Chetnole and the Melburys

Walk through the heart of Dorset’s countryside, with views that are hard to match. Climb to the peak of Bubb Hill, near where a murder took place and the where guilty were hung from a tree. Descend into the valley to meet Dorset’s smallest church, in honour of St Edwold, who Cerne Abbas is indebted too. Enter into the estate of Melbury Sampford, where a heroine of Thomas Hardy’s tried, with little success, to escape the shackles of marriage. Visit the church where Hardy’s own parents were married, to return passing one of the UK’s smallest railway stations.

Distance: 6 3/4miles/11km

Time: 2.5 hours

Total climb: 500 ft

Max height: 520 ft

Min height: 220 ft

Terrain: Track, path, road and field.

Exertion: Easy. One big climb. A lot of mud after rain.

Start: The Chetnole Inn (Grid Ref: ST602082, Postcode DT9 6NU, What Three Words: speeded.encoded.rigid).

How to get there: The pub sits opposite St Peter’s church at the north of the village. Chetnole is clearly signposted off the A37, north of Dorchester. Alternatively, you can get the train to Chetnole on the Yeovil to Dorchester line.

Dogs: On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code.

Refreshments: The Chetnole Inn, where you start and finish.

Parking carefully at the church walk away from the junction, with the pub on your left. Go past the impressive Chetnole House and when the road turns left carry straight on into the field. Walk straight ahead to the trees and then turn right.

Keep an eye out for the randomly placed farmer’s grave, buried with his wife, in the land they used to work.

At the end of the field go through the gate to join Back Lane. Turn right onto the track and continue straight on to meet the tarmacked road. Walk all the way to the end of the road and turn right down a track, one of the old roads through the village. Cross the ford via a small footbridge, enter a field and then down some steps to arrive on another village road. Turn left, past some cottages and then take the next footpath on your right.

Cut straight across the first two fields and then bear left, keeping the field boundary on your left. Crossover the railway by a small stone, farm track bridge and take the left hand gate into the next field.

Veer slightly left, aiming for the buildings of Melbury Bubb in the distance. It is thought the first part of the name ‘Melbury’ comes from the joining of two Old English words, ‘maele’ and ‘burh’, meaning ‘multi-coloured fortified place’, hinting at long forgotten battles during ancient times, in a landscape full of nature. The second part of the name is usually an addition to honour the local land owning family of the time. It is worth exploring St Mary’s church while you are passing. The path leading to it is tunnelled by thick yew trees, making it feel like your discovering something secret.

In the churchyard is a broken gravestone dedicated to Thomas Baker (aka Williams). He was murdered in 1694 on nearby Murderer’s Lane. Travelling home, with his profits from Dorchester market, he was set upon by two robbers. They threw stones, knocking him from his cart to his death. The horse bolted, still attached to the cart, and the robbers escaped with nothing. Thomas Baker was found dead the next morning. Eventually the robbers were identified and apprehended. They were sentenced to death by starvation while chained inside metal cages and hung at the location of the crime, now known as Gibberts Pit.

Make your way around the Manor House through the farm buildings and start your big climb to Stockwood. Keep right to head through a boundary and out to a field containing the trig point. This part of the route is the Hardy way so is clearly waymarked. The views at the top are immense. Looking north east it spreads out towards Sherborne, dotted with trees and small patchwork fields.

Carefully make your way down the slope, joining the nearby track can help, but don’t let it divert you. Head for the left corner to find a stile that takes you into the woods. It can get very wet underfoot, but this is helped by a collection of decked paths, which also help guide you in the right direction. At the bottom, St Edwolds church in Stockwood comes into view, with its unique bell turret. It is the smallest church in Dorset, one of the smallest in England. Again it’s worth an explore, accessible via a small stone footbridge.

It is the only church dedicated to St Edwold in the country. Edwold was the younger brother of Edmund who was once the East Anglian king. In 870, during the Saxon period, Edmund was brutally murdered, leaving Edwold as heir. Edwold decided against taking the throne (who can blame him!) and instead chose the hermit life, spending his last year of his life in Dorset.

Edwold, according to legend, was told in a vision to go to Silver Well. He headed to Cerne Abbas where he paid a shepherd for bread and water with silver pennies and, in thanks, the man showed Edwold the well. Edwold then settled in the area until his death. 100 years later, in 987, when the monastery at Cerne was rebuilt, Edwold’s remains were reburied in the Abbey.

From Stockwood, walk away from the church, up the hill to join a road. Turn left and follow it around to meet the A37. The A37 is an old Roman road and was referred to in Thomas Hardy’s literature as Long Ash Lane. Take care when crossing and go directly ahead towards Melbury Estate.

Walk though some security gates and continue to follow the road. You cross a few cattle grids, pass some old farm cottages and then cross a bridge over a river. The estate opens up in front of you, the road lined by scattered trees. Melbury House gradually comes into view on your left as you gain height. It’s presence enforced by its large central tower reaching high above the chimneys. On joining another road, you can divert left to investigate the house at closer range (still on a footpath) or turn right to walk away from the house along its drive.

Melbury Sampford, the original village that sat to the south of the house, is long gone and disappeared, most probably due to the enclosure of the deer park and development of the house. It’s most likely position having been close to the church.

Melbury House has a long history. It has been the seat of the Strangways family for 16 generations. One particular event was immortalised by Thomas Hardy. In the early 18th century the only heir to the estate was a young 13 year old girl called Elizabeth Horner. Her mother, Susanna Strangways, arranged a marriage for her to a 39 year old gentlemen Stephen Fox. Her father was not involved, or even approved of the arrangement, but it went ahead anyway, against his wishes.

Thomas Hardy wrote a short story called The First Countess of Wessex based on the tale. Unknown how closely related to the truth of Elizabeth and Stephen it is, it still highlights an aspect of love that resonates today – age does not dictate love, but kindness can!

Other facts also prevent the romanticism of Hardy’s short story coming true. Stephen was known to be a homosexual so, Elizabeth may not have had that much of a happy ending, but she did provide six children.

Click on the link for the full story of ‘The First Countess of Wessex‘, or a short synopsis here.

Ignore all other tracks and remain on the drive, walking away from the house, exiting the estate via another security gate. In front of you is New Town, situated on the outskirts of Melbury Osmond. Follow the road around to the left to enter into the village.

Melbury Osmond is a stunning village. It seems a cliché to say that it hasn’t been touched by modern development, but other than cars and television aerials, everywhere you look, the scenes have not changed for generations. The small village road is cuddled by thatched roofs. A small ford crosses the road, with an elegant single arched footbridge helping the walkers avoid wet feet. Where the houses dip away, old stone walls appear, shadowed in large oak trees.

Stay on the same road all the way through the village until you meet the church. Take the footpath through the graveyard, passing directly in front of the church’s tower.

Melbury Osmond is famous for one particular reason, it’s church was where Thomas Hardy’s parents were married. A copy of the marriage certificate is displayed on the west wall of the nave. It is the village where his mother, Jemima, grew up and therefore they would have undoubtedly known it well. Maybe they would still recognise it easily today.

It is now a straight run back from Melbury Osmond to Chetnole. After making your way past the church, turn right onto the village road. Follow it down the hill, over the bridge and back up the other side of the valley to the A37.

Cross straight over the road and into the next field. Continue straight ahead through all the following fields, keeping your eyes peeled for river crossings and stiles at each field boundary.

Finally, in the last field, you meet the railway. Just to the west is Chetnole train station, one of the smallest train stations in the whole country! Go under the bridge and take the right hand gate, following the boundary of the field towards the houses ahead.

Go over the stile, past the old school house on your right and join back to the village road in Chetnole. Turn left to arrive at St Peter’s church, which contains two of Dorset’s oldest bells. They were cast by a London founder, William Chamberlain, in about 1500 and are inscribed with the words ‘wox augustinae sonet in aure dei’  translated as ‘the voice of Augustine speaks in the ear of God’, and sante laurenti ora pro nobis  meaning ‘St Lawrence pray for us’. 

Continue straight ahead to arrive back at the pub and your vehicle.

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