Distance: 5 miles
Time: 2 hours
Total climb: 300ft
Max height: 275ft
Min height: 120ft
Terrain: Track, path, road and field.
Start: Lawrence Lane layby. Post code: BH21 5AZ, Grid reference: ST992070
Map: OS Explorer 118 Cranborne Chase
How to get there: From Wimborne, travel north on the B3078 for about five miles and then turn left to Witchampton. Follow the road to the right, through the village, ignoring any turnings. When the large gate house for Crichel House appears, the lane and layby is on your left.
Dogs: On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code.
Refreshments: None on route
From the layby, walk towards the impressive gate house of Crichel Estate. Make your way through the smaller iron gate in the right hand side arch to enter into the grounds. Pass Witchampton sports ground on your right and Crichel House comes into view in the distance ahead.
In front of the house is Crichel Lake. It is a manmade lake created by damning the River Allen. Its purpose was purely decorative and at a great sacrifice, as underneath lies the old village of Moor Crichel. In the mid to late 18th century a huge project took place, managed by the owner Humphry Sturt, to re-landscape the grounds and subsequently move the existing village to New Town (appropriately named); where this walk began. This seemed to be the trend of the time as the same was occurring at Milton Abbas, near Dorchester. No remains, other than the Church, exists. However, cobble, stone and brick sometimes emerges out of the lake onto the surrounding river banks, reminding us of it’s hidden history.
Prior to this landscaping, in 1742, the house had burnt down and was rebuilt by John Bastard, who is famous for helping rebuild Blandford Forum, with his brother, after its own devastating fire. When Humphry Sturt acquired the estate in 1765, not only did he improve the grounds but also modified the house massively to what we see today. The floor plan highlights the changes as Sturt’s additions wrap around the shell of the old design.
The estate also has a few claims to fame. Historically it was the home of Princess Charlotte (Granddaughter of Mad King George). She was heir to the throne, one day to become Queen of England, but she disagreed with her father abut a marriage proposal. In his anger he banished her to isolation at Crichel Estate, but apparently was quite content. Eventually, she did happily marry but died shortly after giving birth to a still born child in 1817, aged 21. The nation mourned immensely so much so there were worries for the country’s economy and the physician, that had been present at the birth, committed suicide. However, without her death there would have been no Queen Victoria!
More modern claims to fame include a number of appearances in film. Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’ (1975) used the house as a gambling establishment, Hugh Grant filmed ‘Maurice’ (1987) in the boat house on the lake and Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1996 film ‘Emma’ was also filmed here in the grounds.
Politically, the Crichel Estate is known for the Crichel Down Affair. This was where the family fought the government and won the right to buy land back that had acquired by compulsory purchase.
As you continue to follow the drive to the house, you are eventually guided off to the right to follow the boundary of the woodland on your left. This is a lovely section of the walk that also happens to be part of The Hardy Way. Skimming the south side of Crichel Lake, sometimes getting a little glimmer off the water through the vegetation, the route is easy to follow. Entering into the trees through a small picket fence you soon meet the River Allen. Cross over the old bridge, passing a great paddling spot on your left hand side. Continue straight ahead and when you meet a large barn turn left.
The River Allen flows for 14 miles and meets the River Stour in Wimborne Minster. There were once a number of corn mills placed along this stretch of water. When you pass the white house on your left, in its rear garden you can make out the old ruins of Didlington Mill. It is not much more than a small, shaped brick structure, with some timber elements remaining. Other mills included Hinton Farm and Stanbridge. Following the path parallel to the river, you arrive at your second bridge over the River Allen. Follow the field edge and you come out at Crichel Mill, aka Loverly Mill, this is the best example of all of them. Now a grade II listed building, it supplied, and still does, the water to Crichel house, which is undoubtably what ensured its survival.
Walk on through the farmyard and straight up the road in front of you. It guides you through the trees and out onto a village road. Turn left, through another white, fenced entrance and past a gate house. Spanning out ahead is an elegant avenue of beech trees, leading you straight down to the centre of what is now Moor Crichel.
Walk straight on through the village meeting an imposing wall on your left, blocking you from any view of the Crichel estate. At the next junction, continue straight ahead, ignoring the left hand bend in the road. Once you pass a house on your left, but before the telegraph pole, turn left to join the byway onto the Roman Road; Ackling Dyke.
Ackling Dyke runs 22miles from Old Sarum to Badbury Rings, then continuing on to Dorchester and Exeter. It is one of the finest Roman roads in the country. Built to such a high standard in order to maintain the quick movement of troops across the country, it has kept its remains so prominent today. Agricultural activity has taken precedent in some areas, but on this section, and into the woods, the route undeniable.
At the end of the wood you are diverted off the Roman road to Manswood where one of the longest thatches in the country comes into view. The far cottage on the right, with the little windows in the roof, was originally a post office, but now, like its 11 neighbours, is residential.
Walk past the left hand side of the cottages and down to the road. Cut straight across and towards the Old School. In this little pocket of North Dorset, the architecture is all quite similar, but different to the rest of the county. Smart brick decorative buildings with exposed timber roof lines and frames dominate the design. Small towers sit atop a few of the rooftops containing either bells or doves. Even new builds have incorporated the same design, merging with the landscape perfectly.
Walk past the school and onto Rowbarrow Lane; here you are diverted away from the Roman road, suggesting this route was much more important. Although, there are remains of another track, from the Roman Road to Chetterwood. This could suggest that the woodland beyond may be hiding some more historical secrets!
When you meet a country road turn left and opposite the next house is a small stile taking you into the next field. Cut diagonally across aiming for the trees at the top of the hill. Another stile brings you out onto the next road. Head straight ahead and down the hill to return to your vehicle.