Distance: 9 miles/14km
Time: 4 hours
Total climb: 1100ft
Max height: 800 ft
Min height: 350 ft
Terrain: Track, path and field.
Exertion: Hard. Some mud after rain. Steep climbs that can be slippy, regardless of the weather.
Start: The Greyhound Inn (Grid ref: SY632996, Postcode: DT2 9PD).
Map: OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis
How to get there: Follow signs to Sydling St Nicolas from either via the A37 to the west or the A352 on the east
Dogs: On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code. Be aware of loose dogs at some of the farms.
Refreshments: The Greyhound Inn in Sydling St Nicholas
Sydling St. Nicolas is a small village in the middle of Dorset, tucked into the chalk hills and sitting in the valley of the river Sydling. In medieval times it was named Brode-Sideling, distinguishing it from the smaller hamlet of Up Sidling to the north. The old name was adopted by Thomas Hardy, calling it Broad Sidlinch, for his story ‘Grave by the Handpost’ (1897), published amongst ‘The Changed Man and other Tales’, in 1913. The village circles the river with a majority of homes being accessed by small bridges and dead end roads. The river once flowed an open course through the village but this often resulted in severe flooding. After one great storm in 1889, a local man called Thomas Churchill was carried away by the water and drowned. Although the village roots are Saxon, ancient settlement has also been in the surrounding area for thousands of years.
Starting at The Greyhound Inn (car park for patrons only), turn left on the road, walking south through the village. On arriving at a crossroads with the village hall on your left and The Cross on your right, turn left and head for the river. Turn left once again at the river, keeping it on your right hand side and cross over the footbridge in front of you. Turn right and follow the narrow gravel path behind the houses and exit out onto Back Lane. Turn left and then right at the next path and follow the field boundary up the hill to reach a gate. The climb is steep and is the first of three major climbs on the route. Go through the gate and continue climbing to reach another gate not forgetting to turn around and appreciate the views behind you. Go past a lonely bench and at the top, you come to another gate. Go through and stick with the field boundary on your left. Not long after, you join a track. Turn right and follow it along the top of the hill. The views spread out. Sydling St Nicholas is nestled in the valley below you. On the opposite side of the valley you can make out your future path, with the tower of St Nicholas church (which gave the village its name) helping to direct you, and higher up the flashing colours of passing cars on the A37. To the south you can see Hardys’s monument sitting prominently on the horizon.
When the track turns left, continue straight ahead through the field. Go through a gate and onto a bordered track. Once though another gate, lumps and bumps appear in the landscape on your left, this is Shearplace Hill, the first indication on the walk of ancient activity. Shearplace Hill is a Bronze Age farmstead that, through investigation, has provided evidence of occupation right into the Roman period. On meeting a concrete track, turn right and head back down into the valley following it around the large barn and to Huish Farm, originally an old water mill. Cut through the farm, passing the large thatched farm house and elaborate garden wall on your right. Cross over the small, sparkling river and then right again when meeting the road.
On the road take the next left onto a tree tunnelled track. Turn right at the end and follow it up to Court Farm. Before you reach the tithe barn take the track on your left, keeping the barn on you right. Immediately after the barn is a stile that takes you to the church. It is worth a little explore to try and find the unusual, but entirely relevant, grave stone of the last miller of the village – Robert Spriggs, who died in 1919. Inside this church is one of the oldest clocks in the country dating back to 1593. It is faceless, but does chime every hour and when inside the church, although not visible, its ticking is still very much heard. The yew tree in the graveyard also has a certificate confirming and congratulating it at being over 500 years old.
Returning to the tithe barn continue up the hill along the track. At the top turn right keeping the line of trees on your right. Follow it to the end to reach a T-junction and turn left. Although it descends at first, do not let this trick you as the second of the three climbs is about to begin, visible through the trees in front of you. When the tracks divert off into fields, take the path straight on through another tree tunnel. At the top go though a gate and keep the field boundary to your left. When you reach another gate, turn around to appreciate the views. You will see some remains of ancient agricultural field systems on the landscape in the form of square panels defined by raised borders. Strip lynchets are also present in the area, similar to the above method but narrower strips and sometimes confused with the natural process of soil creep. Both these manmade designs were used during the Iron Age right though to the Medieval period, it was a practice where they would level out the steep inclines in order to farm more efficiently. Continue along the top of the hill following the boundary. When you reach a gate on your left, go though and turn right to meet the Roman road, aka the A37. The Roman presence could indicate quite strongly that the route from Shearplace Hill to here was of Roman origin or even earlier.
Take care when crossing the road, it is still very much in use and can be a busy one. Take the track directly opposite to New Barn and turn right between the farm buildings. Go over the gate in front of you and follow the hedge on your right. The view to your left expands and down in the valley sits Maiden Newton. In the next field, when crops are at their fullest, following the footpath is difficult. Instead remain on the track and head for the corner of the field. Be aware that the area ahead is used for remote control flying equipment! When the warning sign comes into view turn left staying on the track and enter into the next, crop-less field. Head for the gate at the opposite end to reach the road.
Turn right, minding out for traffic, and take the next track on your left. Stay on the track until you’re just about to reach Hill Barn and divert right. Go though to the next gate and continue keeping the boundary on your left. Once again the views open up in front of you, and below you. Cattistock lies in the valley and just to its right, at the top of the hill, sits The Castle, an Iron Age hill fort. Some claim that it is natural rather than man made, but this is unlikely due to the common features it shares with other Iron Age hill forts in the region. Beyond The Castle, Chalmington, a large country house with large gardens and a farm, that once even included an airport, can be seen. One former owner, Brian Woodford, was, possibly still is, wanted by the United States of America for allegedly smuggling military parts to Iran. His wife was arrested in 2008 and found guilty in 2009. However, previous local employees have described them as very nice people. To your right is a large hill, Manor Farm sits at the bottom and a track skimming the hill then climbs upwards. A small road is visible leading to a pumping station. As you descend into Cattistock you can admire this distant path as it will soon become your last climb!
Enter onto another boarded track through a gate and the hill starts to descend more rapidly. Watch your footing as it is slippy, despite it being wet or dry. Follow it down to the houses and once on the small road, the southern side of Cattistock sits in front of you, St Peter and Paul’s church tower too. Hidden amongst the trees is Cattistock Lodge. This was once a magnificent, yet modest, building but has now been left to ruin. Some brave urban explorers have investigated it and pretty much all concluded that no one could have lived there for years. However, surprisingly there was one sole inhabitant there until quite recently. She was known for being a rather eccentric old lady. Even in her later years she was removed by bailiffs, and then apparently broke back in! There is also said to be the existence of an old 1930’s Jaguar, parked in the rear of the garden, now, sadly, flattened by the fallen garage roof. The property is a treasure trove of a time capsule, all be it broken treasure now.
You can explore virtually here.
Follow the road away from The Kennels to arrive at the impressive brick work and thatched roof of East Barn. This is just a small hint at the architectural possibilities that lie within Cattistock, tempting you further in, but, sadly, turn right and leave the village almost as soon as you arrive.
Follow the track that leads you to Manor Farm, Castle Hill sitting high above you on your left. Cut though the agricultural buildings being aware of any loose animals or livestock. Join another track and follow it up to another gate. Before dealing with the inevitable climb, stay on the track at the bottom of the hill. The footpath is hard to distinguish from the heavily trodden sheep paths, so whenever you are ready, divert left and start your climb. Head to about half way along the trees on the far boundary, the gate becoming clearer as you approach.
Pass though the gate, entering into Lankham Bottom, a nature reserve, and cross the track to the pumping station, which you could view from the opposite hill. Head across the field, avoiding the gorse and brambles, in the same direction. To find the gate out of the reserve go under the telegraph wires and the gate will be on your left soon after. The A37 slowly becoming louder. Turn right at the road and after a small climb you will arrive back to the A37.
Cross straight over to join a small tarmac road, quite clearly a route that was trumped by the development of the A37. At its highest, the three climbs of the walk have been achieved and a downhill stroll back to the village it all that remains. On reaching a road turn left down the hill, heading back into the Sydling valley. Continue down the hill until you reach a gate on your right. Go through and walk along the bottom of the hill eventually becoming more track like. Pass the woods on your left and join another track. Turn left and head straight to Sherrins Farm at the bottom. Exit the farm through a small gate and onto a new road with a brand new housing development on your right. Stay going straight to come out onto the valley road. On your left is a small bridge and the old village chapel. This (along with the spots on the start of the walk and at Huish farm) is good place to view the river. During the summer months especially, within the village, the river can become overgrown and hidden. Walk away from the chapel, with the river on your left and past some old village properties to return to the pub for well deserved refreshments.