The Wessex Ridgeway, part two. Okeford Hill to Alton Pancras.

Distance – 10 Miles/16km

Duration – 2.5/3 hours

Exertion – Completely dependent on fitness. Two hard climbs up to the Dorsetshire Gap and Ball Hill. The terrain can get rough and may require dismounting and pushing.

Terrain – Track and road, a few narrow paths. Can get muddy after rain. Can also become hard and rutted with horse and tyre tracks during the summer.

Maps – Os Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis.

Start – At the parking area at the top of Okeford Hill.

Finish Lay-by to the North of Alton Pancreas.

Refreshments – None on route.

Starting at Okeford Hill, you are already high up so no work is needed to appreciate the views. From the car park, follow the path immediately leading you through the trees to reach a chalk track. Turn right and follow it along the ridge of the hill with the views opening out to your right. As you follow it along you meet your first of many Iron Age settlements along the route. To your left is Ringmoor Settlement. Evidence and earthworks in the area suggest it was an Iron Age and Romano farmstead. The main farm buildings were situated within the circular rings surrounded by banked field systems and ancient tracks. The south facing chalk escarpment attracts a huge array of wildlife from butterflies to insects and buzzards to wild flowers. There is even a ruin to be found on the site that was originally an old cottage.

Once past the settlement, along the same track, the views are superb. To the North is the Blackmore Vale and onwards into Wiltshire, Somerset and Devon. To the South are the Purbecks and over the far hills, the English Channel. Continue to follow the relatively flat and easy track until you meet a road. Turn left and follow it along up to Bulbarrow Hill. Bulbarrow is a hidden treasure, known to locals more than tourists. Accessible only via winding, narrow country roads, it is rarely busy, but can provide you with a vista to spoil your eyes. Large telecommunication masts sit at its peak, defining the hill’s silhouette for miles around. The hill has also been imortalised in a song by Half Man Half Biscuit called Third Track Main Camera Four Minutes. They explain, in their lyrics, that why go to Cuba or Iceland when you would could travel to ‘wonderful’ Bulbarrow Hill in Dorset!

At the junction turn right and then right again to reach Rawlsbury Camp, another Iron Age Hill fort prominantly placed on the geological spur. Take the bridleway on the left just before the earthworks begin. Make your way through the gate and follow the contours into the fort and around to the left. Go through another gate and you’ll be cycling along the narrow top of a rampart, a steep fall dropping to your left.  When the drop shallows start your descent down to another gate. Cut straight down the next field, gathering speed as you become more confident with the gradient. Again straight through the next field and follow it to the trees where it narrows to join a path. You then meet a stream, to bring you out to the road at Crocker’s Farm.

The next climb begins. Crossing straight over and through the farm you then have two fields of crops to diagonally cross. Depending on the time of year will determine how easy this will be. When through the second field, turn left to reach Breach wood, through a gate and onto a small path through the trees.

On joining a small road, continue the gradual climb to the farm. Make your way through the farm buildings and take the right hand gate to enter into a field. Turn right, keeping the trees on your right hand side and climb up to the next small gate. You’re now finally at the top, riding the ridgeway that splits Dorset in half. The views, although now familiar, are no less impressive.

Follow the track into the wooded area that marks the Dorsetshire Gap. This is a mysterious place with an aura that is no way intimidating, but questioning. It is an ancient junction of five tracks. Once bustling with four legged traffic including pack horses carrying goods and livestock travelling to market. The tracks wrap around this small area, littered with bumps and holes that are hard to identify as natural or manmade. To the north is another Iron Age Hill fort of Nettlecombe Tout. To the south is the deserted medieval village of Melcombe Horsey. Both locations undoubtedly would have some use of this natural dip in the ridgeway. However its use declined during the 19th century most probably encouraged by the development of turnpikes in the 18th century and followed later by the railways. However, only now accessible by paths it is an important untouched area of intrigue.

When arriving at the signpost, follow in the direction of The Folly (the middle track), taking you through the Gap and out to a field. Continue to climb for a short distance and on reaching an odd small brick contraption, you have reached the top. Cross straight across the next field to meet a path on your right. Speed can be picked up as you descend down to meet the road at the Folly. It is suggested that the house that sits on this junction was once a pub that served many of the passing travellers who were using the Dorsetshire Gap.

Go straight across the road to begin you final climb of this section. Although it is an effort to reach the top of Ball Hill, it is not for long. On meeting the woods, follow the border around to the right, then turning left to open out into a large field and the presence of more ancient earthworks. Again little is known of these, but it can be safely assumed they are of similar Iron Age origin that we have passed already. The lack of agricultural activity has meant they have been preserved well, highlighted now by areas of vegetation. With the nearby Dorsetshire gap, the ancient trackways, forts and deserted villages, these lumps and bumps only add to the once completely different and highly active landscape that we see today.

Passing through your next boundary, you join a chalk track and a descent that allows another speedy ride. Follow the chalk track all the way to the bottom where you meet the road. Turn left to find the finishing lay-by.

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