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

This second part of the Wessex Ridgeway bike ride begins high on Okeford Hill with views stretching across both south and north Dorset. Travel along the ridge of Ibberton and Bulbarrow to reach the Iron Age Hillfort of Rawlsbury Camp. Cycle downhill into the first valley to rise again at the ancient junction of Dorsetshire Gap, passing a second Hillfort. The last climb up Ball Hill is short and sweet, leading to another ancient settlement and a speedy descend along the chalk tracks to Alton Pancreas.

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. (Postcode: DT11 0RD, Grid Reference: ST812093, What Three Words: district.political.tasks).

Finish – Lay-by to the North of Alton Pancreas. (Postcode: DT2 7QX, Grid Reference: ST699031, What Three Words: farms.excusing.steer) .

Refreshments – None on route, but just off the route are The Ibberton in Ibberton, The Fox Inn at Ansty and The Brace of Pheasants in Plush.

At the top of Okeford Hill

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, away from the road, 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 the north across the Blackmore Vale on your right. As you follow the track you meet your first of many prehistoric settlements along the Wessex Ridgeway. To your left is the Iron Age settlement of Ringmoor. Evidence and earthworks in the area suggest it was a occupied throughout the Romano- British period and used as a 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.

The view across the Blackmore Vale from Ibberton Hill

Once past the settlement, along the same track, the views are superb. Looking across the Blackmore Vale the views stretch 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 Ibberton Hill 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 stunning view. Large telecommunication masts sit at its peak, defining the hill’s silhouette for miles around. The hill has also been immortalised 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! (Link to the song at the bottom of the page).

The view west, over the ramparts of Rawlsbury Camp to Dogbury

At the junction turn right continue through the small wood to be joined by a road on your left. The views open out to the west as you approach Rawlsbury Camp. Rawlsbury Camp is an Iron Age Hillfort prominently placed on the geological spur. It is not alone either. To the far left is Nettlecombe Tout, Ahead the forested peak, which dips on its northern flank, is Dogbury. Dungeon Hill lies slightly to the north and in the North is Banbury, all are Iron Age Hillforts.

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 intersect. 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.

The holloways at Dorsetshire Gap

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 instead questioning. It is an ancient junction of five tracks (some Holloways). Once bustling with four legged traffic including pack horses carrying goods and livestock travelling to market as well as many cart loads of local goods. 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 used 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, today it is only accessible by paths and it is an important, untouched area of intrigue. A small box is placed at the main junction inside of which is a ‘visitors’ book.

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, the southern edge of Nettlecombe Tout rises above the flat field on your right and on your left the hills dip to Lyscombe Bottom. At the opposite end of the field, turn right to meet a path. Speed can be picked up when you join a track and descend to meet the road at the Folly. It is suggested that the house which sits on this junction was once a pub that served many of the passing travellers using the Dorsetshire Gap.

Nettlecombe Tout from the Bridleway

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 this Church Hill settlement, 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 add to the suggestion that this area was once highly active and densely populated, completely different that what we see today.

The earthworks of the ancient settlement on Church Hill

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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