Discover the picturesque village of Milton Abbas and visit its impressive Abbey. In contrast, climb the wooded hills to find the hidden St Catherine’s Chapel, looking down on the Abbey separated by a grassed staircase. Explore the woodland that once housed the first King of England’s army on their way to beat the invading Danes to then be greeted with views stretching across Dorset.
Distance: 3 miles/5km
Time: 1 hour
Total climb: 360ft’
Max height: 720ft.
Min height: 350ft.
Terrain: Track, path, and field.
Start: In Milton Abbas village, park sensitively to other traffic (Postcode: DT11 0BP, Grid Reference: ST806017)
Map OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis
How to get there: From Blandford Forum, take the A354 to Dorchester. At Winterbourne Whitechurch, take the second turning on the right hand side, just at the pub. After approximately 2 miles, turn left into the village of Milton Abbas.
Dogs: On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code.
Refreshments: The Hambro Arms in Milton Abbas
Milton Abbas is a village lying 5 miles (8 km) south-west of the market town of Blandford. Set in a pretty wooded valley, this linear village with its whitewashed cob and thatch cottages is a photographers’ delight.
In 1780, Joseph Damer, Lord Milton, the first Earl of Dorchester and owner of Milton Abbey, decided that the existing village of Middleton, with all its noises and smells, was disturbing his rural idyll. So he decided to move the new village and create Milton Abbas – 36 identical cottages.
He commissioned architect Sir William Chambers and landscape gardener Capability Brown (both of whom had already worked on the Abbey building and grounds) to design a new village. Together they created a visually stunning village that some consider one of the first planned settlements in England. A number of other estates followed this trend including Moor Crichel and later Up Cerne. Most of the existing villagers were relocated here, the previous village was demolished and the site landscaped. This led to the development of the lake and the sculptured valley which the abbey now dominates. The thatched cottages were intended to house two families each, however this plan slightly failed with at times, nearly 40 people living in one house.
Built from cob and previously painted yellow, each house is fronted by a lawn and a terraced garden behind to accommodate any vegetable gardens. Originally a horse chestnut tree was planted between each dwelling, but these were removed in 1953 as they were damaging the properties.
The Almshouses and a church were also provided for the new village, sited opposite each other. The almshouses were moved from the old town, where they had originally been built in 1674. Some of the house-names give clues to the original inhabitants of the village, they include the village baker, blacksmith, brewer etc. Today the houses are white-washed, with a matching pub, The Hambro Arms, sited at the top of the village. The old school is also at the top of the hill. The village has been extended with more modern housing and other facilities, including a doctor’s surgery, to the north east.
Every two years, villagers recreate their historic country fair to celebrate the rebuilding of the present village over 225 years ago. The fair attracts thousands of visitors and has become one of Dorset’s key summer events. The main street is closed to traffic, and residents and stall holders dress in 18th-century costume. The day includes traditional music and dancing, local crafts people, stalls and demonstrations, a Dorset farmers’ market, children’s entertainment, Morris dancing, and local food and ale.
After parking sensibly, walk on down through the village, amongst the cottages, to reach the bottom of the hill. Ahead, the lake comes into view. Take the right hand fork and follow the road around the corner. Here you can take the footpath on the left, known as ‘Monks Path’, it takes you along the lakeside to Milton Abbey. You are able to walk right in front of the abbey itself and truly appreciate its grandeur. Set in such a rural landscape, it is in total contrast to its surroundings, making it seem all that more powerful.
The Abbey stands on the site of a church founded by Saxon King Athelstan. The current building was built over the 14th and 15th centuries after the church was destroyed by fire following a lightning strike in 1309. It was restored in 1790 by James Wyatt , who also designed nearby Bryanston, and in 1865 by Sir George Gilbert Scott. It is described in its listing text as “a church of major importance”.
The estate itself is currently a private school but, until 1932, Milton Abbey itself was a magnificent private house and was owned by Sir Charles Eric Hambro (the family which gives its name to the pub). Unfortunately Charles squandered a lot of the family money on travel and treasure for himself and the women he loved, resulting in the family having no other choice but to sell.
The footpath terminates at the front of the Abbey, not allowing you to travel through the school property; therefore you will have to retrace your steps back to the road. Once back on the road, turn left and follow it to the next track on the right, signposted for Steeptonbill Farm shop – recently highly commended in the Dorset Food and Drink Awards 2020.
Walk up on the track until another path on the left takes you into the woodland. This is not an official path on the OS map, however is still accessible to the public. There are also two trails that walk through the woods, these include The Milton Abbas Heritage Trail and Picture Trek Countryside Activity Trail. Continue following straight ahead until St Catherine’s Chapel appears through the vegetation.
The Chapel of St Catherine dates from the late 12th century and originally served the Abbey. Legend has it that this was the site of King Athelstan’s army. The First King of All England camped with his guards on their way North to meet the Danes, and here he dreamed that he would be victorious. The English Chronicle tells us that the dream came true, and Athelstan founded Milton Abbey in memory of his victory. It is claimed that this camp included the earthworks to the north, hidden in woodland today, but they could also be the remains of a minster wall, or chapel yard.
The chapel has changed little since its construction but is littered with graffiti in the old oak doors, some dating back to 1941! Maybe a little less respectful then, just hoping it’s not 91!
This secluded Chapel is full of mysteries and legends, hidden in the woodland and away from any prying eyes. As we know of other St Catherine Chapels (Abbotsbury), they were often placed on the top of a hill and were places of pilgrimage.
Looking down the hill, vegetation has been cleared that opens up the view below of the Abbey, possibly even built on the same alignment as the chapel. In-between the two buildings are the grass steps. Once immaculately presented, these 111 steps provided a manicured route straight from the Abbey to the chapel itself. Today the steps are weathered and overgrown, the top section having completely disappeared. Nevertheless, they still are a stunning site and with the little descend to the old metal gate at the top of the out of bounds area, you are provided with a small glimpse of what they once may have been, although not quite to the original standard. They also incorporate a bridge over the road below, but this is completely hidden from view.
With the Abbey behind you, and facing the chapel, take the path on your left. It is clear within the woods so there is no risk of getting lost. Ignore any of the paths that take you down the steep slopes to your left and eventually your reach the end of the woods, marked with two large stones buried at the entrance. Immediately after the stones, exit the wood though an the old gatehouse of Milton Abbey. Having spent so long in the woodland, the sudden appearance of such a formidable structure again contradicts its surroundings. But it does remind you that you are still in the intricately designed landscape of Milton Abbey and that Capability Brown must have been in his element in such an environment.
Take the bridleway on the right, circling the gate house and exit into a field. The height you climbed in the woods is rewarded here as the views to the south suddenly expand. Follow the field boundary, keeping it on your right until you approach Milton Abbas village.
On passing through a field boundary, fork left to reach the small residential road. Turn right to head to the next junction, then left and right again, heading to the woodland. The entrance to the path is in the corner, signposted to boost your confidence with direction. Make you way carefully through the wood and down the steep hill to exit onto the main village road.
Turn right and pass the entrance to the war graves on your left. As you move down the hill, you pass the old school on your right hand side, now a private house. Soon the cocooned feeling of the trees fades and the welcoming sight of the parallel white washed houses come into view, the pub on your left ready to welcome you, and your vehicle nearby.