Dorchester, Poundbury, river valleys and ancient settlements.

From the brand new town of Poundbury, wander into an ancient Roman landscape, following the route of a road and aqueduct. Explore the fields and forests of the hills to dip down into the lush valleys of the Cerne and the Frome. Pass a pond that was the fatal last hurdle on a prisoner’s escape from Dorchester gaol. Visit the Hangman’s cottage, the Roman town house, the Roman wall and the writer Thomas Hardy himself. Meet the mighty Keep before exploring the remains of Poundbury Hillfort, with views over the Frome’s river meadows. Then return to the Duchess of Cornwall Inn via the fresh, colourful scenery of Poundbury.

Distance: 6 miles/ 8km

Duration: 2/3 hours

Ability: Easy.

Max Height: 400ft

Min Height: 200ft

Total climb: 370ft

Terrain: Path, track, road and field.

Map: OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis

Start Point: Queen Mother’s Square, Poundbury (Postcode: DT1 3BL, Grid reference: SY671907)

How to Get There: From Dorchester town centre, head west. On entering Poundbury, take the third exit off the second roundabout. Continue to follow the road until it reaches the square. There is plenty of parking avaliable.

Dogs: In accordance with the Countryside Code and any notices on route.

Refreshments: The Duchess of Cornwall, at the start of the walk, and The Sun Inn, approximately half way along the route. Many other alternatives in the town of Dorchester.

The Duchess of Cornwall Inn

The walk starts in the centre of Poundbury where the architecture is both elegant and impressive. Built in 2016, the Duchess of Cornwall Inn is named after the Duchess of Cornwall, at the direct request of the Prince of Wales, and was subsequently opened by the Prince and Duchess.  It has become the flagship pub of the Hall and Woodhouse Brewery, filled with historical artefacts from the family of brewers dating back to the 18th century.

Poundbury is an urban extension of the county town of Dorchester, built on Duchy of Cornwall land. Building began in 1993 (due to be completed by 2025) and is designed to principles of architecture and urban planning as advocated by HRH The Prince of Wales in his book ‘A Vision of Britain’. This includes creating beauty, mixing affordable housing with private, prioritising the pedestrian and to create a mixture of uses. This is proving to be a successful development and is used as a model for many other planning authorities across the country. It currently has a population of nearly 5000 people, employing nearly 3000, many more working from home.

Heading under the bypass

From Queen Mother’s Square, and with the pub behind you, walk straight down Peverell Avenue West. Take the second turning on your right down Dunnabridge Street and, at the end, join a permissive path guiding you down the hill. On your right, as the development of Poundbury drops away, the valley of the River Frome can be seen sinking in into the hills. Continue down the hill to dip under the Dorchester bypass. Immediately after the bridge, turn right through a small gate, into a field, ignoring the tracks. Ahead of you as you walk parallel to the road and around the field, the channelled earthworks of the old Roman aqueduct become clear ahead.

Dorchester was first developed during the Roman times as a fort, by the river, during the siege of the nearby Iron Age hillfort of Maiden Castle. When the castle was overthrown, the river settlement grew into Dunovaria, a highly populated Roman town. This new ‘modern’ settlement included villas, mills, markets and public baths, all of which required a constant supply of water. One of the many impressive and clearly visible parts of the Roman remains is the aqueduct. Built in the 1st century AD, it was used to transport fresh water from a reservoir, around 3 miles away, to the town. Some stretches are well preserved, most are visible from the bypass circling the town to the north, but also from Poundbury Hillfort and the other side of the bypass to Bradford Peverell. Its path continues north west to near Southover where remains of a Roman villa have been uncovered, further enhancing the activity and movement required for this important feat of technology. Although how much it was used, is still debatable. This particular section is a small diversion, south from the main channel.

Looking down the valley to remains of the Roman aqueduct.

Turn left off the field just as it begins to narrow and through a small metal gate. Cut through the woodland and make your way up the hill keeping the woodland on your right. As you gain height, don’t forget to turn around and admire the views back to Poundbury. The silhouetted cupolas of Queen Mother’s Square rise high above the surrounding buildings adding to its elegance. Maiden Castle can also be seen on the horizon. On your left, as you gain height, the view stretches south with Hardy’s Monument visible on the horizon, framed by the sky behind.

Cross over a track and continue following the boundary on your right. Pass through a gate and down to woodland, exiting the field through the corner. Here Tilly Whim Cottage appears. It is everything you imagine a little cottage to be in this location. Away from the road, cocooned by woodland, nestled in the valley and wrapped in its own thatch roof. Continue on past but stay on the track to reach the road. There seems to be no access to, or evidence of, the bridleway marked on the OS map.

On joining the road, turn right to head down into the valley. When you meet another road, cross straight over. The road you cross is an old Roman road, no doubt used to service and maintain the aqueduct. Walk down the track, past the farm buildings on your right and under the railway bridge.

This area can become flooded during wetter seasons. If you find that it is impassable you can return to Dorchester via the Roman road, where you join Poundbury Hillfort. Nevertheless, most of the time it is fine, but pretty much always wet! You skirt the water meadows of the river Frome to your right, stretching back to Dorchester, an important area of wildlife.

Crossing the Frome

Cross over the two bridges that span two sections of the same river and up to the main road. Cross straight over and follow a small country road up the hill. Curve around to the right and then take the next left, down Drakes Lane. Climb on up the gentle hill and then back down towards Charminster. As the village comes into view, above the houses on the opposite hill, the earthworks of an old, possible medieval, farmstead come into view.

Medieval farmstead earthworks visible above Charminster ahead.

Continue to head down the hill and straight over the main road. Cross over the River Cerne, for the first time, with the farmstead earthworks on your left and then follow the track around to the right, walking parallel to the river along Mill Lane. Divert slightly around Princes Plot, where there is a little information board all about the village history of Charminster. Continue to follow Mill Lane and at the junction turn right to head back down to the river. Cross over the Cerne for the second time and into the church graveyard.

Following the River Cerne along Mill Lane

Turn left at the road and walk up the hill, for only 40m or so. Take the footpath on your right, just after the driveway, following a cob and flint wall. Cross straight over the driveway to Wolfeton House and through a gate opposite.

In the field on your right, the bumpy ground is obvious, these are more remains of a mediaeval settlement, or possibly earlier, now deserted. Beyond the field sits the old riding ‘house’ of Wolfeton Manor. It is likely to be one of the oldest surviving riding houses in the country, possibly the oldest in the world. A riding house was a sort of indoor manège for the training of both horses and riders but this one has for centuries been used as a barn. Its mullioned windows are its biggest giveaway to its important past but, although rather shabby, it is now in the care of a trust that has been carrying out renovations, so its future is bright.

The medieval earthworks in the foreground and the oldest ‘riding house’ in the world behind.

Hidden in the trees to the left of the riding house is Wolfeton Manor. During winter months you may be blessed with a better view, but even then the trees help keep it a secret. The gate house is slightly more visible, clearly represented by its dominating turreted towers. They are the oldest part of the overall house, with a real castle-like appearance. At the base of one of the towers is a tiny chapel, still in use, which gives a little magic to the building.

A peek of the gatehouse towers through the trees.

Wolfeton Manor itself is an early Tudor and Elizabethan manor placed within the water-meadows of the rivers Frome and Cerne. The oldest part of the building dates back to about 1480 but settlement here could also have been linked with the Romans, or even earlier (evidence of the Roman occupation and hillfort presence supports this). The house has been the country seat of several families, including the Mohuns and Trenchards. The current building is a relic, built by the Trenchard family who were one of the most prominent families in Dorset during the 16th century. They brought the building up into the fashionable standards of the time. Apart from a few particular improvements, including intricate woodwork and an impressive stone staircase, little has changed since. The house was not loved again as much for many years and often fell into disrepair, bodge jobs only called upon to make money or save money.

Albert Bankes, a younger son of the Kingston Lacy Bankes and owner of the house, died in 1913, but his widow, Florence, lived on at Wolfeton until 1947, attended by the butler, Herbert, who had been at Wolfeton since he was five. Family legend has it that during the War, he was serving Mrs Bankes dinner when an incendiary bomb bounced from the lawn right through the window. Herbert calmly put down the food, picked up the bomb and threw it back from where it came, at which point it exploded!

The house was eventually saved by Nigel Thimbleby who has a distant connection with the Trenchards. He moved into the main house and started his life’s work in bringing it back to what it deserves to be. Currently the family are dealing with a possible dramatic change to the house and its landscape with the threat of a large development nearby. As you walk through the grounds, you find many signs informing you of this impending doom. If the signs have gone, you may either be walking through empty fields or walking past a new estate.

A field, but for how much longer…

Leave the earthworks behind and enter into the next field, skirting the potential development site on your left. On your right, in the valley, is the river Frome and its water meadows. High above, on the opposite hill is Poundbury Hillfort, its ramparts rising above the ridge like a wrinkled brow. Follow the line of trees ahead, down to another boundary and to a small Wessex Water building. Cut straight across the next field to join onto the main road.

Poundbury Hillfort on the opposite hill, marked clearly by its rectangular ramparts.

Cross over the road and turn right onto the pavement, passing the Sun Inn on your left. Take the small footpath that forks from the road, safely away from traffic. Cross over the River Frome twice, admiring the older bridges the road uses from the side. Turn left when you approach the road to keep the river on your right. Pass through a hedge and turn right to head back towards Dorchester. Cross straight over the river passing John’s Pond on your left. This is an old irrigation well associated with the flood plains. Dorchester gaol, that was not far from here, had an amazing record for preventing any prisoners escaping. However, one did, a gentleman (or rebel) named John, who managed to circumnavigate the old water works of the gaol to escape into the night. However, this irrigation well was camouflaged in the darkness leading to a slight misstep from him and his ultimate drowning. Now his memory lives on at this little pool, and in the cover of darkness, the rattle of chains can sometime be heard!

Continuing with a criminal theme, on your right is Hangman’s Cottage. It is said that the hangman who carried out the sentences for the bloody assizes lived here. There is also legend that a tunnel ran from the cottage to the gaol, which could very rightly be true, as Dorchester is home to a large underground tunnel system, dating back to the 17th century and earlier.

The Hangman’s Cottage

From Hangman’s Cottage, turn right and make your way up to the wall on your left. Shortly a small gate allows you access through the wall to the Roman Town House. Dorchester is rife with Roman history and this town house was found when excavations occurred in the 1930s. A number of houses and other associated buildings were discovered, but this was the best example. Its walls, underfloor heating system and floor mosaic are still in excellent condition, despite their age.

The Roman Town House

From the town house head out towards the main road and make your way up the hill, through the avenue of trees. Just before the roundabout, you meet Thomas Hardy, forever watching the traffic come in and out of his own home town. His statue was erected in 1931, three years after his death, to celebrate his life and love for Dorchester.

Thomas Hardy Statue

Continue straight ahead and cross over the road. Just ahead and on your left are the only remains of the old Roman wall that once protected Dunovaria. Now merged into another, much younger wall and guarded by some small green railings, it’s easy to go unnoticed. A precious little treasure from the Romans, that doesn’t, for once, come from underground!

The Roman Wall

Turn around to head back to the roundabout and cross over to the left. On the next road cross over again to then take the next right hand road that runs past the Keep. Built around 1880, it was once part of a military barracks. Now, although some military presence remains, the Keep is now a military museum.

The Keep

Continue to follow the road through the industrial estate and over the railway line. Make your way up the hill and when you approach the top, after the final houses, take the gate on your right onto Poundbury Hillfort.

Poundbury Hill fort is a site dating from the Middle Bronze Age. It’s raised Iron Age ramparts are roughly rectangular, covering an area of 13½ acres. It is likely that it was designed to command views over the River Frome and the valley to the north.

Just outside the fort was a large Romano-British cemetery. The majority of burials date to the late Roman era of the 4th century AD, although the cemetery was in use from the Neolithic times to the Middle Ages. Some of the Roman burials were found decapitated with their heads by their feet!

Poundbury Hillfort, looking East
Photo credit Jo and Sue Crane 2016 via @Durotrigesdig
The River Frome wetlands from Poundbury Hillfort

The northern and eastern sides of the hillfort’s outer defences were damaged by the construction of the aqueduct. The Romans liked to demonstrate their power over so many older earthworks. This is clearly demonstrated around the county especially along Ackling Dike. Nothing gets in their way! Although a great deal of damage has occurred, it is quite clear that with the location and size of Poundbury (and nearby Maiden Castle), the activity discovered plus the fact that it is such fertile land surrounded by river plains, we can conclude that it must have been densely occupied and a crucially important area when the Romans arrived. Maiden Castle, Poundbury and Dunovaria all living together, in conflict and peace. Ancient beliefs, mud huts and monoliths clashing with underfloor heating, wine and spa baths. The short amount of time that all of this occurred is shocking too. It must have been an active and discombobulating landscape!

The main Dorchester to Yeovil railway line (now called the Heart of Wessex Line) was tunnelled beneath the hill fort, thereby minimising damage to the hillfort. Through the eyes of an engineer, rather than conservationist, Isambard Kingdom Brunel wanted to put the tracks in a cutting through the site, but local outrage at the plan meant that the more expensive tunnel was chosen. The protest against the Poundbury cutting plan also led to the formation of The Dorset Archaeological Society, helping to conserve what we see today.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s disgruntled tunnel.

Make your way around the ramparts, keeping your eyes peeled for the railway disappearing under your feet and the remains of the aqueduct. To leave, take the exit at the top western comer to come out opposite Poundbury cemetery, appropriately styled with the Romans in mind!

Take the path on the left hand side of the buildings to return to Poundbury. Here you have a choice. Either stick to the curving path to join the road, turn right and it leads you straight back to Queen Mothers Square, or, have an adventure through Poundbury itself. Zigzagging your way through the buildings can become quite confusing, but occasionally getting a glimpse of the cupolas, rising from your final destination, helps to guide you back to the square. Nevertheless, the route you take is up to you!

Shortly the 3m statue of the Queen Mother in the middle of the square, unveiled by Prince Charles in 2016, comes into view, welcoming you back to the Duchess of Cornwall Inn.

Walk Excerpts