Distance: 5 miles/8 km
Time: 2 hours
Total climb: 420ft.
Max height: 870ft.
Min height: 460ft.
Terrain: Track, path, road and field.
Exertion: Medium – one steep climb.
Start: Hillfield Hill Nature Reserve (Postcode: DT2 7BG, Grid reference: ST636039).
Map: OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis
How to get there: Hillfield Hill is on a small road that joins the A37 to the A352. From Dorchester, take the A352 to Sherborne. After passing though Cerne Abbas and then Minterne, take the road that turns left off a sharp 90 degree corner. The nature reserve is at the top of the hill about a mile from the junction.
Dogs: On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code.
Refreshments: None on route.
This hidden walk, and area, is easily overshadowed by the Giant, however, deserves no less attention. From the car park on the nature reserve, return onto the road and turn right. Follow it along the lane, passing the small road to the monastery on your right. As the trees dip away the views across the Blackmore Vale stretches out to the north. As you follow the fields, keep your eyes peeled for a slight intrusion from the fence into the field. If travelling by car, blink and you would miss this little treasure. As you approach, its attraction is still not visible until you are standing opposite. Over a small stile takes you into this fenced enclosure with nothing but a standing stone for company.
It looks rather pointless and obscure, out of place and unnecessary, but there are many theories for its existence. It is thought to be a Roman remnant or a wayside cross, originally decorated with a cross and hand carved into the stone (hence its name), but it has since been eroded beyond recognition. It is also suggested that it was once a marker for a dangerous route or even mark where a dangerous incident occurred. There are also stories connecting it to spiritual experiences, encouraged by its position being so close to the Friary of St. Francis which lies at the bottom of the hill.
One particular story that has lasted the test of time is that of a poor shepherdess and the priest of Batcombe. One stormy winters night the priest was woken from his sleep by the young shepherdess, pleading for his help. Her father was gravely ill and she was desperate for him to read him his last rites before it was too late. The priest quickly grabbed his robe and ran to the church to collect the sacrament necessary for his work. This consisted of a small silver casket which he tied to a small piece of string and to a necklace, already around his neck. He ran out into the storm with a desperate need to attend to the dying man. On arrival he found the shepherd, struggling to breath his last breath, and was thankful he had made it in time. But, on reaching for the sacrament, it was not there. He could not carry out his duties without it, so realised there was no choice but to retrace his footsteps in the howling wind and driving rain, to find it. As he ran back up the hill fighting the elements and eyes to the ground, he grew accustomed to the dark and noticed a ray of light. It was nothing that he had seen on his way and knowing that there were no other homes around, he set out towards it. On arrival the light was surrounded by animals, both livestock, such as cows and sheep, and wildlife, such as badgers and foxes. As he approached they scattered. Where they were stood, the light remained and there on the floor was the small silver casket. He picked it up and the light disappeared. He was able to run back to the shepherd, and his daughter, to read him his last rites, just as he passed to the other side. The following day, the priest went to investigate. He found nothing untoward at the spot where he found the sacrament, but swore to erect a monument to mark the occurrence. And here, we now have the cross and hand stone.
Whatever it’s reason is for it to still be here today, we can admit that it did once have an important purpose. It has surveyed the landscape over the Vale and watched the changing trends of transport for possibly 1000s of years. Camouflaged behind its own fence, ignored (unintentionally) by so many drivers and out of the way for any purposeful rambler, it is a wonder at how few interactions it has had with humans over the many centuries. May be worth a little salute when you next pass!
Return to the road and continue in the same direction as you arrived, taking the next farm track on your left. As you cross the ridge you are now faced with the Sydling valley below you, leading onto the Piddle valley in the south beyond, as the river winds its way through the chalk land spurs.
Pass a barn on your right and you will shortly join the Wessex ridgeway. Turn right to follow the ridge of the hill and then fork right, keeping the boundary of the trees on your left hand side. After approximately 50 metres or so take the small gap in the hedge on your left, keeping your eyes open for it as it is a ‘small’ gap! Cut straight across the following field, aiming for the small wood ahead. On meeting the next boundary keep the fence on your left and head towards the trees until the track guides you around to the left. On meeting another track turn right to head down the hill.
From this position, although the giant cannot be admired, unless you managed to catch it at the right angle earlier, you can instead admire the hidden hillfort of Dogbury. Sitting on the northern edge of the hill opposite is the Iron Age defensive settlement, now camouflaged in trees and highlighted with a mast. Its position marks the division of the two catchment zones of the River Stour and the Cerne, eventually leading up the flatter Piddle and Frome valleys, three of the four main Dorset rivers. It is no wonder why the ancient tribes of Dunovaria took advantage of this prominent spot.
Remain on the track that takes you all the way down into the valley and to the edge of the village of Up Cerne. Join onto the corner of the country road and turn left. Here you are faced with an elegant avenue of trees, not too dissimilar to those at Moor Crichel. Its design is all part of the larger estate of Up Cerne Manor.
Built in 1601, the manor itself is constructed from stone work scavenged from nearby Cerne Abbey. More recently the landscape has been changed with the lake at the front of the house replacing redundant thatched cottages, improving, as the owners thought, the view from the house.
About half way along the trees opposite a white gate, divert left, crossing diagonally over the next field. The vista is quaint here as your walk thought the field. Gore Hill towers ahead and sitting deep in the valley is a small thatched cottage, cuddled by the landscape around. Alternatively you can take the road route to benefit from a sneak peek at the Manor House. On reaching the road turn left. The great pond, marked on the OS map, is not visible from the road but when you meet its surrounding trees, turn right onto a track to start the final climb. It is quite steep but it’s easy to follow through the woodland. At the top you have a choice, to either remain in the wood or to exit the wood and skirt its border, either way is possible and either way, turn left to follow the ridge.
As you walk along the brow of the hill, Minterne House appears in the Cerne valley below. Famed for its exotic gardens, it is open to visitors throughout the year. Minterne House was originally the manor of Cerne Abbey, but after the resolution was passed to the first Sir William Churchill, the descendants of who, we all know. The old Prime minister enjoyed the house so much, he even painted a picture of it, that still hangs inside.
Keep following the woodland until it ends and then continue to follow the field boundary straight ahead until you meet the road. Do not exit the field and instead turn left to follow the footpath that runs parallel. The wildlife is rife here; deer often roam the woodland and frequently escape in to the surrounding farmland.
Continue to follow the footpath until it allows you to exit back out onto the road, marked by a sign, not far from the nature reserve where you started. Follow the road in the same direction to return to the reserve. If you still have the energy, it is worth a little extra explore, even to glimpse the view extending to the north through the trees.