Wander through the high hills of the Tarrant Valley. Surrounded by ancient earthworks, Roman villas and a Roman road that still slices through the landscape on its way to Badbury Rings. Explore the wild woodland that circles the Estate of Eastbury. Once one of the biggest houses in the country and now just a shadow of its former self.
Distance: 4.5 miles/7km
Time: 2 hours
Total climb: 345.5 ft
Max height: 375 ft
Mum height: 225 ft
Terrain: Track, path and field.
Exertion: Medium. Some mud after rain.
Start: Tarrant Gunville Church (Grid Ref: ST925136, Postcode DT118JJ). Parking is limited.
Map: OS Explorer 118 Shaftesbury and Cranborne Chase
How to get there: From the south via the A354 or from the north via the A350.
Dogs: On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code.
Refreshments: Home Farm for tea, coffee, cake and light meals. Found at the top of the hill from the Church (Open Wednesday to Saturday 9:00-17:00 and Sunday 10:00-16:00).
Tarrant Gunville is the first, of the suitably named villages, in the Tarrant valley. The source of the river starting in neighbouring Stubhampton. The village is nestled in the narrow valley, the river and road running parallel to each other, frequently lined with tall trees, adding darkness and mystery to the village’s rather daunting history.
Parking at the church make your way back out into the road and turn right down the hill. On the valley road turn right passing the entrance to the Rectory. Take the next road on the left, crossing the river Tarrant. Before taking this turn, you may wish to follow the road a little further down to reach the gates to Eastbury House, the history of which is spoken about later.
Back on the route, continue up to the houses, probably the steepest part of the walk, best to get it out the way early. When the road turns, follow the footpath straight ahead, through the houses and around the back into the woods (it is clearly marked). Go through the gate to enter the next field where you will see the first of many remaining elements of the old garden design of Eastbury House– an avenue of trees. Keep your eyes peeled for the house itself on your right.
Eastbury house was once one of the largest country houses in the England. Third largest to be precise, only falling behind Blenheim Palace (aka Downton Abbey) and Castle Howard. All three of these properties were designed by John Vanbrugh. He was commissioned by George Dodington, (Lord Lieutenant of Somerset) to design Eastbury (gates included). The architectural plans of the building can be viewed in the Victoria and Albert museum in London. Construction began in 1718 but unfortunately George Dodington died before completion. It was inherited by his nephew, George Bubb, who changed his name to Dodington. He was known for being flamboyant and ostentatious, taking full advantage of his privileged lifestyle. He was someone who had influence in Parliament and had many intellectual and artistic friends, adding to his elaborate reputation. However, he was not liked by all, often being the focus of satirical comments. Nevertheless, he put his heart and soul, plus a huge amount of money, into the development of Eastbury. It was finally completed in 1738. Writing at the time, Dorset historian John Hutchins described it as ‘one of the grandest and most superb in the county, and indeed the kingdom’ . Inside was no disappointment either, Bubb had decorated it to match his own extravagant personality with paintings, silks and marble galore.
The gardens were also an important part of the estate. They were designed by Charles Bridgeman, who is famed for his avenues and ha has (sunken boundaries). Both Vanbrugh and Bridgeman were, however, at the end of their game. By the time the whole house was completed, they had both passed away. Their style was being eclipsed by newer concepts. Eastbury house was already unfashionable. In 1762 Bubb died and the house was passed to Richard Grenville Temple. He was not interested in the estate. He was often in Italy due to ill health. He tried to sell it, tried to rent it out, even offered to pay someone £200 a year to live there, but no one was interested. The only solution, The Temple family decided, was to demolish it. In 1786, the steward at the time, William Doggett, who remained at the house while his master was abroad, was given the order. However he was rather devious. Believing his master would not return, he demolished most the house, selling everything and kept all the proceeds for himself and his family. His master returned unexpectedly and in a panic, surrounded by evidence, Doggett shot himself. Apparently his blood never washed off the wall and his ghost haunts the gates. Newspaper articles claimed that he had turned into a vampire.
The house is a mere shadow of its former self, nothing remaining but the old stables, kitchen, a few avenue of trees and garden earthworks. However, it is still an imposing country seat. It’s material detritus were scattered around the county and used in the construction of the village rectory, Ashmore House and the old Bryanston House.
The next resident who was able to call this modest version of Eastbury home was Thomas Wedgewood, from the family of pottery fame (and Charles Darwin’s uncle). Thomas’ passion was photography, becoming a leading pioneer in the art. He died in 1805 leaving no heir, having preferred the company of men. His brother, Josiah, a potter, moved to Gunville Manor House in 1799 and apparently used some of the local clay for his own artistic creations.
The walk continues up the hill passing the Solomon’s Quarter on your right, where tumuli, which were part of the old garden design, can be seen. It then joins another track at a T junction. This joining track is the route of the old Roman road from Badbury Rings to Bath. Continue straight over with the field boundary on your right, passing more evidence of the garden with the Zareba Clump on your right. You can just make it out through the trees. Zareba, in Sudanese, means a thorny hedge to keep out wild animals. Follow the signpost to the left to make your way through a gate on your right and around the Bronze Age Chettle Long barrow. Little can be made of this from ground level, other than size. It is engulfed in vegetation, giving little away. Follow the field, keeping Eastbury boundary to your right. A boundary stone and an old iron fence provides the manmade evidence of this. It is a good area for deer. When I did this walk, I could not see them but I could hear them. A least that’s what I told myself while trying not to remember the vampire story.
The path enters Little Wood, make your way though until you join another track and turn right. To your left is an old settlement. This is possibly Roman related being so close to the road and other similar nearby earthworks that are aptly named such as Caesar’s Camp to the north. There is also the remains of an old Roman building on the opposite side of the valley, soon to be passed on foot. Many of these earthworks are so buried in vegetation that they are impossible to see, but they are there and probably surrounded by hundreds of other unknown secrets.
Follow the trees and embankment on your right, marking the edge of Eastbury Park. The track becomes a road as you descend into the valley. On your right as you arrive at the valley road is another entrance gate to Eastbury, most likely Vanbrugh designed, leading to the old kennels.
Facing the corner of the road, turn left and follow it straight onto the track, ignoring the second corner. There is a legend that has been doing the rounds of the village for many generations. It is believed that, within half a mile radius of the village, buried under a clump of old yew trees lies a solid silver table. No one knows why, and no one knows where!
Follow the track up the hill. This route runs perpendicular to the Roman road and therefore links the location of the Roman building to the other archaeological sites. It is even possible to follow it extending onward in the landscape towards the Iron Age Hod and Hambledon Hill forts. Once you get to Barton Dairy Farm, the site of the Roman building is just to your right but there are no remains to tease the eyes. Keep heading up hill passing a few large agricultural barns. When at the top of the hill you need to turn right, but it’s worth a little wander left to enjoy the view. Every August this view is remarkably different, being the site of The Great Dorset Steam Fair. The Bronze Age Pimperne Long barrow is also visible in the distance. Judging by the large amount of Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman remains, it must have been an intensively used area during these times. Cranborne Chase, where this area sits, is well known for this type of activity.
Returning to the track, walk along the top of Hinton Bushes and enter into the wood. After you exit the woodland and join a track, hidden amongst the trees on your right is Westbury Lodge. This building is of an interesting architectural design with more modern additions. It is privately owned but it was built in the early 19th century by the owners of Langton Long estate near Blandford as a ‘picnic lodge’.
On approaching the road turn right to head back down the hill to the church. Alternatively you could turn left and head to Home Farm where highly recommended local refreshments are served.
Make your way down the hill, pass the old gates to Gunville Manor and turn off the road, on the right, to take the footpath to St Mary’s church. It is worth a wander around, and behind, lies Gunville Manor House which is surprisingly close to the church itself. The pattern of early society’s level of importance radiated from the church. The owner of the Manor, being of high ranking, was therefore allowed to be closest to God – often repeated in many other villages too.
No luck with the Yew clump, but there’s still the other side of the village to explore. Unless, of course, the Zareba Clump was a possibility. It did contain yews, but is on private land and probably guarded by a vampire.