Distance: 16 miles/23km – shorter or longer routes optional (see map)
Time: 3 hours
Total climb: 400ft
Max height: 300ft
Min height: 160ft
Start: At The Crown Inn in Marnhull (DT10 1LH).
Map: OS Explorer 129 Yeovil and Sherborne.
How to get there: From Sturminster Newton, travel north on the B3092. On entering the village stay on the same road following it around to the right, away from St Gregory’s church. The pub is on your left.
This route can be adapted for your own purposes. Starting in the largest village in the country and travelling through the smallest town, the route guides you through Thomas Hardy’s Vale of the little Dairies.
Marnhull has developed thanks to the merger of a number of different hamlets over time. Together they now make up one of the biggest villages in England. The architecture spans the centuries, reflecting its vast and changing history from ancient through medieval to modern day. Due to it originally being separate hamlets, Marnhull is home to three different churches. St Gregory’s, situated near the The Crown Inn, with its 15th century tower, is a dominating landmark and regarded as being one of the finest in the vale. The area is especially famous thanks to the works of Thomas Hardy. His most famous novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, was based here. The Crown was known as the Pure Drop Inn and The Blackmore Vale Inn, known as the more disreputable pub, Rollivers. Marlott was the name he gave Marnhull.
Leaving the Crown car park, turn right onto the main road and head straight to St Gregory’s, continuing straight ahead, off the main road and past the church tightly on your right. Follow the road through the village and on passing some older farmhouses, take the next right hand lane. The hill descends and in front of you lies the Blackmore Vale, the area which you are about to cycle. Follow the road around to the left to meet another road and turn right.
At the bottom of the hill you reach the River Stour. On your right is Kings Mill, one of many mills along the river but this is a particularly well preserved example. On your left the Stour is joined by the river Lydden before slowly slinking away down the valley.
Staying on the road, and around a left hand corner you approach the first of your two crossings over the old Somerset and Dorset Railway. The straight hedges continuing at 90 degrees to the road, give away its location. Further south this has successfully been made into a trailway the route is all tarmacked so easily accessible to all, cyclists, walkers, riders and wheelchairs. There are aspirations to connect this section with the southern section extending the trailway by some 10 miles.
Take the next right hand turn to take you into Stalbridge. Stalbridge, in contrast to Marnhull, is a small town but just like Marnhull, has gained a title, this being one of the smallest towns in the country. Once past the new estate on your right take the second right to travel along a small residential road. On your right is access to a new skate park for those that may want a little extra adventure. Continue to the end of the road and turn right to leave Stalbridge. Don’t miss the small rumble, generated as you cross the old railway for the second time. However, on this occasion it is marked with the original tracks embedded into the tarmac.
You enter into the upper dales of the Blackmore Vale, or as Thomas Hardy described it as The Vale of Little Dairies. The landscape hasn’t changed much since his day, with scattered farmsteads littering the low fields near the Stour.
Remain on the same road, ignoring any diversions. Cross over a small bridge and past the large agricultural and industrial estate on your right.
On meeting a T junction turn right and continue past the imposing structures on your left. Cross the small bridge over the River Cale. Marnhull sits on the hill to the south and as you approach another junction you can make out the ruins of Fifehead Mill, just at the bridge down the next right hand road; now just a shell, hidden by trees. Ignore the turning and carry straight on to begin a short climb to Fifehead Magdalen.
Travel straight through the village and when the road turns to the left continue straight ahead towards the church. The church of St Mary Magdalene is small and quaint, hidden behind large trees and a small iron gate. Worth a little pit stop and the site of the old manor house is apparently located behind, its stones having been incorporated into a selection of farm and village buildings.
Follow the road away from the church and down the hill. Cross Trill Bridge and over a relatively young, narrow River Stour to then meet a main road. Take care here as it is one of the busiest sections of the route. Turn right and then take the next left hand road into Todber and follow to the next junction to shortly turn left again. Todber is famed for its fishing lakes, which you pass on your right. As you round the corner, don’t miss out on a feast for the eyes as the design and decoration of a small house and garden defies any expectation for a small backwater Dorset road.
Remain on the same road to enter into the village of Stour Row. As you approach, Duncliffe Wood is visible on your left with is peaked forest dominating the foreground. In the background sits Shaftesbury with St James Church tower peeking out from the trees at the top of the hill.
Turn right when you reach the small chapel and stay on the same road for approximately a mile. Turn right again following the signpost for Margaret’s Marsh. St Margaret’s church tower peaks out ahead of you above the hedges, accessible only via a small left hand road. Pass through a number of small farms and when you reach a cross roads, go straight over. Take the next right hand turn and begin your slow climb back into Marnhull.
On meetin the main road, for the second time, turn left and follow it around to the right to arrive back at the Crown Inn.