Fontmell Downs, Compton Abbas and Melbury Hill

From the peak of Clubman’s Down, wander across the ancient, earthwork littered landscape to the meeting spot of countryside rebels, armed with scythes and pitchforks. Explore Compton Abbas village and the last remains of its old Church tower. Climb Melbury Beacon, one of the highest points in Dorset, providing views across Shaftesbury to the north, the Purbeck Hills to the south, Cranborne Chase to the east and the Blackmore Vale to the west.

Distance: 4 miles
Time: 2 hours
Total climb: 570ft
Max height: 860ft
Min height: 330ft
Terrain: Track, path, road and field.
Exertion: Hard, some steep climbs.
Start: Spread Eagle Hill car park (Postcode: SP5 5AA, Grid Reference: ST886187, What Three Words: falls.escaping.hospitals).
Map: OS Explorer 118 Shaftesbury and Cranborne Chase
How to get there: Travelling from Blandford on the top Shaftesbury road (Shaftesbury Lane), pass the turning to Ashmore and the car park is around the next corner on the left hand side.
Dogs: On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code. When on National trust land, keep dogs on leads, due to the sensitivity of the wildlife including ground nesting birds.
Refreshments: None on route but there is a nearby café at Compton Abbas airfield, just south east of the starting point.

The view to Compton Abbas

As soon as you arrive at the car park on Spread Eagle Hill, you are faced with views from Fontmell Down that stretch for miles. Below you sits the little village of Compton Abbas that you will later walk through and to your left is Melbury Beacon, the highest point on the walk.

Melbury Beacon from Clubman’s Down

Fontmell Down is owned by the National Trust. They bought it in sections in memory to Thomas Hardy, as the views survey over the landscape that has been immortalised in many of his tragic Victorian novels. The landscape was never just in the background of Hardy’s work but a living and dynamic force, heavily involved in the characters lives.

The area is an AONB as well as a SSSI, managed also by the Dorset Wildlife Trust. The chalk downland attracts 34 different species of butterfly including the Adonis Blue and the Guzzled Skipper. The skipper only breeds in 14 places in Britain, Fontmell Down being the only one in Dorset. It is also awash with wild flowers and in the summer months you can see glow worms sparkling in the dusky sky.

As it is open access land, you are not restricted to the footpaths, however it is good to stay on recognised routes to not only to protect wildlife and prevent unnecessary erosion but also for the ease of footing. From the car park, go through the small gate next to the information sign to follow the fence on your left side. The ground drops away from you on the right as you head towards Clubman’s Down.

Clubman’s Down is named after a group of men who rose up during the civil war. They were on no one’s side other than their own. They were angry due to the destruction of crops and property, and the loss of livestock, caused by both the Parliamentarians and the Royalists passing through their land and taking advantage with little respect. They even had their own slogan:

“If you offer to plunder

or take our cattle,

Be assured we will give

you battle.”

One of the leaders was Thomas Bravell, the rector of Compton Abbas. In May 1645 a huge number of men gathered for a meeting, apparently armed with pitchforks and clubs, to form an association and rise up against their enemies. This meeting place was here, aptly named Clubman’s Down. In August 1645, they had their most dramatic battle on Hambledon Hill. Unfortunately they were no competition to the well trained and heavily armed army of Oliver Cromwell, who snuck up from behind and quashed them. Most of the Clubmen were reported to have run away with their arms waving in the air. However, 21 men died. Thomas Bravell, amongst others, was locked up in Shroton Church for the night. In the morning Oliver Cromwell, who was sensitive to their plight, gave them all a telling off and everyone promised not to be naughty again. They were set free, the shenanigans not even affecting Thomas’s role as rector.

Continue to follow the fence, passing through the first of two dykes that would have once completely cut off and defended this hill spur. Pass the wood on your left, over the second smaller dyke and you will see a small post way marking the path on your right. Follow this downhill; it’s not really a path or a track, just a worn route in the ground. Go through a gate into small woodland. Come out into a field and cross diagonally to meet the next gate. Head through the pedestrian gate, over the brow of the hill and to the next gate that takes you into a tunnel of trees. This is a lovely little path cocooned by trees and bushes as you walk and, towards the end, a little stream appears on your right hand side, followed by a lake.

When you reach a road you are in the first part of Compton Abbas. You can divert left here to go visit St Mary’s Church, which contains the old 16th century bells from the ruined tower that we pass later. It was built in 1866 to replace the crumbling original. If not going to the church, turn right to enter deeper into the village. The route here follows the road for about a mile, passing many old thatched cottages hugging the road.

Compton Abbas is a lovely, pretty village, off the main road and undisturbed. Its name is derived from ‘Cumb-ton’ – village in a narrow valley, and ‘abbas’, signifying that its land once belonged to the abbess of Shaftesbury. Continue along the same road following its curves, but not turning off, and on meeting a T-junction, turn right and up the hill. You have a break in any residential properties for a bit but then you enter into the second part of Compton Abbas (East Compton). After passing modern, and aptly named, Newtown on your right and the farm on the corner, you approach an old looking wall on your left hand side. This is the first clue to finding the ruins of St Marys Church, where the Clubman Thomas Bravell would have preached. A 15th-century greensand tower is all that survives, slightly pale in colour, blocked up and left for pigeons to explore. It still guards a number of crumbling gravestones, unidentifiable tombs and a well weathered medieval cross. To access the tower, follow the ancient stone wall around the left to meet a gate, opposite the old farmhouse.

The ruins of St Mary’s Church

Continuing on the route, follow the old farmhouse wall around to the left and take the track on your right. Pass through a gate and continue to follow the track towards the climb to Melbury. The track is hugged like a horseshoe by the giant peaks of Melbury on the left and Compton Down on your right. You can see a large shallow dip in the gradient of Compton Down, this is where there was once a World War II gun emplacement whose purpose was to protect and defend the nearby radar station, which was positioned on Spread Eagle Hill.

Remain on the track, keeping the boundary on your left all the way to the base of the hill. On meeting a gate on your right go on through, it is marked with a small National Trust sign acknowledging your entry to Melbury. Follow the worn route diagonally up the hill. It is a big climb and my advice is to take it slowly and sit down lots to fully appreciate the view that grows behind you!

About half way up you meet a track, turn right and follow it along until you can sensibly divert left to reach a fence. Turn left at the fence to start the next stage of the climb up to Melbury Beacon. Again this isn’t easy! Keep the fence to your right and when you reach the top, you are greeted by a stone pedestal marking the highest point of 263m above sea level (the 6th highest point in the county). It is decorated with a compass guide to show you what you are looking at and in what direction. In 1588 an Armada beacon was sited here which formed part of a chain of signal beacons from London to Plymouth. It included others in the county at Okeford Hill, Lewesdon Hill and Rawlsbury Camp.

The panoramic views surround you. Hambledon Hill in the South West, Duncliffe Hill and Shaftesbury in the north and the small woodland marking the peak of Win Green to the north east, can all be easily spotted. The Purbeck Hills define the horizon in the south and are the only things blocking the view to the sea! The Fontmell Downs are the divide between the old hunting grounds of Cranborne Chase to the east and the dairy fields of the Blackmore Vale in the west.

The Blackmore Vale from Melbury Beacon

If you haven’t noticed already, you may have seen a number of small planes in the sky. As you walk away from the beacon, retracing your steps, Compton Abbas airfield’s colours clash with the woodland behind, highlighting it on the hill in front of you. It is a family run airfield and, at 210 metres, it is one of the highest airfields in England. During summer, the airfield hosts a number of aerobatic displays and fly-ins, regularly involving historic aircraft. In the café you are not only able to enjoy the views, but also watch planes land and take off. As you walk down the hill, it will disappear out of sight. Once you have fully absorbed the scenery, which could take a while, continue to retrace your footsteps back down the hill, passing where you arrived and up the opposite slope to the next gate.

At the gate turn right, keeping the fence on your left, passing the sharp drop down to the gun emplacement on your right. Follow the worn paths while trying to avoid any of the prickly vegetation, staying on roughly the same gradient. When the fence curves around the left, gently veer right, down the hill, to another a worn chalky route taking to the next, slightly hidden, stile. If the field starts to become narrow, you have gone too far. Go over the stile and down a few wooden steps to meet a track. Turn left taking you straight back up to the car park.

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