Wareham and Poole Harbour

From the Saxon town of Wareham, follow the River Frome to Poole Harbour, tracing the reverse route of invading Danes. Curve around Swineham Point with views stretching from Arne peninsula, to Brownsea Island and to the shimmering conurbation of Poole. Meet the River Piddle entering  Wareham via the ancient town walls. Pass a stunning example of a Saxon, 1000 year old church and, keeping to the walls, return to the River Frome and back to The Old Granary.

Distance: 4.5 Miles/8km
Time: 1.5 hours
Total climb: 60ft.

Max height 40ft.
Min height: 0ft.

Terrain: Track, path, road and field. Can be very wet underfoot.
Exertion: Easy
Start: The Old Granary, £1.50 for two hours (Postcode: BH20 4LR, Grid reference: SY924871, What Three Words: deodorant.boosted.slows)

Map: OS Explorer OL15 Purbeck and South Dorset
How to get there: Entering from the north, travel straight through the town. Just before you meet the bridge turn left to enter The Old Granary car park.

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

Refreshments: Plenty of options in Wareham town, but starting and finishing from The Old Granary

Lying hidden from the sheltered Poole Harbour, Wareham has been a perfect strategic setting for settlement throughout its history. It is a prime spot for resources, travel and trade and a sanctuary from both elements and enemies. Evidence has been found from the Mesolithic (c.9000BC), Neolithic (c.3700BC), the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman periods. However, the roots of the current town lay firmly with the Saxons. The name derives from Old English wer (meaning ‘fish trap, a weir’) and hamm (‘enclosure hemmed in by water’). Wareham had been occupied by the Vikings in 875, but Alfred made peace with them in 876, or so he thought!

The town sits in between the River Piddle to the North and The Frome to the South, cuddled by the water before they both join the western corner of Poole Harbour. The rivers flow slowly and gently through the marshlands, creating an environment perfect for a huge amount of marine bird life. Access to the town from the harbour is cocooned in the acreage of reeds that surround the water, the landscape having been a huge influence on the town, making it what it is today. For those marine visitors, the town appears like a hidden gem, greeting them at the bridge with a choice of pubs.

The town is surrounded by its town walls, ancient earth ramparts, likely built by Alfred the Great in the 9th century as protection ever- attacking Danes. By the end of the Saxon period, Wareham had become one of the most important towns and ports in the county. However, after the 13th century its relevance declined and was overtaken by Poole. In 1762, a fire destroyed two thirds of the town, which has been rebuilt in Georgian architecture. The medieval almshouses escaped the fire, and some of the Georgian façades are in fact disguising earlier buildings which also survived.

Facing the pub, take the small alley on the left hand side of the buildings. Follow it through to Church Green, opening out to Lady St Mary Church. The church once had a nunnery associated with it but it was destroyed in a Danish raid in 876AD. Follow the wall around the church to the left, through the graveyard and then turn right at the end of the path. Circle the sewage treatment building, for the terrain to turn to mud, and cross a small wooden bridge. Join a path coming from the left and continue straight ahead, the muddy path scattered with wooden planks to help with your footing. The route becomes decked and you shortly arrive at the River Frome. Small boats litter the riverside, their masts occasionally poking out above the reeds. As you walk along a ridge the still river lies below on your right and on the left are marshlands.

The view east over the marshlands

It is the River Frome, and its associated landscape, that give the name to one of the area’s most famous historical tribes; the Celtic Dutrogies. Their name stood for water dwellers, the Iron Age community that ruled this area and much of Dorset and Devon. It is also quite easy to imagine, as you walk alongside this river, the much later Danes in their long boats wearing decorative battle gear, hidden amongst the reeds on their way to ransack Wareham!

Follow the path along the river for some time. The houses to the left slowly disappear as you walk deeper into the reeds. When you pass a selection of marinas on the opposite side of the river bank, the reeds then take over the landscape. Far off in the south are the Purbeck hills, the little dip representing Corfe Castle, the tower remains just out of sight. The flat lands of Arne to the south seem to enlarge Poole Harbour deceivingly, creating a plateau of low lying terrain all the way to the Purbeck hills.

Eventually you meet a small track, where you turn right to continue heading towards Poole Harbour, the water of which becomes a little clearer as you rise above the reeds, highlighted by reflecting sky. Arne, a National Nature Reserve, sits across the bay to your left, Brownsea Island ahead, and the glimmer of white buildings in the distance is Poole. Curve around to the left on the peninsula of Swineham Point, walking away from the River Frome and towards the River Piddle.

Poole Harbour is the second largest natural harbour in the world (after Sydney). It is surprisingly shallow with an average depth of only 48cm, with one main dredged channel through the harbour from the mouth to Holes Bay. The port of Poole overtook Wareham’s importance, and became very wealthy. In the 18th century, Poole was the principal British port trading with North America, however in the 19th century, its relevance in the trade was also overtaken by the ports of Southampton and Bristol.

The Harbour is bordered by a number of environments that are protected. These include Nature Reserves and SSSIs (Sites of Specific Scientific Interest). It consists of mud flats and salt marsh attracting a number of rare birds, especially migrating birds, dependent on the area for energy renewal, a crucial bird motorway services! The harbour has a multitude of human uses too, which in turn need to be carefully managed to sustainably work alongside these delicate areas of nature.

Brush past the Piddle River, as you turn to the left, and continue on the path, through the SSSI as it follows the woodland on the left. Pass through a gate to enter Bestwall Park, a private estate. The path becomes a road and leads you straight back to Wareham. Follow the curve of the road to the left and the large earthworks on your right are the town walls. Climb on up to join the path at the top and turn right to follow the peak of the ridge.

The view to the Purbeck Hills

The defences encompassed a rectangular area, containing the town. Today they consist of a large bank which has sunk and been eroded greatly over the generations, so by no means represents their original height. They also would have been topped with timber faced ramparts adding to the fortitude of the structure.

The town walls

Follow the brow of the wall around until you have no choice but to descend. Join onto a small road and turn right to head down a steep hill to the main road. Cross over, not forgetting to take note of the chapel of St Martin on the Walls, up the road on the left, which is one of the oldest buildings in the town. It is a perfect example of a Saxon church, dated at about 1030, soon to experience its 1000th birthday! Inside is a tomb effigy to Lawrence of Arabia.

Take the small road on the right to re-join back onto the town walls. Climb back up to the brow, to admire the Piddle’s flood plains below and view the bypass further afield. As the walls turn, turn with them and follow to the next main road. Turn left then right to join Pound Street.

The old brewery on Pound Street

It was in this location that Wareham Castle once stood. As Wareham‘s power as a port declined, so did the castle, resulting in little remaining today. Stay on the same road but keeping right to meet back up with the River Frome. Here you also arrive at the bridge, the other side of which is The Old Granary.

The Old Granary from the river

13 thoughts on “Wareham and Poole Harbour

  1. Although the water meadows so characteristic of the Vale of the Great Dairies do appear upstream of Dorchester, it is in the section of the Frome valley between the county town and Wareham that these green pastures and their drainage ditches make their principal impact on the valley landscape. Throughout this stretch of the valley the river has a great tendency to flood, so almost all of the villages and hamlets have been sited on the dry gravel terraces on either side of the flood plain. Long stretches of the valley bottom are almost lonely in their solitude. Roads linking the villages run along the terraces on either side, and only occasionally across the flood plain to cross the Frome on ancient bridges, part brick and part stone, such as Frome Bridge downstream from Woodsford and Holme Bridge between Wool and Wareham. Below Wareham, the Saxon town that dominates the river from its dry site to the north, the water meadows cease and the Frome glides away eastwards, between thick, almost impenetrable reed beds, before emptying its waters into the vast expanses of Poole Harbour.

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