Distance – 3 miles/5 km
Time – 1.5 hours
Total climb – 100ft
Max height – 290ft
Min height – 200ft
Terrain – Track, path, road and field.
Exertion – Easy
Start – The Crown Inn (Grid ref: ST782187, Postcode: DT10 1LN).
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 and turn right, away from St Gregory’s church. The pub is on your left.
Dogs – On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code.
This short stroll circles the village of Marnhull. The route follows the contours of the hill spur on which Marnhull sits, keeping you high up above the Blackmore Vale and provides you with many views to appreciate down to the River Stour and beyond. The scattered village claims to be the largest parish in England, spread over a substantial area with a circumference of 23 miles.
There are a number of occasions where the OS map does not match location of actual footpaths, slight amendments have taken place due to animal care or agriculture.
We cannot begin our walk without mentioning Marnhull’s role in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ (Hardy referred to it as Marlott). The village was Tess’ birthplace, her actual house located at the southern edge of the village in Walton Elm. The Crown was The Pure Drop Inn, the pub at the centre of the village. The fields that this walk travels through would have once been toiled by those who were the inspiration behind Hardy’s character.
From the The Crown, head towards St Gregory’s Church. Its church tower is visible for miles around thanks to its prominent position high up on Marnhull’s brow. Turn down the right hand road. Look out for a small gap in the hedge, at the end of the graveyard, on your left hand side to take you into the first field. The OS map is incorrect in guiding you through the grave yard.
Walk diagonally down the hill passing the clump of trees on your right. As you reach the bottom, there is a large gap in the hedge taking you into the next field. Walk on through, straight up the hill and turn left when you arrive at the houses, down a narrow pathway.
At the next road, turn left and about 20 metres later take the footpath on your right, walking narrowly between houses. Pass the car port on your right and walk along its side to another footpath. Keep the boundary tightly to your right, again ignoring the OS instructions. At the green barn, turn right and walk in-between some old stone barns. A number of footpaths converge here; take the one slightly ahead, on the left, through a small gate, around to the right and over a worn stile.
Here the views open up to you. The northern section of the Blackmore Vale or, as Thomas Hardy called it, the Vale of the Little Dairies, appears below. Not much of which has changed since his time; the landscape is still littered with small farmsteads, dominated by the floodplains of the River Stour. However, nowadays the barns are a little larger and the sound of farm machinery often echoes in the hillsides. To your far left (south west direction) the hills in the distance mark the edge of the Vale. The lone communications mast on the peak marks Dogbury Hill fort. Bullbarrow Hill, in comparison, to the south and just out of sight, is marked by a number of masts.
Follow the footpath along, keeping the boundary on your right. Pass a small bench and through another small gate, faced with a Viking style roofed barn. Follow the path to the next gate and enter into a large sloping field. Keep the boundary on your right, not left as the OS suggests, and then head diagonally down the hill. Take the small footpath through the houses and when you reach the road, turn right. The Blackmore Vale Inn appears ahead, known as the more disreputable ‘Rollivers’ in Tess’s time. Just before reaching the pub, turn left at the next junction.
Follow the road down the hill and when it diverts around a left hand corner continue straight ahead. Take the stile on your right, opposite Knott’s Cottage, to enter the next field. Cut straight across, following the line of telegraph poles. The views here are dependent on the crop and season. If clear, you will pass an old brick water tower and a rusty windmill to your left. Duncliffe Hill rises ahead in the distance and on your right St Gregory’s tower peaks out above the trees.
At the last pole, bend to the right, taking you to the field boundary ahead. On meeting a number of footpaths, turn left to enter into a field through a large gap in the hedge. Head to the right, keeping the lonely oak tree on your left and you’ll see a small stile in the hedge connecting you to a country road called Love Lane. Turn left on the road to meet the old buttressed stone wall of Nash Court.
Now divided into three dwellings Nash Court was once an impressive manor house. Originally owned by Glastonbury Abbey, King Henry VIII took charge of it after the dissolution and gave it to Catherine Parr. It is an stern looking building with its central bell tower most clearly visible over its garden wall. Circle the old house by turning right at the next junction. Follow the road up the hill and a few metres past the final driveway on your right, take the footpath on your left.
As you cut straight across the next field, the earthworks are hard to ignore. Visible on foot, but much clearer on Lidar, are some mysterious lumps and bumps in the landscape. This could suggest that Nash Court was once a much more imposing site, with more activity and use. Whether these earthworks are from settlement or possible remains of an elaborate landscape design, we are yet to discover. Research has shown that on a 1765 map the area was highly populated. Yet, after his date, it seems to have shrunk to what we see today.
Continue through the next boundary at the bottom of the field to enter the next. Again, this footpath can be slightly different to what the OS has recorded. Either continue straight ahead to meet another boundary from the left and at the following boundary turn right. Or follow the boundary around to the right, both routes bringing you to Ashley Barn.
Walk along the driveway to Sodom Lane and cross straight over. Follow the bend but then continue straight ahead to enter the next field, climbing a brand new stile. Head to the houses and then turn left to as far as you are permitted. Follow the field boundary to the left and ahead of you Duncliffe Wood comes into view with Shaftesbury sitting on the hill behind, helpfully marked by St Andrews church tower. Curve to the right to continue to follow the field boundary, enter into a small woodland with an old stone wall crumbling and hidden on your left. Follow the narrow path up to arrive on to the road. Turn right and you’ll soon safely meet a pavement. The Crown is just ahead of you on the right hand side.