Starting in the small village of Pulham in north Dorset, make your way through the fields of the Blackmore Vale to Dungeon Hillfort. Towering above the landscape topped with cap of hollow forest, discover the ancient ramparts. Built into the earthworks are Victorian arches which, during construction, produced a plethora of ancient goodies. Explore the long gone estate of Castle Hill, it’s decorative landscape design, lake and grotto now taken back by nature!
Distance: 5.5 miles/8 km
Time: 2 hours
Total climb: 175ft.
Max height: 450ft.
Min height: 300ft.
Terrain: Track, path, road and field.
Start: The Halsey Arms, Pulham (Postcode: DT2 7DZ, Grid reference: ST707086).
Map: OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis
How to get there: From Sherborne take the A3030 to Blandford Forum. After approximately 4 miles, turn right towards King Stag. Follow the road for another 4 miles or so and on entering the village of Pulham, 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 is also horse country, be aware when entering fields and your dog being free.
Refreshments: The Halsey Arms.
From the pub, turn left to follow the main road through the village, heading west. The village contains a variety of buildings, the green bungalows on the right from the post war period, the new builds on the left and the older smaller homes as you exit the village, one of which being old chapel cottage with a bright sun decorating its window.
The parish covers 2,416 acres and drains into the River Lydden eventually joining the Stour. Although predominantly it is a linear village, farms grew up beyond the open fields during the later Middle Ages; Grange Farm, ‘Grangiam Abbatis de Byneden’, is recorded in 1237 and others, such as Canning’s Court and Pellwell Farm, probably came into existence at about the same time.
As the village ends, so does the pavement. Cross over the road, to be safe, to the old phone box and, when appropriate, cross again to reach a wide grass verge. Take the next right hand road, leading to a small industrial estate. Ignore its entrance and continue straight though the farm gate ahead. Wrap around the estate by taking the next left track which finally leads you away from human activity and into the fields.
Newlands Farm House comes into view on your right. Below in the valley ahead is the farm you’re heading to with the beginnings of Dungeon Hill and its associated earthworks towering above. Head straight across the field heading to a wooden gate. This brings you out into a private garden. Keep to the right hand side shielding from the house behind some laurel bushes, to then join the main drive and onto the road.
On arriving at a bungalow on your right, take the bridle way opposite, heading to Dungeon Hill. Head straight on through the fields, climbing slowly. Pass the large pine forest and on going through the following gate, Dungeon hill is on your right. Its location is perfect for a hillfort with its steep sides and wide views. To really appreciate the view you can circle the field, skimming the ramparts of the fort. As you climb, Bulbarrow Hill starts to become more prominent behind you. Its own height and tree topped peak matching the one you are standing on. Just to the right of the masts sits Rawlsbury Camp, another Iron Age Hill fort. On the opposite of side of the Dungeon Hill, Dogbury Hill, again, topped with trees and a mast, is another site for a hill fort. It can only be imagined what activity would have occurred between these three sites, and more nearby!
The fort has a single bank in a roughly oval shape, enclosing an area of about 9 acres. Just above the footpath, on the east facing slope of the hill, are four lynchets, suggesting cultivation in the medieval period. In the late 18th century Fitzwalter Foy, resident of nearby Duntish Court (Castle Hill), who was the owner of the fort and surrounding land, had it cleared of woodland. During this process he recovered human bones, sword blades, Roman coins and tile amongst other finds. The hoard was so vast, some of the find were doubted, as there were rewards for those who produced any treasure! He played with the fort too, slicing the ramparts and inserting entrance arches to the central area. It was a period that had little respect for archaeology.
The name is a bit more of a mystery, however local legend claims that real dungeons are hidden deep underground. The nearby named Castle Hill could well strengthen the truth to these stories!
As the path continues parallel to the fort, in the distance to the east the the vale spreads out rising to meet the Dorsetshire Gap and Nettlecombe tout, another Hillfort! Go straight on through the next gate, keeping the field boundary on your right. Also on your right, higher on the hill, sit two brick pillars. These could well have been part of the Castle Hill estate that you are approaching on your left, possibly framing what would have been their view of the fort.
As you descend the hill, the former carriage house to the estate, now renovated and a private home, is on your left. Pass through the gate at the bottom and turn left to meet another metal gate on your right. Cut diagonally across the field, with the carriage house on your left, to meet a kissing gate. Cross over the original drive to Castle Hill and dive straight into the woods.
Castle Hill was a handsome example of a small mansion. Designed in 1764 by Sir William Chambers for Fitzwalter Foy, it was beautifully sited, high up the hill to gain views across the Blackmore Vale. During this period the surrounding landscape was becoming a more fashionable asset, leading to its incorporation into garden design. The estate was also located on what would have been the turnpike road between Weymouth and Bath. The house was fairly plain externally, but was known for its attractive plasterwork and handsome door cases. The main building also included two detached wings which housed stables and a brewhouse, laundry and servants’ rooms. Later the house was re-named Duntish Court and grew to attach its two wings. Duntish was at the centre of the 1830 ‘Captain Swing’ riots in Dorset, when the agricultural labourers revolted against their low wages and against the introduction of new agricultural machinery. Duntish Court was mobbed, but the owner William Williams, told them to return on Monday giving him time to go and get them some money. They trusted him, but on return they were greeted by officers and arrested.
The garden was designed in 1764 by Sir William Chambers, and was regarded as quite beautiful, encouraged by its surroundings too, including Dungeon Hill and the Blackmore Vale. Gravelled paths, manicured lawns and water features blessed the area. A devastating fire occurred leading to its demise and in 1965 was demolished. However, the miniature 18th century landscape and pleasure ground survives, even with one of the largest plane trees in the country. These remains also include a lake, a cascade and a grotto, all be it hidden now behind thick overgrown vegetation, nature taking back what is its own. A modern house now bears the name Duntish Court.
The woods are full of secrets. The old landscaping still has its mark on the environment. Large pine trees tower above you while rhododendrons fatten bushes at your eye height. Memorial stones are scattered on the forest floor, even piles of oyster shells with masonry lie discarded, that I am sure could be Roman mosaic! Brick walls peek out from behind trees, ivy and bramble while piles of stone hide under the thick carpet beneath you. However, it is not until you are about to leave the forest that you get your biggest surprise. A small tunnel greets you, taking you under the path that leads to more of the landscaped gardens, where the lake and grotto are privately hidden. Sadly the tunnel guides you out of the mystical woods back onto the modern day road.
Turn left and then right, crossing the road to follow a footpath along the field to another farm road. Turn right then left again onto another footpath, between the houses and then straight across another few fields to meet another road. Here, turn right and remain on the lane for about half a mile, skimming past a number of farms. On meeting a bridleway on your right, take the footpath over a small, narrow stile, on your left. At the end of the field, turn left over another stile then right to meet another boundary. Make your way around the farm detritus to find the next stile ahead. Fork right and keep following the succession of stiles that appear ahead. When the route forks, take the left hand path, keeping the river Lydden on your right hand side. Follow the path around to join Canning’s Court Lane. Don’t worry if you miss the fork and cross the river, you will join the lane just a bit further south.
When back on the road, turn left to head back towards the village of Pulham. In about half a mile you reach the impressively presented Old Rectory. Deeper off the road on your right sits St Thomas Beckett church. Pulham was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, and was once owned by Cirencester Abbey, a connection remembered in the name of Canning’s Court Farm (the ‘Court of the Canons’). Priests from nearby Milton Abbey also used to visit the village church; they resided above the porch in a priests’ room, accessed via a staircase within the wall.
Back to the lane; continue on up to meet the main village road. Turn left to return back to the pub for well-deserved refreshment!