The Dorsetshire Gap

    Distance – 6 1/4 miles
    Duration – 2 1/4 hours.
    Exertion – Medium – a few steep climbs.
    Terrain – Path, track and road.
    Dogs – Be aware of livestock and keep to the countryside code.
    Map – OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis
    Start – Opposite the church in Mapowder
    Refreshments – None on route

Head north across the field, turning right onto a track to approach Mappowder Court. This old building no longer looks old. It has been been well looked after and instead, rather disappointingly, looks amazing.

As this route is located in the Blackmore Vale, it is of no surprise that you pass through many farms. The first being Saunders Farm, and once through, you leave the tracks and the route starts to feel more rural. To the left of is Bulbarrow hill, marked by the masts, Rawlsbury Castle, a hill fort, sat on its edge. In front of you, the woods merged with the fields as boundaries became less formal.

Enter into the corner of Melcombe Park via a dip in the hill, crossing a little stream twice. Exiting the wood by an open channel leading to the fields. Climb again and enter the field keeping the hedge on your right. Join onto the path of the Wessex Ridgeway and follow the northern edge of Breach Wood.

The woods are wild and unmanaged, which is a very good thing. The paths are overgrown but still possible to follow. It feels great being in such untamed territory.

Join a small road that lead to Melcombe Park Farm and start the steep climb to the Dorsetshire Gap. At the top of the hill, it is possible to understand why this area deserves attention. Geographically, it is a large ridge, splitting the southern downs from the Blackmore Vale. Comparing the two landscapes, stretching out to your left and right, the differences become clear. To the south lie large open fields, divided by interlocking chalk hills, small hedge boundaries, and only few farms actually visible. To the north, the fields are smaller the boundaries fuller, more trees, scattered farmsteads with fewer, smaller hills.

Historically, the landscape is scattered with tracks. As you approach the actual location of the Gap, four of these tracks converge. It is nice to do a circuit of the area to explore. The tracks are Holloway’s, as seen and visited on the Symondsbury ride. Old paths have been used so thoroughly that they have eroded down into the landscape. This junction is a prime medieval example of what would have been the equivalent to a modern day spaghetti junction or Feet services. On the circuit the terrain changes frequently. Nothing is flat. The ground undulates from place to place. Large holes are present with steep sides. Much of it completely hidden within the wild vegetation. You can only imagine that once upon a time there was a huge amount of activity up here. A medieval Mcdonald’s, a medieval travel lodge, a medieval petrol station! Now there is only the mystery and a plastic box! This box contains a visitors book, apparently been going for over 50 years.

Looking at the wider landscape, to the south, directly reached by the southern track, lies the remains of the medieval village of Melcombe Horsey. This village must have undoubtedly benefited from the traffic and possibly the demise of the junction led to the demise of the village. Existing today is a farm and a beautiful manor house where you can stay! There are many other earthworks in the area too including Nettlecombe tout, an Iron Age hill fort, cross dikes and tumuli, all of which suggests an older use.

Why these roads are no longer used is a mystery. In the history of Dorset itself, many roads were trumped by the introduction of toll roads in the 18th century. Alternatively climate could have affected the use, wet weather would have made it hard to climb the hills especially to transport livestock. Nevertheless, the routes can still be followed easily and enjoyed today.

Slowly descend back into the Blackmore Vale passing Spring Wood Farm and Armswell Farm, joining the road.

Shortly after, leave the road and onto a left hand track leading to Little Monkwood Hill Farm, and you are clearly back in dairy land. Pretty much every other field is often full of curious cows, all wanting to hurriedly join you on your walk. Looking behind you, you can make out your previous route and the location of the Gap within the landscape.

As you get closer to Mappowder, the footpaths become easier to follow. Entering back into the village, turn right and make your way back to the church and your car.