Beginning at a hidden Church in the little village of Netherbury, cross fields and streams to Stoke Abbot with its medieval lion fountain and ghosts of a travelling coach and horses. Pass the Roman remains on Waddon Hill to the peak of Gerrard’s Hill, home to an elusive black cat and views out to sea. Visit the town of Beaminster and it’s pinnacled church to reach Parnham House, an ancient building rising from ashes.
Distance: 5.5 miles/8.5km (shorter route – 4.5 miles/7km)
Time: 2.5 hours
Total climb: 520ft
Max height: 541ft
Min height: 130ft
Terrain: Track, path, road and field.
Start: St Marys Church, Netherbury (Grid Ref: SY470994, Postcode DT6 5ND). Please park considerately.
Map: OS Explorer 116 Lyme Regis and Bridport
How to get there: From Bridport, take the A3066 northwards towards Beaminster. Once through Melplash, take the next left hand turn, down the hill and follow it into Netherbury. Keep on the same road, round to the right, over an amazing iron railing bridge and up the hill to meet St Mary’s Church.
Dogs: On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code.
Refreshments: The New Inn at Stoke Abbot or Beaminster contains a number of small cafes and restaurants.
This is a walk that can be quite demanding with the climbs, but they are worth all the work when reaching the top. Incorporating three long distance walks – The Hardy Way, The Jubilee Trail and The Wessex Ridgeway, the route combines impressive landscape, historical villages and local legends. A shorter route is an option by skipping the visit to Beaminster.
Netherbury is a stunning little village, its buildings glow with a golden colour thanks to the local Ham Hill limestone, used in their construction, and they nestle deep in the wooded valley of the River Brit. The village has experienced little change over the past 70 years but not long ago was a hub of activity for cider making. The river meanders through the village as if it wants to enjoy its time here and provides a number of hidden little footpaths to explore. It is also the location of the original River Cottage.
With the church of St Mary’s and the massive yew tree behind you, turn left and follow the raised pavement, bordered with white railings, down the hill. On reaching a footpath turn left again to wrap around the church.
Follow the path past the houses and when you reach some steps on your right, leading you down into woodland, it is worth a little diversion to explore. Here you reach the river, surrounded by trees with a small flood gate on your left, its location clearly given away by its sound. On your right is the old mill, now a B&B. It was the home of Agatha in Thomas Hardy’s short story – ‘Destiny in a Blue Cloak’ which was published in the New York Times in 1874. It is tempting to continue to explore this hidden pocket with paths diverting you away from the route, but instead head back up the steps and back onto your original path, turning right when you reach the church wall.
On arriving at some barns, fork to your right to join a track. On your left is a field which is tempting to cut through. However, it is private land and therefore you have to walk up the hill to turn left into the field. On meeting another footpath, turn left again, heading back down to the bottom corner. Go over a stile and into a small wooded area, pass the small lakes on your right, ignore the first river crossing on your left and instead take the second soon after. You then enter into another field, head straight on up passing the lonely oak tree on your right. At the top corner, go through the gate to join a track and follow it around keeping the woodland on your left.
You are currently walking along the Jubilee Trail. It stretches for 90 miles across Dorset and was introduced to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the ramblers association. Its aim was to avoid the most popular routes and to seek out quaint villages, impressive views and secret valleys.
Continue to follow the track and soon after passing the telegraph pole look out for the gate on your left. Walk on through and follow the path straight ahead of you, over another stile and into another field. At the bottom, cross over another stile and into a small meadow like area. Keeping to the path, it brings you to another wooden crossing and out into a field again. Turn right and through the next gate. Go straight over the track and follow the signpost that marks the Jubilee Trail. Careful you don’t get diverted in the woodland. You need to remain relatively high and it is easy to be distracted by the little stream in the valley below. If you find yourself on a small track leading to a house, then walk towards the house and on your left there are some steps taking you back to your route. Keep high on the hill as you walk through the next section of woodland and exit via a stile, that is missing its step, and the skies open out to you again. Turn right and Stoke Abbot comes into view ahead. Head straight through the gate and down the hill, at the bottom don’t follow the track but instead go through the gate and up the hill to reach the church.
Stoke Abbott is charming, remote and, just like Netherbury, is a golden colour with thatched cottages buried in deep lanes. It was the home of John Seale who was the last man to be publicly hanged in Dorchester. He murdered Sarah Anne Guppy in her own kitchen by cutting her throat and then setting her home alight. His execution was the second to be witnessed by Thomas Hardy (the first being Martha Brown) on the 8th August 1858.
Walk past the church (also St Mary’s) to join a small road and follow it to the main road where you turn right into the village. Located at the next junction there is a small waterfall, known as Berie Well. Next to this is a stone carved lions head gushing water. Medieval in origin, it was restored to mark the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. Hanging in the wall beside it is a small cup for drinking, I would advise you to bring your own, or instead, the pubs not far away! Continue around the corner and follow the road through the village, passing the New Inn pub on your right. This road is said to be haunted by a coach and horses travelling from Beaminster; witnesses claiming to have stepped aside to let it pass.
Take the next road on your left to begin the steep climb to the highest point on the walk. It is a lovely route and the road itself has become a deep Holloway. The roots of the trees sit above you and you walk amongst the home of moles and worms!
Divert off the road to the left just before meeting the house and follow the path through the trees. Here you are walking along the edge of some ancient landscape with the Roman fort of Waddon hill high above you on your left. While, without knowing it, you’re crossing ancient field systems right beneath your feet.
On reaching Chartknolle Farm, go through the gate and turn right following the sign to Beaminster. Below you sit some lakes that can claim to be one of the sources of the River Brit. Cross over a stile and onto a ridge that seems to lead to the top of the world. Head to the trees to reach the highest point of Gerrard’s Hill, marked by a trig point at 174m high (541ft). The views are immense, one of the county’s finest. The sea can be seen on the horizon. Stoke Abbot is down to the west and Beaminster to the east. You can even find the trail you have already taken to the south. The areas is also said to be the home of a big cat, so keep your eyes peeled!
This section of the walk is the Wessex Ridgeway. It is 136 miles long starting from outside of Dorset in Marlborough travelling to Lyme Regis. The ridgeway is one of four paths cutting across England to make up The Greater Ridgeway, including The Ridgeway National Trail, The Icknield Way and the Pedder’s Way. This covers a total of 362 miles, ending in Hunstanton in Norfolk.
Head straight down the hill towards Beaminster, over a stile and a foot bridge, it is here where you can divert off onto a shorter route. To do this, take the right hand footpath through the woods to the road, cross straight over to Knowle Farm, turn left to join a footpath and then turn right to meet back up with the track we started from.
Or, instead, continue straight down the hill towards Beaminster. Make your way around Barrowfield Farm and after the last barn, go through the gate opposite you. Cut diagonally across the field to reach the town. When you reach a small road, turn right then straight across the next road, turn left, over the river and turn right again. Despite being in the town, you seem to be in a little oasis alongside the river bank. At the next section you feel more hidden as the lane becomes a tree tunnel, the route leading you in the direction of the church and the oldest part of the town.
Once again many buildings are made from the golden ham limestone, like Stoke Abbott and Netherbury. St Mary’s Church (yes, again!) itself is very dramatic. It is of 16th Century origin decorated with 42 pinnacles. At the time it was seen to be the architectural glory of the south of England. However it was not all romantic, men’s limbs used to hang from the pinnacles during the reign of James II, which would have been a truly gruesome sight, especially judging by the amount of pinnacles. On a lighter note, William Barns, the well-known Victorian poet, was said to have loved the town, so much so he was inspired to write a poem:
‘Sweet Be’mi’ster, that bist abound
By green an’ woody hills all around
Wi’ hedges, reachen up between
A thousan’ vields o’ zummer green.
Where elems’ lofty heads do drow
Their shades vor hay-meakers below,
An wilde hedge-flow’rs do charm the souls
O’maidens in their evenin strolls.’
Stay on this road passing the church on your right and around the corner. Ignore the footpath that follows the river and remain on the road until the end. Leave Beaminster via a track and remain on this route all the way to a house. Take the gate, just to your right and follow the path along the field. Here you are on the Hardy Way. It is a route stretching for just over 50 miles, starting at his birthplace and ending at his grave. It takes you through many of Hardy’s locations, immortalised in his books and engrained into the Dorset landscape. Beaminster was called Emminster, where Angel’s parents lived in one of his most famous novels – Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Netherbury was known as Cloton.
Hidden amongst the trees on your left is Parnham House. Parnham has a huge, rich history, some heroic and some treacherous. In the 17th century Lady Anne Strode was beheaded in the great hall by one of Cromwell’s soldiers while trying to defend the house. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, when staying at Parnham, heard a howling in the area which then apparently became the inspiration for The Hound of the Baskervilles, published in 1902. During the wars it was in the Rhodes Moorhouse family who owned Parnham. William Rhodes Moorhouse is buried on the hill west of the house, he was a pioneer aviator. He was the first to fly through the Golden Gate Bridge and the first to fly passengers across the English Channel. He died aged 27 from wounds caused by a difficult, but successful, mission in WW1 and was the first airman to receive the Victoria Cross. More recently, on 15th April 2017, there was a catastrophic fire. Michael Treichl, the owner, was questioned by police but on 16th June 2017 he was found dead in the water of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The police investigation was closed in October 2017 as there were no other suspects. The damage can still be seen today on Google Maps. In 2019 it was put up for sale for £3 million and in 2020 it was sold for an undisclosed price. Even during the COVID lockdown easing, work was continuing, so maybe there is love and hope being put back into the building now.
Continue to follow the track back to the village of Netherbury, passing the private access to Moorhouse’s grave on your right. After meeting the barns for the second time, take the next turning on your right and walk straight up the hill. Follow it around, passing a house on your right to then join the road. Turn left and St Mary’s Church of Netherbury will soon appear ahead of you.