recent history, make for the old Roman ford on the Stour at Pamphill, a crossing point on the main route from Dorchester to Salisbury. Beneath the footbridge, find a large pool for dipping, or you can seek out other picnic spots along this picturesque river. On a hot day, enjoy a paddle in the Tarrant stream and explore the pretty church at Tarrant Crawford.
Further upstream, the massive earth ramparts of Hod Hill and Hambledon Hill are pretty impressive. These hill forts were built to guard the banks of the river Stour. You can also visit Badbury Rings, another important Iron Age fort on the meeting of two Roman roads. Its magnificent avenue of 365 ancient beeches is a glorious sight in the quiet of an early summer morning.
Flour is still ground in the traditional way near Shaftesbury and supplied to local bakeries, so it’s one of the best places to taste real bread. At Long Crichel bakery you can eat mouthwatering organic bread, savoury pastries and cakes still warm from the oven, while over at the Old Rectory at Semley, Jemma sells bread and jams from her kitchen. The local microbreweries are also not to be missed.
Those who seek solitude will find it here – high on Martin Down, walking through the ancient woods at Garston and Duncliffe, or searching for glow-worms in the uplands of Melbury Down under a starry, summer sky.