Distance: 3.5 miles/5.7km
Duration: 2 hours
Terrain: Path, track and field.
Total Climb: 750ft
Max Height: 850ft
Min Height: 420ft
Map: OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis
Start Point: Folly (Postcode: DT2 7RN, Grid reference: ST728032, What Three Words: vibrating.paintings.reinvest.)
How to Get There: From Dorchester head north on the top Sherborne Road, passing The Sun Inn. Continue for 6 miles and then turn left towards Piddletrenthide. When in the village, turn left and then right shortly after, signposted for Plush. Drive straight through Plush and continue for another 2 miles or so. The Folly is marked by a white house on the left with the crossroads of the Wessex Ridgeway. Two large lay-bys are on either side of the road, just after the house.
Dogs: In accordance with the Countryside Code and any notices on route.
On the edge of the Blackmore Vale the chalk hills rise above the valleys, creating the natural bowl of Lyscombe Bottom. The steeper hills rise to the north, curving around the bowl southwards, in a horseshoe shape. The small river, created by the water caught in the bowl, flows down leaving though a narrow funnel between the slopes, hiding this scooping landscape even more. Placed almost in the heart of Dorset, it is some distance away from the activity of towns and main roads, the only access by foot. This can create an empty landscape with only the small farmstead surrounded by wide open fields, scattered oak trees and pockets of woodland. The name alone supports the isolation translating to ‘Lost valley’. Lysc – Lisc- also translates to ‘reeds’ which can still be found in the lowest, marshy parts of the bowl, by the river.
The landscape has made arable farming difficult and therefore is often left to pasture or maintained by sheep. The introduction of artificial fertilisers widens the use for arable farming in the more modern day environment; however, sheep still dominate the scene.
The area is rich with archaeology. At the top of the hill sits the Iron Age hillfort of Nettlecombe Tout. Surrounding the spurs are a number of cross dikes and tumuli. Also, to the east, is the Dorsetshire Gap, an ancient junction of five medieval routes. None of these are in use by modern traffic, but cutting right through the centre is the Wessex Ridgeway. The Wessex Ridgeway is a combination of roads and tracks that slice from east to west, across Dorset. It is very likely that this route was utilised in many different periods.
From the road, walk east up the hill, following the Wessex Ridgeway. This route is the western exit from the Dorsetshire Gap. It must have been an important path for our ancestors to carry wares and move their stock, providing access through the high chalk hills. The fact that the house and farm, at Folly, are both at right angles to the road can suggest that they were once copying the main flow of ancient traffic.
As you gain height, turn right to follow a bridleway cutting across the hill southwards. As you climb the small valley to the south comes into view. The stream below continues to flow through the small village of Plush to then meet the River Piddle in Piddletrenthide. On your right is Ball Hill, some of its fields marked with ancient agricultural systems, and behind, between the rising spurs, is the Blackmore Vale. The narrow path takes you up the hill gently, passing small pockets of coppiced trees and gorse. As you reach the top, the trees die away and you meet the first of the ancient cross dikes. These dikes are possibly associated with the Nettlecombe Hillfort, currently behind you.
Nettlecombe Tout sits on the northern edge of Lyscombe Hill, at its highest point. On the north and western sides are steep slopes, creating a natural defence or boundary. To the east is the Gap and to the south, the hill splits into two spurs as it circles Lyscombe Bottom. The cross dikes you meet here are those defending or protecting the western spur. In total, 9 of these cross dikes are visible, all of which are constructed to take full advantage of the topography. It is claimed that Nettlecombe Tout was either unfinished or destroyed; I believe it is the latter due to the presence of so many associated cross dikes. Only one dike has been excavated, in 1957, and evidence of Bronze Age and Iron Age activity was discovered. The cross dikes themselves are unlikely to have been defensive but a method to control their livestock. They are clear in the landscape and hard to miss with a raised bank and ditch, some more prominent than others. As you continue to follow the path up the hill, you pass the second dike. The image below shows how these dikes took advantage of the topography, as each spur is protected by a number of dikes as the gradient lowers, a wonderful natural method of controlling the landscape by our ancestors.
Aim for the trees where a gate and signpost are silhouetted against the sky. When you reach the gate you are at the top of the western spur. You leave behind the far reaching views to the west, and step into the valley of the bowl, the hills drop dramatically, while the trees and slopes circle around.
Turn right and keep reasonably close to the trees. Head straight though the field, slowly losing height. On your left you can see straight over the bowl and towards the eastern spur. On the slopes you can make out a huge number of earthworks, mainly old field patterns creating small rectangular shapes in the ground. Above the earthworks, peeking over the top of the hill, is the large country estate of Highdon House (built in 2004).
Head to the right hand corner of the field, bordered by another cross dike. As you pass you can see that the trees have added themselves to the banks making the lumps and bumps of these boundaries even more solid. Join onto a track and pass a mast and the piggery to your right. When you meet some trees, fork left to cut diagonally through the field (or circle the boundary if there are crops present and no clear path). At the trees, you cut through your final cross dike of the western flank. Head through the left hand metal gate and then cut straight down to the farm below. The small chapel, with its new thatched roof, can be seen in the valley on your left. Continue down the hill towards Lyscombe Farm, exiting the field over a smart new stile and onto the county road. Turn left to make your way through the small hamlet.
The name Lyscombe is recorded from Saxon times and occupation can be assumed to have been throughout the medieval period and then either undeveloped or shrunk. Lyscombe was sold off in 1880 and the sale map shows only three buildings in the hamlet: a late medieval barn, a cottage and a chapel. Later buildings were developed in the 19th century including the farmhouse and surrounding barns, using some of the flint wall remains from the old barn in their construction. Up until the Second World War the barn was in reasonable condition, still preserving its original 16th century roof, it was very well built, with good stone and fine flint work but only parts of the walls survive today.
Walk on, past the red brick barn and around the corner to the right. You are then met with a pretty view. Ahead the small stream disappears up the valley, through the woods and towards the fatter part of the bowl, interrupted only by the small pool for sheep washing. To your right sit the remnants of the hamlet. Cross over the small stream, passing some remains of the walls of the old barn, arriving at the ruins for an explore.
There are only two buildings – the ruined cottage and the restored tiny chapel. These two ancient buildings were still whole, thatched and partly in use in the 19th century, but the 20th century was tough for them. Both Lyscombe Chapel and cottage (sometimes called Priest’s House) fell into a ruinous state.
The cottage is little more than walls but, on closer investigation, it still has small stone staircases, fireplaces, (even with the old iron fire grate), mullion windows, a bread oven (and its door) and stone flooring. It can only be imagined what feet have trodden on these stones before us. It dates from the 16th to 17th century and it couldn’t have been alone all its life. Where the rest of the village lies is a mystery, although hidden further downstream, glanced over the brick walls, are further lumps and bumps that could answer this question.
The chapel is an excellent example of how churches were once constructed: a very simple design with a few small windows. The chapel is medieval in origin and has a Norman chancel arch. It was common for churches to start off like this little chapel, without a tower, no aisles, and on a small scale. Nearly all others have been enlarged and improved but Lyscombe has not. The next closest church is Cheselborne, two miles away, which is where the villagers most probably went for larger services and burials. The land once belonged to Milton Abbey and passed to Sir John Tregonwell in the 16th Century. Efforts were made to protect the chapel in the 1950’s, but the roof collapsed in the 1990s. In 2007 the chapel was completely restored with a new thatched roof and work was also carried out inside. The chapel has been simply repaired using the traditional trades with the support of a grant from DEFRA. The restoration received the RIBA Wessex & South West Town & Country Design Award 2006 and the Civic Trust Award 2007. Lyscombe is a real treasure as it is a rare survival of an isolated hamlet.
From the ruins, keeping the river on your left, walk on through the fields, slowly gaining height. The first of the boundaries to pass through can be seen as a small gate higher up the field. The geography of Lyscombe Bottom becomes more apparent as you climb. On the hill to your left, you can make out the path you took to reach the hamlet; the lines of trees are the clearest indication, where you met the silhouetted signpost. The southern face of the bowl rises ahead; the higher it climbs the more trees dominate. Deep in the bowl are the fields perfectly protected by the surrounding spurs. Head through the hazel wood to reach the next farm gate, walk on through and then begin a steep climb up Hog Hill.
Earthworks again begin to rise, much more than suggested on the OS map, but clear on Lidar. The Iron Age/Romano British farmstead of Hog hill covers this large area, and the views you had from the western side prove this. The settlement is a non-defensive farm or homestead but possibly quite late in the period as it uses rectangular shapes, superseding the older circular methods of settlement. It has never been excavated but will undoubtedly be hiding archaeological and environmental evidence relating to its development, social organisation, agricultural practices, domestic arrangements and overall landscape context. So much to discover and learn! Fragments of Romano British storage jars, tiles, a piece of tegula and large flints have been discovered already, but as chance finds, so double check those mole hills!
Once you have clambered though the lumps and bumps of the settlement you reach the top of the eastern spur of Lyscombe Bottom. Ahead, in the next valley, is Melcombe Horsey, another area rich with earthworks, also visible from where you stand. Further in the distance, but rising high is Bulbarrow Hill, clearly marked with the communication masts. Rawlsbury Camp, another Iron Age hillfort, sits on the left hand spur of Bulbarrow, nice and handy to send smoke signals, or any other methods of communication, to their neighbours at Nettlecombe! Turn left, keeping the trees on your right. Continue straight ahead, following the ridge, crossing over two more of the dikes, both ditches and banks unmissable.
After passing the second dike, coloured in by bushes of heather and gorse, head straight across the field to the next gate. The views here are tremendous. Looking north (to your right) on the hill in the distance you can make out King Alfred’s tower, its peak rising above the surrounding trees – all the way in Wiltshire. To the South West, (your left) on the horizon is Hardy’s monument, beyond that, the sea. Between these two landmarks stands you, looking across southern England; 12 miles to Hardy’s monument and a further 20 miles to King Alfred’s tower. Here, in this location, there are no buildings, no roads, no traffic and, quite likely, no people – rising above the world in peace. Whereas, down there, the hustle and bustle of life, for tens of thousands, continues.
Walk straight on in the next field to be greeted by a small brick structure. Here, turn 90 degrees to your left and head to the next boundary. On your right is Nettlecombe Tout, its visibility depending on season. However, the bank, once again, is undeniable and surprisingly large. It can be assumed that the other side of the earthwork would have been the main concentration of settlement and, where we are now, incorporating the dikes, would have been the farmland. The hillfort has never been excavated, so who knows what secrets it is hiding?
On meeting the boundary, turn right, through a gate to join a small path, passing the top edge of Lyscombe Bottom on your left. As you descend, the earthworks of Nettlecombe Tout grow on your right, providing you with a different perspective of the area, the banks of which clearly are using the natural topography. Turn left when you meet a track, glimpse the last view of Nettlecombe’s earthworks ahead, and follow it back down the hill to return to Folly and your vehicle.