From the town of Verwood, head into the forest to discover a castle and ancient stone. Wander along the tracks that connect these old settlements to the landscape. Follow the River Crane past Roman remains and industrial history. Arrive at Cranborne to clamber the castle earthworks and return via Edmondsham with its stately country home.
Distance: 9 miles/15km (can be cut shorter by missing the castles)
Duration: 4 hours
Max Height: 275ft
Min Height: 130ft
Total climb: 210ft
Terrain: Path, track, road and field.
Map: OS Explorer OL22 New Forest
Start Point: The Monmouth Ash. (Postcode: BH31 6DT, Grid Reference: SU086084, What Three Words: conveys.overheard.dated)
How to Get There: From Ringwood (A31) take the Verwood road (B3081), staying on the same road for about 5 miles. Continue to drive through the town and turn left at the large Co-op onto Black Hill. Go straight over the next roundabout onto Burnbake Road and then take the third exit onto the B3072, The Monmouth Ash is on your right.
Dogs: In accordance with the Countryside Code and any notices on route.
Walk to the rear of the pub car park and follow the little path between the houses to bring you out opposite Morrison’s. Head to the right hand corner of the building, curving around its edge, to join onto a footpath. When you meet a crossroads of paths, turn left to walk straight though Bugden’s Copse. This is a remnant of the ancient forest of ‘Fayre Wood’ or ‘beautiful wood’ from which the local town of Verwood derives its name.
Exit the woodland and when you reach a road, turn right. Cross straight over the main road onto a track, passing the recreation ground on your left. When you approach the end, dive into the woods through a green boundary marker, restricting access, zigzagging along the path. At the T-junction turn right into thicker woodland. When the path splits, take the route signposted for Stephens Castle, through a gate. Enter onto a tunnelled path and when it opens up turn left.
Trace the southern edge of the earthworks and when the path splits again, turn right, guiding you to some steps to the top.
Stephen’s Castle is an Iron Age barrow on the edge of Boveridge Heath, which in turn is the gateway to Ringwood Forest. The barrow is a scheduled ancient monument, excavated by the Victorians who once unearthed human skeletons. The area has also been heavily quarried creating the holes scattered in the landscape that we see today.
The views are vast. The conurbations of Bournemouth and Ringwood glisten in the skyline to the south, whereas to the west, nature dominates, with the old Horton tower being the only object that stands out from the trees.
The name of the site is from a legend. Stephen was a local tribal chief who was famed for his strength. It is said that he threw the three tonne Stephen’s Stone, from this point, half a mile into the forest where it still lies. During the Cold War, due to its high elevation, Stephen’s Castle was used as a Royal Observer Corps monitoring post to detect hostile aircraft and any possible nuclear attacks. But after that, the area became a waste land only used by the occasional band of travelling gypsies. In the late 1970s, it was taken over by the local authorities.
To navigate your way around this area, it is best to stick to the main paths, but there are many other followable routes through the woodland, other areas in the heath not so welcoming. Facing the castle, follow the footpath around the hollow to the right and down into some woodland. The footpath guides you straight, away from the castle and deeper into the woods. However you shortly meet a gravel track. Depending on where you join the track, take the track that goes up hill ahead, again, away from the castle.
On your left you pass a small brick building and soon after a green sign guides you into the heath to search for Stephen’s Stone. The terrain gets tricky here, but eventually you meet another sign, this time marking its spot. But the stone is still a little distance away! A little stream runs just to the left, follow this up and the stone appears ahead. It is unmistakable, by its oddity. It does seem out of place and it is understandable that such a story should accompany its appearance. Its strangeness is reinforced by the effort to find it and its unkempt surroundings, as if it didn’t want to be found at all. The stone is an ancient block of non-native sandstone and is therefore one of a kind in the area. It lies flat but it is thought to have once stood, at height of approximately 10ft, making it one of the largest monoliths in Dorset. Another legend claims that hidden underneath is a golden casket. However, the tale continues, a curse would be put on anyone who tries to tamper with it! The area, by many, has also been recorded as special in some way; positive or negative energy, apparently depending on intentions!
The whole area is rich in heathland, something Dorset is famous for. Despite a fire in 2015, destroying many acres, the landscape is still home to all of the UK’s native reptiles and a large collection of rare birds. Careful management of the site is required to maintain this native landscape. Over the last decade, livestock has been introduced to the site. The grazing by these animals helps prevent scrub and trees taking over and reduces dominant grasses, giving rarer plants a chance to grow.
In nearby Ringwood Forest, there is genuine wilderness. Today it is essentially an area of commercial forestry, but it is still a forest. Open areas of heath mixed with scattered woodland add to its mystical, far away, in the middle of nowhere vibe! The area has many bridleways cutting through the trees, making it a perfect place for a bike ride.
Retrace your steps to the gravel path and turn right down the hill – don’t try any other exit from the stone as it will get you lost! At the T-junction with the next track, turn right again and then take either the left hand footpath, or the later track if you miss the footpath, heading down the hill.
At the bottom, take the next right onto Burrows Lane. Continue along the track for a mile or so until you reach another track, where you turn left and then join a small road. Head straight on, staying on the road, until you arrive at the Heavy Horse Farm Park. The track you need to follow runs tightly to the right of the farm known as Mill Lane; it can become boggy in this area. The valley is filled with the gushing sound of the River Crane and occasional small lakes appear through the trees on your left. The River Crane is only short, as it changes its name downstream to become the Moors River. Its source is in Cranborne and possibly gained its name from visiting birds, like cranes and herons.
The area is filled with history and activity, spanning centuries. Having left the prehistoric remains of Stephen’s Castle behind, the route begins its journey to the Norman stronghold of Cranborne Castle. Meanwhile, the valley contains some industrial history with the scattered remains of mills; even the name of the track is further evidence to support this. Roman remains such as red tessellated pavement have been found in the valley too. All this suggests that this now boggy, muddy, overgrown Holloway was once an important route.
Walk over a small stream and start to make your way uphill. Beware; after rain, this is a really muddy section. On reaching the top, follow the track around to the left and over the River Crane, via the ruins of old mills. Continue to stay on the same track, watching the Crane meander below on your right. Keep left when you join another track and then continue on to reach a road. Gradually as you approach, the earthworks on your left suddenly swell. These are the remains of the Norman castle.
We know very little about Castle Hill. The typical Norman fortification of a motte and bailey suggests a stronghold or aristocratic residence, occupying a strategic position, most probably occupied during the 11th to the 13th centuries. It is likely it was abandoned when King John built a hunting lodge in Cranborne, where the Manor now stands. Cranborne was once the administrative hub of the medieval royal hunting grounds of the Cranborne Chase. This castle undoubtedly watched the landscape be utilised, the village prosper, the community develop and witness the many royals visit. However, it also watched it all disappear!
On reaching the road, turn left, circling the earthworks and take the next permissive path guiding you up to the castle. It is a bit of a tease as you do have to almost circle the entire site to be able to access the earthworks, but it wasn’t made to be easy!
The bailey is clearly marked by its impressive walls. Within the motte there is a large raised mound which was a burial site for two of LDG Tregonwell’s horses in the first half of the 19th century. Other than his interference with the site, it has remained untouched and therefore well preserved. There is no doubt that the site contains archaeological and environmental evidence relating to its life. Lying under centuries of accumulated nature the secrets and treasures still remain hidden.
Once you have explored the castle, leave the site in the same way you entered but continue straight ahead and into the woods. These are permissive paths allowed by the Edmondsham estate. Continue straight through the forest, ignoring all diversions. When you meet a metal gate, go over the stile and then continue straight ahead. Follow the track to the right, and down into the village of Edmondsham.
As you exit out onto the road, don’t forget to notice the old village water pump. Protected by a 1930s structure, it dates from 1884 and inscribed with the initial HEM for Hector Edmond Monro – the squire at the time who lived in Edmondsham House.
Edmondsham is little more than a hamlet. There was formerly a Post Office, a School, a Rectory and a Methodist chapel in the village, but these have all now disappeared or been converted into residential properties. It’s most impressive building is Edmondsham House, a Tudor Manor House, dated 1589, with Georgian wings and Victorian service buildings. To reach the manor house, turn right onto the village road. Make your way through the houses and Edmondsham estate gatehouse appears at the junction ahead. At the junction go straight ahead and in about 25 metres a signpost guides you through the hedge to St Nicholas Church. The entrance is formal, set back from the road and guarded by a small metal fence. Village buildings once extended around the church but have now disappeared, giving it more of an isolated appearance.
The gravestones are also well preserved, for a change the inscriptions on the stones are legible. Different families but with corresponding dates all stand out. It is easy to imagine them walking the tracks in this landscape, living in this small hamlet and all knowing each other. One inscription, for William Miles who died in 1868, clearly reads:
‘Behold and see as you pass by. As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, so you must be. Prepare for Death and follow me.’
Behind the church is a small gate, leading directly to Edmondsham House. From here you can clearly see its Tudor grandeur. In the summer months the gardens are open to the public at limited times.
Make your way back to the junction with the gates of Edmondsham House. Continue around the bend to the right, over the small Edmondsham Brook and pass some houses. Follow the road around the left and when it turns again, take the stile into the field ahead. Cut straight across over the next field and then again in the third, heading for the top corner. Follow the signs and circle the next field keeping the boundary on your right hand side.
As you climb over this next stile, hidden in the corner, you reach the edge of Edmondsham estate. The park boundary is clearly marked in the landscape with the almost rampart-like appearance and double layer design. Turn left and head straight ahead, ignoring the permissive paths either side of you, and over the next stile. Here you exit the woods and the landscape seems to change. The ancient hunting grounds of Cranborne Chase are no longer and you have stepped back into today. The road is a little louder, the pylons stride across the horizon and any sunlight in the sky glistens off the many shiny surfaces ahead. Walk straight across the field to the hole in the hedge and then the next hole to join a track on your right. Follow this all the way down to the road, climb over the stile and turn left into Verwood.
This is a busy road and has no footpath, but the verges are wide. When you get to the bridge, over the River Crane, there is no pedestrian path, but once on the other side a pavement begins. As you approach more buildings, look out for the painted rocks marking your path.
On your left The Albion Inn comes into view. It was here where Verwood train station once stood. The pub once sat in the station yard itself. The railway was one of Beeching’s casualties and closed in 1964. It was the main line from Southampton to Dorchester. You have a choice here of either continuing along the road and admiring the old railway bridge from afar as it now sits within the pub’s beer garden, or to cross over the road and make your way over the bridge itself. All the other station buildings were demolished and the old road was rerouted to pass the front of the Inn, creating the landscape today.
The station actually played an important role for Verwood. It was Verwood’s ‘beautiful wood’ that provided a thriving pottery and brick industry, thanks to the abundance of clay, gorse and birch found on the heath. The railway brought a huge change in fortune, with the ease of distributions, and the village prospered. For a collection of important nearby country estates, Verwood was their local station, which meant that it was frequented by a number of royals including King Edward VIII, Queen Alexandra, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. Now it’s just a shadow of its former self, in the shape of a railway arch!
Turn right onto Downlands Road and into a residential estate. When the houses are replaced by trees on your left, take the footpath that runs along the fence through the woods. Fork right at the houses to then turn right again and then left on the road. leading straight down to the next path. Climb the little stile and fork left at the end following a track to the road. Turn right then left down the next footpath, then turn right and left for the final time, arriving at the B3072. Turn right and follow the road around the corner to meet the Monmouth Ash on your left hand side.