In the deep, dark, narrow valleys of the River Mangerton lie ancient settlements that have developed into tiny hamlets. Starting at the farm of North Poorton, climb Burcombe Hill to reach the triangular Hillfort of the same name commanding over the channels below, carved by the small streams. Pass impressive Mapperton House and its gardens to reach the humble Posy Tree, marking the path to the mass grave of plague victims. Return through the valleys and holloways to North Poorton to discover both its old ruined church and its replacement.
Distance: 5 miles/8km
Time: 2 hours
Total climb: 525ft
Max height: 620ft
Min height: 220ft
Terrain: Track, path, road and field.
Exertion: Medium. A few steep climbs.
Start: North Poorton. Please park sensitively, without blocking access for any farm vehicles. (Postcode: DT6 3TH, Grid Reference: SY519982, What Three Words: disbelief.learning.yield).
Map: OS Explorer OL 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis
How to get there: From Bridport, take the A3066 north to Crewkerne. After 2 miles turn right and remain on the same road for 5 miles. On entering the village of North Poorton, turn left up the dead end road to find suitable parking.
Dogs: On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code.
Refreshments: During the summer months there is a cafe at Mapperton House. The nearest pubs are The Marquis of Lorne in Powerstock or The Half Moon in Melplash
Parking sensibly in the village of North Poorton, continue to walk along the village road towards Burcombe Farm, following the walking route – The Jubilee Trail. This trail was created to celebrate the Rambling Association’s Diamond Jubilee. It crosses Dorset from border to border, through quiet villages. It passes old churches, historic sites and stately homes, offering extensive views of the rolling downs and secret valleys. The route also connects with other walking/cycling trials including the South West Coast Path, the Wessex Ridgeway, the Monarch’s Way, and Hardy’s Way.
Circle the northern edge of the farm, taking the track through a gate on the right and around to the left, dodging the small spring underfoot. Climb up the hill to reach the top, with the earthworks of Burcombe Hillfort appearing ahead of you. This Hillfort lies on the end of a ridge, covering an area of approximately 1 acre and the total area including the defences, about 2½ acres. The defences are simple yet its triangular shape fits the spur perfectly providing the one time inhabitants with extensive views though interlocking spurs down the valley of the river Mangerton, eventually joining the River Asker to Bridport.
On your right, the forest of Hooke Park dominates the scene. The forest is extensive and is the home of the Architectural Association. The woodland contains a growing educational facility for design, workshop, construction and landscape-focused activities. Underlying these activities is the opportunity to develop new rural architectures and an ethic of material self-sufficiency.
Walking parallel to the earthworks, follow the faint path to the corner of the field and though a gate into woodland. The first of the stream valleys that grow into the river Mangerton is visible below, surrounded by beech and elm trees with the occasional oak. It is only lightly managed creating a rustic, almost haunting woodland environment. This wildness is strengthened by the odd rustle in the bushes below or trees above, the culprits rarely exposing themselves. The path guides you left to walk alongside the steam and then down to cross it at a small ford.
Pass a little lake on your left and the sound of a small waterfall, then turn off the jubilee trail to make your way up the longest climb of the walk. When you join a small country road, turn left and remain on the road for approximately half a mile. When the road turns sharply right, Mapperton House roof can me made out amongst the tree tops below you. Continue down the hill to join the main village road and to walk straight ahead towards the village of Mapperton.
Mapperton is small and covers only 804 acres, its name meaning a “farmstead where maple trees grow”. Mapperton house dominates the village, a glorious Jacobean manor overlooking a 15 acre Italianate garden, with an orangery, topiary and borders, descending ponds and arboretum, the roof of which you can see on the walk. Both the house and gardens are open to the public during the summer months and it is also a host for weddings.
Robert Morgan built a Tudor manor on the site in the 1540s, and part of it remains as the north wing of the present building. The house was largely rebuilt in the 1660s by Richard Brodrepp, with the addition of the hall and west front, as well as the dovecote and stable blocks. The Italianate garden was laid out in the 1920s and a wild garden in the 1950s. In 2006 the house was voted the “Nation’s Finest Manor House” by Country Life magazine.
The manor house was used in the filming of the 1996 film Emma, it was the home of Mrs Weston in the 1997 BBC version of The History of Tom Jones and was the principal location of the 2015 version of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.
Continue to walk along the village road, passing the old stone wall that would have divided the estate from the village. Pass a track and house on your right and climb a small hill to reach the junction with Deadman’s Lane. Here, in the centre of this junction, is a small sycamore sapling, so easily dismissed, unless aware of its story. Mapperton was did not have a church yard meaning the villagers had to go elsewhere to provide their loved ones with a Christian buriel. Therefore they had an arrangement with nearby Netherbury, that any funerals would take place in their church. The procession of the funeral would take this route, using Deadman’s Lane (hence its title) to travel over the hills to Netherbury. However, when the plague arrived and more deaths began to occur, the villagers took to their usual procession but were met with angry men, armed with scythes and pitchforks. They refused to let them pass for risk of spreading the deadly disease. Apparently a rather aggressive skirmish took place and in the end a compromise was reached where the dead would be buried within a small enclosure on the summit of South Warren Hill, just a mile away from Mapperton, on the border with Netherbury. About 80 plague victims were collected and buried in a mass grave. After burial a copse of Beech trees were planted on the site to make sure the area was not disturbed (in fact human bones still sometimes surface).
An ancient sycamore once stood on this junction and became a memorial to the villagers who died in the plague. It was known as the Posy Tree, because those who carried the dead also carried posies of sweetly scented flowers and herbs that were thought to ward off the plague and also helped to mask the sicking stench of the plague victims’ bodies; ‘people … dropped posies under the tree on their way back from the burial’. The original Posy Tree was condemned as unsafe and was removed on Saturday 6 August 2011: ‘Residents … gathered at the village’s famous Posy Tree with glasses of cider to toast the historic landmark.’ Now the humble, slender sycamore sapling, planted in 2015, replaces the leafy predecessor assuring that the memory of this age-old tradition will not be lost and carried over to future generations.
Retrace your steps to the track and house and take the path opposite (joining back onto the Jubilee Trail). Cut straight across the field, passing Mapperton House on your left. On reaching the public vehicular entrance to the house, work your way around tightly to your right, to almost come back on yourself. Pass a perfect example of a woodman’s cottage on your right and go through the metal gate ahead of you, entering a large field. Follow the track down the hill to eventually meet another stream and its narrow wooded valley.
Keeping the river and woodland on your right, pass the large hill spurs on your left, some scattered with ancient earthworks. Pass through another metal gate to take you away from the chalk fields and deeper into the wooded valley. Follow the path around to the left and when the track splits, take the lower route, keeping close to the river, and passing another small waterfall, leaving the Jubilee Trail for the second time.
Pass through another metal gate and across a small ford, stepping stones may help if you don’t have wellies! Climb up the hill to the next gate and then turn tightly left, ignoring the bridleway signs.
On your left the landscape drops down to the river valley, the hills opposite, once again littered with earthworks. The path itself is a wonderful example of an ancient Holloway, where the use has eroded the route deep amongst the roots of the bordering trees. When the path turns sharply right, ignore the gate to the left and take the higher path. Passing through another gate, Burcombe hillfort is on the hill to your left, the earthworks of which can be seen through the trees.
Follow the footpath around to the left and head on up the hill to meet a gate in the corner. Remember to turn around to see the best view of the hillfort and its ramparts alongside the large interlocking spurs created by the little streams of baby Mangerton. Go through the farm gate and head to the next one in the hedge ahead. The spire of St Mary Magdalen in North Poorton becomes visible in the distance. Join onto a small track and turn left. As you approach the village the ground becomes firmer. When reaching the farm buildings turn right to head to the church, passing a number of farm cottages.
North Poorton is a tiny hamlet with a mere population of 20 in 2013. Its original parish church of St Peter is a ruin, with walls remaining to about 4 feet high, slightly hidden in the vegetation, between the church and the cottages. Just to the south is the new church, with a decorative spire, built in 1861–62.
From the church make your way back through the village to your vehicle.