Wimborne St Giles and Knowlton

A locals favourite. From the small village of Wimborne St Giles, explore the landscape of the Baronet who introduced the cabbage to England! Later ancestors have been hailed as heroes with monuments erected in London, whereas, in contrast, others have been associated with murder, betrayal and tragedy. However, today the property has grown into something beautiful. Pass the Old Hallows Graveyard, only recently reappearing after some intensive management, with its varied decorative and plain memorials. Wonder though the chalk vistas of Cranborne Chase to meet the ghostly shadow of Knowlton Church, set in the centre of an ancient henge earthwork, a complete rarity, while also neighbouring the largest barrow in the county.

Distance: 5 miles/8km
Time: 2 hours
Total climb: 270ft.

Max height: 325ft.
Min height: 140ft.

Terrain: Track, road and field.
Exertion Easy
Start: St Giles Parish Church (Postcode: BH21 5NR, Grid reference: SU031119)

Map: OS Explorer 118 Shaftesbury & Cranborne Chase
How to get there: From Wimborne Minster, travel north on the B3078 for approximately 9 miles. Passing Knowlton circles on your left, and skirting the boundary of The Giles Estate, take the next left hand turn signposted for Wimborne St Giles. At the T-junction, turn left into the village. After the farm, turn left again to park sensitively around the Green.

Dogs: On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code.

Refreshments: None on route but nearby are The Drovers Inn in Gussage all Saints and The Horton Inn on Cranborne road

Wimborne St Giles has a timeless quality. It is placed on the Cranborne Chase with the shallow River Allen snaking through the valley. The village, centred on a green, has a pub (although currently closed) a school and a village hall.

Parking near the church the architecture of the tower suggests a link to the Bastard Brothers of Blandford Forum, a similar design to the Blandford church and built in the same era suggests they could have been the architects. Attached to the church are the older almshouses, built in 1624, all overlooking the green.

St Giles Church

The village has been under the shadow of St Giles’ House for generations and therefore has been highly influenced by the Ashley Cooper Family. Sir Antony Ashley, who died in 1624, founded the almshouses and is also reputed to have introduced the cabbage to England! The village itself was established in 1733, when the St Giles and All Hallows parishes were merged at the request of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury. After four centuries the Ashley Cooper links are still strong, confirmed by the recent marriage, in this striking church, of the 12th Earl and the Countess of Shaftesbury.

From the church, head back to the village road, turn left, cross over the river and then turn right to head to the old hamlet of All Hallows.

The gate to All Hallows’ Churchyard

All Hallows was at one time a thriving village, having a church dating from Norman times and featuring in the Doomsday Book. Wimborne St Giles meanwhile was a small hamlet with just a Chapel of Ease. All that changed during the 16th/17th century when their roles were reversed and Wimborne St Giles became the main settlement in the area thanks to the Earl of Shaftesbury making it his seat, building himself a new manor house and deciding to move the church.

John Ridouts grave in the old churchyard

The church at All Hallows was demolished in 1742 and the new church built using the stone from the old church, resulting in the decline of the village. As you continue along the road, pass another small road to your right and you then approach the old churchyard. Old wooden gates and later a lynch gate guide you toward the war graves, but the older part of the graveyard is on the opposite side of the road. Until as recently as 2019 this was overgrown and hidden, but thanks to local volunteers it has once again been revealed. The graves mainly date from the 18th and 19th centuries, some being harder to read than others. Examples include John Ridout whose headstone reveals he died in 1862 ‘by his waggon running over him’ and there are a number of child graves too, not surprising due to the infant mortality rate at the time.

Back on the road continue to walk in the same direction to meet a farm. Divert off the road and follow the track ahead of you. Climb on up the hill and when you meet the trees, take the left hand track. Remain on the track for about half a mile or so until you are guided out onto a field. Follow the boundary of the field, keeping it on your right and then you are taken into the woods. This is a great place for deer, if you don’t see them it’s probably because they saw you first! Follow the track through the woodland to reach another road and turn right.

The track through the wood

Pass the houses on your left and then the view opens out. There is more to this view than first thought. A little stretch of the eyes and, on your left, you can make out the silhouette of Knowlton across the valley on the next hill. To the right of Knowlton, and a little further in the distance is Horton Tower and the peak of the hill ahead, covered in trees, is the site of Badbury Rings Hill fort.

The road to Knowlton with Knowlton church on the hill ahead.

Stay on the road until you reach another junction and turn left. Follow it down the hill passing a track on your left at the bottom, which you will return to later. Walk through the farm and then up the other side of the hill. On your left you now approach Knowlton Rings.

This Norman church, which was built in the 12th century, is situated at the centre of a Neolithic ritual henge earthwork. The unusual pairing of the henge and the church symbolises the transition from pagan to Christian worship. From eye level it is hard to appreciate the scale of this prehistoric landscape; however some ariel photos are available for you to truly gage the scale of this site.

Knowlton’s earthworks

There are three other main earthworks nearby: the Northern Circle, the ‘Old Churchyard’ (not actually a churchyard) and the Southern Circle, which encloses Knowlton Farm. Cranborne Chase was used as a hunting ground for centuries which therefore restricted development in the area. It is thanks to this that today it is still abundant with ancient monuments and is one of the greatest concentrations of round barrows/burial mounds, in the country. Just to the east of the church henge is a lump of trees which are sitting in the centre of the Great Barrow, the largest individual barrow in the county. However, compared to the great stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury, the late Neolithic earthworks at Knowlton are modest in appearance and have seen relatively little investigation.

Knowlton Church

The church was in use until the 17th century, serving a now vanished hamlet by the riverside, possibly deserted due to the plague. Nevertheless the bells of the church were famed for being the best sounding bells in the country. Rumour has it that villagers from nearby Sturminster Marshall were in need of some new bells for their own church, and hearing of Knowlton’s demise thought it was perfectly reasonable for them to reuse them. One dark night they took them. The Knowlton villagers were woken by the disturbance and went to investigate. Finding the church ransacked and the culprits heading over the horizon, they trailed after them as quickly as they could, back across Cranborne Chase. In a panic the villagers of Sturminster Marshall dropped the bells into the River Stour as they crossed White Mill Bridge. Unfortunately when the Knowlton villagers arrived the thieves denied all knowledge meaning they had to sadly return home empty handed. However, when the villagers of Sturminster Marshall went to retrieve the bounty, with every grab, the bells just slipped deeper and deeper into the silty river bottom. They were never able to retrieve them and so still remain there today!

Covered in vegetation until the 1960s, the church has a reputation for being haunted. Visitors have reported sightings or captured images of a phantom horse and rider, a weeping nun, a ghostly face peering through a window in the tower and a tall cloaked figure. To the east of the church are a collection of Yew trees, their relevance especially important due to their relationship to the underworld in ancient beliefs. The branches today are thickly decorated with colourful ribbons, messages and blessings from those who wish to pass a message on.

The site of the ancient village of Knowlton (as opposed to the present day hamlet) is located 500 metres west of Knowlton Church along Lumber Lane at the banks of the River Allen. From the church, retrace your steps down the hill and just before crossing the river, either side if the road is the location of the old village. Although the site today is somewhat lonely and isolated, there was once a thriving community here. Their houses gradually fell into decay and were eventually ploughed into the earth where vague traces of the foundations can still be seen.

From the farm, head up the track that you passed earlier. Make you way through the woods, avoiding any private property paths. On your right hand side is St Giles Park. St Giles House is the ancestral seat of the Ashley-Cooper family, headed by the Earl of Shaftesbury. The estate covers over 5,500 acres (22 km2). The estate park of 400 acres features a serpentine lake, garden ornaments, a notable grotto and a 1000-yard avenue of beech. The park is Grade II* listed in the National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.

St Giles House and it’s ‘Eros’ statue

In 1620, the Ashley-Cooper dynasty was established when Sir John Cooper of Rockbourne (1598–1631) married Anne Elizabeth Ashley (1593–1628), the daughter of Sir Anthony Ashley of Wimborne St Giles. The extensive estates that they both inherited, consolidated the holdings of the Ashley and Cooper families in Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, and Somerset, and solidified the Ashley-Coopers as one of the wealthiest families in England.

The 7th Earl of Shaftesbury Anthony Ashley Cooper (1801-85), was a successful family member. He was a great philanthropist and social reformer (as were his ancestors) who among other things fought for the cause of destitute children and was a founder of Great Ormond Street Hospital. His public memorial is the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, London. The bow of Eros (properly Anteros, his brother) was originally positioned to point towards Wimborne St Giles, in commemoration of his philanthropic works, although after the war it had to be moved. Maybe the direction should be reinstated! A similar statue is also in the estate gardens. It is nice to know that this small hamlet has had such a large impact on our capital city, not only though caring for people but to decorate, eternally, one of London’s busiest streets.

‘Eros’ in Piccadilly Circus, London

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 10th Earl of Shaftesbury, suffered with alcoholism. Since the war, when the house was requisitioned as a hospital, it had not received as much tender loving care that it required and became a heavy burden for the Earl, who made the choice to escape to France. By 2001 St Giles House was recorded on the Register of Buildings at Risk, indicating its neglect and decay.

While in France, the Earl met his new wife. Unfortunately her intentions were not honourable which resulted in her instructing her brother to kill him. Sadly, they were successful with their mission, but she was caught, found guilty and to this day remains in prison. Antony had two sons, the eldest (Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 11th Earl of Shaftesbury) inherited the estate, while the youngest was enjoying a care free yet successful life, decorated with tattoos and playing with music in New York. But more tragedy was to strike. That same year, at the age of 27, the 11th Earl died from a heart attack, while staying with his brother. The inheritance consequently transferred to his younger brother, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, 12th Earl of Shaftesbury, who returned to England to manage the estate. He embarked on an ambitious restoration of the House and park. His achievement was recognised in 2015, when St Giles won the Historic Houses Association and Sotheby’s Restoration Award for that year.

Having lost his brother and father so quickly in succession, and so tragically, resulted in his whole life changing beyond recognition. So many others could have split and run, but instead, he turned to his family’s legacy, striving to restore what could have disappeared to its former glory. He stepped up to what was required of him, despite the circumstances, a passion and promise to be celebrated and inspired by. Now, St. Giles house offers weddings, accommodation and events. A real turnaround for what position it was in 20 years ago.

Cut across the last field to the farm and then over your one and only stile on the walk. Turn right at the road to return to the village green.

5 thoughts on “Wimborne St Giles and Knowlton

  1. Lovely read, All Hallows’ graveyard has lots of surprises as I found whilst clearing the overgrowth which I am still currently maintaining. There is an archeological survey taking place at the moment but all will be revealed in the summer fingers crossed.

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