Ansty and Bingham’s Melcombe
Distance: 3 miles/5 km
Duration: 1 hour
Ability: Easy. One climb.
Terrain: Path, track, road and field. Can get very boggy.
Map: OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis
Start Point: The Fox Inn at Ansty (Postcode: DT2 7PW, Grid reference: ST765032)
How to Get There: From Blandford Forum, take the A354 to Dorchester. At Winterborne Whitechurch, take the second right hand turning at the pub. On arriving at Milton Abbas, take the left hand turn down the hill and through the village, forking left at the bottom. Stay on the same road and when it turns left, continue straight ahead. Travel up the hill and again go straight ahead at the next junction. When you get to Ansty Cross, take the left hand turn to enter into the village of Ansty. The Fox Inn is on your left.
Dogs: In accordance with the Countryside Code and any notices on route.
Refreshments: The Fox Inn, Ansty.
Ansty is a village which consists of the settlements of Higher Ansty, Lower Ansty, Pleck (also known as Little Ansty) and Ansty Cross. It was once a peaceful secluded hamlet nestled into the Dorset hills, just as it is today. However in 1777 it changed and became a bustling industrial village for the next 200 years.
Born in 1752, a young farmer, Charles Hall, having learned the skill of brewing from his father, used his money-making shrewdness to develop a business. Clever enough to invest in the best possible equipment, use local produce (that he as a farmer understood) and taking full advantage of cultural changes, he produced a beer that was fully welcomed. Troops at the time were stationed on the Dorset coast to protect England from the threats of France during the Napoleonic wars, and they needed sustenance – this was happily supplied by Charles Hall, encouraged even more by the, then, unhealthiness of ‘drinking water supplies! Thanks to this development and the overall popularity of his product, his business flourished and it became a hugely successful enterprise.
Charles’ childless son, Robert Hall, inherited the brewery. He had an adopted niece Hannah Elizabeth Dodge, who married George Edward Illingworth Woodhouse in 1847. George (known as Edward) was the head brewer and he became a partner in the business, possibly as a wedding present. This collaboration led to the emergence of the Hall and Woodhouse Brewery. Edward and Hannah made a happy life for themselves in the family home, Broadclose, which is now The Fox Inn. Employment soared in the small hamlet. Clerks, maltsters, coopers, pony boys, carters and barrel washers were all required for the smooth running of the business. They even had their own fire engine. The year Edward died, 1875, was the year they adopted the badger as their company trademark, making it one of the oldest registered trademarks on record.
The buildings in Ansty consisted of a large brewhouse (now the village hall), a malting house (now Malthouse cottages), a hop store, a fermenting room and later a vat house. As the business grew, so did their property. In 1882, two of Edward’s sons, George and Alfred, now in control, bought Hectors brewery, including several public houses, in Blandford St Mary, running the businesses as one. Eventually, brewing ceased in Ansty in the 1940s, when it was all transferred to Blandford, and still thrives today. They were the first company to put their best bitter into a can, an invention probably many would think is better than sliced bread. Today the brewery owns a huge number of public houses nationwide, and their eminence in the trade is well illustrated by their proud ownership of the closest public house to the Houses of Parliament, St Stephen’s Tavern. To name drop any relevant historical figures who have drunk within those walls would fill a few pages! The history of the company is a true rags-to-riches Dorset tale.
Meanwhile, Ansty has returned to what it once was, a small hamlet nestled in the Dorset hills.
From the pub, turn left into the village, passing the old brewery buildings on your right. Cross over the small road bridge and take the footpath on your left. Walk parallel to the little stream (Mash Water), the path being easy to follow, taking you through a number of gates. Cross over a small wooden bridge where a little stream joins Mash water, via a small waterfall, and then continue up the hill.
In the next field, keep to the boundary tight on your left rather than traipsing directly across, as the OS map suggests, and then enter into the woodland via another wooden gate. Follow the path through the wood and when it splits, take the right hand fork to stay at the same height. The valley can drop sharply away here, as the Mash Water cuts its path below you.
When you exit the woods you reach the Bingham’s Melcombe estate. A sign clearly tells you where you are to go and there is no risk of going wrong. Turn right and head through the avenue of trees. As you approach the garden wall, a small gap in an iron railing gives you the only glimpse to the house, gardens and famous Yew hedge, said to be the longest in the country!
It is easy to get confused with place names in this area, all of which have a similar theme. Higher Melcombe (farm and manor house), Melcombe Horsey (deserted village), Melcombe Bingham (village) and Bingham’s Melcombe (a deserted village and a manor house), are all within this small valley.
Bingham’s Melcombe is the most easterly of the settlements. In medieval times the manor was sometimes called Nethermelcombe, from the Old English word ‘neotherra’ meaning ‘lower’, to distinguish it from Melcombe Horsey. Today it consists of nothing more than the parish church, the manor house and a few farm buildings; the remainder of the village is no more than a deserted site of banks and hollows covering a ten-acre meadow to the south of the church, in an area known as Town Hayes.
The roots of the property lie with the haunting (thanks to Thomas Hardy) Turberville family until, the heir, Lucy Turberville married Robert Bingham in the 13th century. It was later inherited in 1524 by Robert Bingham who in 1554 reconstructed the existing house, probably using the same masons who worked for his neighbour, Sir John Horsey, at Clifton Maybank and Higher Melcombe nearby. He also redesigned the gardens, and little of both have changed since. Bingham’s Melcombe is also the original country seat of the Earl of Lucan, the most famous being the 7th Earl of Lucan – Richard John Bingham. In 1974, the family nanny was murdered. Richard (aka Lord Lucan) mysteriously disappeared as the investigations were taking place. His vanishing only made him appear guiltier, as his wife was also a witness to the murder! He was never found, despite a huge number of reported sightings worldwide. However his death certificate was finally issued in 2016, allowing his son to become the 8th Earl of Lucan. Bingham’s Melcombe was owned for six hundred years by the Bingham family, right up until the late 19th century and today still remains in private ownership.
Follow the old brick wall around, walking on gravel, and continue straight ahead, reaching the church on your right and the old rectory (now Dower House) on your left. The parish church of St Andrew’s is bordered by the Devil’s Brook and a nearby waterfall. There has been a church here since 1150 but the current stone and flint building is 14th-century in construction. A number of memorials to the Bingham’s gone by rest in the churchyard.
Pass in front of the church and on your right is the old school house, hardly touched for a number of years. There are also a couple of small grave stones in the grounds; I’m guessing they are of two well-loved family pets.
Stay on the path to cross a bridge over The Devils Brook, noting the waterfall and ponds, all of which were part of the original Bingham’s Melcombe landscaped gardens. Turn left and head up to the wooden gate that gives you access to a small country road. The path cuts across to this point on the opposite side of the river than is suggested by the OS map. The waterfalls, also marked on the OS map, are out of view due to the thick vegetation. Once on the road, carry straight on instead of turning left and then take the next left onto a track, this leading to the big climb of the walk.
As you continue uphill the woods become thicker as the path becomes steeper. It also turns into a Holloway as the sides of the track grow above your head. When you reach the top of the hill, you are out of view of the road. However, not necessarily on this walk, but when travelling in your car, this road can supply you with an impressive view. Travelling south, the road, like a compass, points directly towards Corfe Castle. On a clear day, with no modern day interferences, the silhouette can stand out from the surrounding landscape, a full 17 miles away!
Still in the woods, turn left to start your descent back down the hill. Continue through the woods and exit out onto a field and walk diagonally through, heading for the houses of Aller in the distance. Do not exit onto the road and instead, skim the two old thatched cottages on your left, keeping to the field boundary and following the river upstream. A small lake comes into view and the path is diverted off the field to cross a bridge, curving around the water. This area is boggy. Geographically it is important as it is the spring of Devils Brook. With Bulbarrow Hill towering to the north of the settlement, and Coombe Hill to the east, this little bowl is capable of collecting a huge amount of water, every footstep you take sunken deep into the spongey ground.
However, you are shortly taken back up hill, providing you with firmer footing. Continue straight ahead, passing over a couple of stiles. Climb over the final stile, onto the road and turn right to Chilmore. The large house you pass on your left was where Hannah Elizabeth Woodhouse (nee Dodge) was registered to be living when she died in 1908 aged 88.
Walk on up the road to reach Ansty Cross. This crossroads is close enough to the centre of the county to be classified as the deepest part of Dorset. Sitting in the shadows of the surrounding hills and hidden amongst the trees, it suits its title. An old chapel sits in its centre, now a private home. Another home is nearby, but other than that there are only lumps and bumps, shadows and ruins, the answers to which are just as mysterious.
Don’t skip, but circle the cross and then head down the hill, passing the old cottages on your right. When the woods end on your left, take the gate off the road and follow the footpath with the boundary on your right. When you enter a large field, you have the choice of turning left to return to the village or extend your walk to Cothayes Drove.
Continuing straight ahead, follow the fields down to the river. There is no bridge, but it is shallow so relatively easy to cross. Head up the opposite side to then reach the Drove. As the name suggests it was once used to transport animals from villages to market, probably medieval in origin. Turn left and then take the next footpath on your left. Cross the river for a second time and make your way up the hill, passing the old brewery buildings on your right. Continue through the gate and out onto the village road. Turn left to return back to the Fox Inn.