Explore the village of Portesham before climbing its chalk hills to reach the dolmen of Hells Stone. Pass ruins and earthworks to reach Hardy’s monument, claimed to have the best views in the county. Continue through the ancient landscape, scattered with historic and spiritual connections. Admire the views spanning the Jurassic Coastline before discovering a quarry with its own dinosaur!
Distance: 6 miles/10 km
Time: 2.5 hours
Total climb: 700ft.
Max height: 800ft.
Min height: 200ft.
Terrain: Track, path, road and field.
Exertion: Medium, some steep climbs.
Start: The Kings Arms (Postcode: DT3 4FY, Grid Reference: SY602857, What Three Words: branching.tops.increased)
Map OS Explorer OL15 Purbeck and South Dorset
How to get there: From Weymouth take the B3157, Chickerell road. Remain on this road for approximately 8 miles to enter Portesham. The car park is in on your right, just before the sharp bend. Alternatively there are a few road side spaces opposite the village green, next to the pub.
Dogs: On leads where livestock is present and in accordance with any notices on the walk and The Countryside Code. Be aware, livestock is roaming free around the monument.
Refreshments: The Kings Arms in Portesham
To start the walk, take the small road to the left of the village green. This way you get to explore some of the village before disappearing out the valley. On the green is a map produced by the school, the parish council and some other organisations. It is a wonderful visual representation of the village history and almost makes my information unnecessary! Nevertheless, I think these should be done for all villages!
Portesham is quite large in comparison to other parishes in Dorset. It includes several outlying hamlets and what were once their manors. In 1905 Sir Frederick Treves described the village’s site as being “in a hollow among the downs” so that it was “too low to command a view of the sea”, but nevertheless “in a south-westerly gale the roar of the breakers on the Chesil Beach can be heard in the village.” The houses in Portesham comprise a mix of grey stone, thatched cottages and more modern buildings in various styles.
To the south of the village are the remains of what once was the railway from Abbottsbury to Upwey near Weymouth. After a quiet existence, carrying local passengers and agricultural produce, the line and station, having opened in 1885, closed in 1952. The station building is now part of a private dwelling and is used as a holiday let.
Work your way around the village until you eventually meet a small pond. Continue straight ahead and then take the small bridleway on your right. Follow it straight up to the next field and then keep left following the track up the hill, passing a number of donkeys on your left. This is the hardest part of the walk, every step gaining height, but as you rise don’t forget to occasionally rest using the excuse to appreciate the growing view behind you.
Remain on the path and curve around to the left and then right, keeping the stone wall on your right hand side. When you go through the next field boundary, fork to the left following the faint track in the grass. On meeting a boundary, approaching from the left, follow it straight ahead and the Hell stone will appear ahead of you.
The Hell Stone is officially a dolmen which is a type of single-chamber megalithic tomb, usually consisting of two or more vertical megaliths supporting a large flat horizontal capstone or “table”. Originally it would have been covered with earth or smaller stones to form a tumulus. This particular dolmen was actually reconstructed by antiquarians in 1866, so it is not either in its exact location or original construction, but this doesn’t diminish its presence. Legend is that these stones came into being when the devil threw them from Portland during a game of quoits. The area around Portesham is rich in prehistoric remains. To the west lie the Grey Mare and her Colts, to the west are a collection of barrows which the walk later continues through. Some impressive discoveries have been made in the area including the Portesham mirror, dating from the 1st century AD. The mirror is made of bronze with a beautiful swirly Celtic design on the back, a really rare find. Currently it can be viewed at The Dorset County Museum.
Retrace your steps but remain on the same gradient to reach a metal gate just to the left of the trees ahead. Join onto a track and turn left to make your way down the hill and through the ruinous barns of Blackdown. At the bottom turn left and then take the next right, climbing through the woodland to Hardy’s monument. Take the metal gate onto the heathland, watching out for the cattle roaming free. Eventually the peak of the monument comes into view, marking the end of your climb.
Captain Thomas Hardy lived in Portesham as a boy, and again as an older man at Portesham House. He affectionately referred to the village as “Possum”. It is important to not confuse Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy of Portesham (1769 – 1839) with his namesake, the world famous Dorset, poet and novelist, Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928). This is a monument to the Admiral. However the Admiral, having died a very famous man, only a year before poet Hardy’s birth, there is a possibility the younger Hardy’s mother was influenced in the name choice!
Thomas Masterman Hardy served as flag captain to Admiral Lord Nelson, and commanded HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar against a combined French and Spanish fleet in October 1805. It was the most important sea battle of the 19th century resulting in the victorious British Navy becoming the world’s largest sea power for the next 100 years. They worked together well, respected each other as seamen and had a close relationship. It must not be forgotten that Hardy took part in all Nelson’s principal naval engagements – St Vincent, the Nile and Copenhagen as well as Trafalgar. But so important was the role played by Hardy at Trafalgar that it overshadows many notable occurrences in his career. He served the state under no less than four sovereigns. King William IV had the highest regard for him, he was rendered invaluable to his country and it was said that his tact and prudence alone saved England from a third war with the United States.
During an intense battle Nelson was shot. He was certain he was going to die and begged Hardy to “take care of poor Lady Hamilton”. As he became weaker he uttered his famous line “Kiss me, Hardy”. Hardy knelt and kissed Nelson on the cheek. He then stood for a minute or two before kissing him on the forehead. Nelson replied “God bless you, Hardy” and “Thank God I have done my duty.” He died three hours after the fatal shot.
The monument is 21 metres (69 ft.) high, erected in 1844 and visible over half the county. Some claim it watches over the best view in Dorset, with the full 18 mile stretch of the Chesil beach to the south, Devon to the west, the south Dorset coast to the east and the distant valleys of Dorset to the north. The site for the monument was chosen because the Hardy family wanted it to be in a position which could be used as a landmark for shipping. The monument has been shown on navigational charts since 1846 and is visible from a distance of 60 miles. It was designed to look like a spyglass, as Admiral Hardy would have used on board ship. Its eight corners are aligned with the compass points and built of local Portland stone. In 1938 it was bought by the National Trust for £15. The site is open all the time with free parking. There are times when the tower itself is open and you can climb the 120 internal steps to the viewpoint at the top!
From the monument, cross straight over the small country road and take the footpath, curving slightly to the right and down the hill to the meet the road again. Turn left then right to join onto another bridle way and up to the barrows.
Bronkham hill is set in the heart of the South Dorset Ridgeway, and is a great place to get a sense of this ‘land of bone and stone’. As you make your way along the path, you are almost overwhelmed by the sheer multitude of ancient barrows clustered along the ridge. It is actually the most densely populated areas of such barrows in the whole of the country. It must have been quite a sight to are prehistoric ancestors when they were gleaming white chalk mounds, highlighted by the moonlight during the darkness of night. A real tribute to those people the ancients buried. They are still impressive in this state of decay, covered in grass and blending in with their surroundings. The smooth carpet of green, the small clumps of gorse, the curving, almost bouncy landscape and the odd rabbit, you find yourself preparing for a teletubbie to appear, but it just ends up being a jogger.
Follow the ridge for about a mile or so. When you reach a couple of water tanks on your left, take the small metal gate on your right. Continue down the hill to the left hand corner of the field, passing the ruin of Shilvinghampton Barn on the hill to the right. Duck though the hedge, over a small gate to the next field. It can get really muddy here, so watch your step as you’re at risk of loosing a wellie! Take the gate, ahead on the left, to continue down the hill. In front of you is Corton Hill with its smooth curved features as it suddenly dips into the valley. As you approach it is possible to appreciate its layers of soil creep as gravity has pushed the ground down the steep sides, encouraged by the occasional heavy downpour. Its appearance gives it and aged wrinkly look of a wise old man. On reaching the road turn right then right again at the next junction.
Here you have a choice, either continuing back to Portesham via the road or to have another little climb up the hill. When a stile appears on your right climb on over and head up the hill diagonally. It the left This extra bit of work is worth it, as you can view the coastline to the west for the last time. This includes St. Catherine’s Chapel on the top of its own little hill in the distance. Once at the peak you can see Hardy’s monument on your right and therefore view some of your previous footsteps.
Waddon house is just to the left of you, more visible had you stayed on the road. Built, and then capped in Portland stone, in about 1700, Waddon house lost its west wing to a fire four years later. However it is still an impressive building and was used for the 1966 cinema version of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’. Keep your eyes peeled for a small stone outcrop that could have been an old kiln that also supplies you with a good view down to the house.
Remain on the brow of the hill and ignore the OS footpath guiding you through the farm buildings. Instead continue straight ahead to meet the farm’s drive. On the other side of the driveway is Rocket Quarry quite clearly defined by its large remaining earthworks. It operated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, producing Purbeck limestone that was used in domestic and ecclesiastical buildings within the local area, including Abbotsbury Abbey. There is also a lime kiln within the quarry that is fun to search for, along with the algal limestone sheath and a dinosaur!
Follow the drive down the hill to join back to the county road and turn right. The road brings you back to the village where you turn left. The parish church of St Peter, meeting you at this junction, is part of the Dorset Wildlife Trust’s “Living Churchyard Project” and manages the churchyard for the benefit of wildlife. In 2011 the church won Best New Entry in the “Living Churchyard Competition”.
Keeping to the road, follow the small stream that runs alongside the main street to reach back to the village green.