Explore the chalk ridgeway north of Dorchester, passing small settlements and climbing ancient earthworks. Discover an isolated tower, fitted with its own bell. Placed here in memory of a farming family and in celebration of farming methods, benefiting the countryside. Climb back up the slopes to an ancient crossroads marked with a stone cross and with tales of hangings. Clamber the earthworks of Grimstone Down before descending the hill, following the Roman road and jumping the railway tracks to return to Stratton.
Distance: 7miles/11.5km (with Forcey’s Tower), 4.5miles/7km (just Grimstone Down)
Duration: 3.5 hours
Terrain: Path, track and field.
Total Climb: 439ft
Max Height: 640ft
Min Height: 246ft
Map: OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis
Start Point: The Square, Stratton (Postcode: DT2 9WG, Grid reference: SY650937, What Three Words: spearhead.indoor.unlucky.)
How to Get There: From Dorchester, take the B3147 north, leading to the A37, out of town. After about 2 miles, turn left onto Dorchester Road and into Stratton. After the church, take the next left, leading to parking at The Square and the Saxon Arms.
Dogs: In accordance with the Countryside Code and any notices on route.
Refreshments: The Saxon Arms in Stratton
The small village of Stratton has developed around the old Roman road that once stretched between Dunovaria (Dorchester) to Lindinis (Ilchester). The village name translates to ‘Farm on the Street’. The same road was used for generations until, in 1967, the bypass was built. This development also meant the demolition of the old school that sat on the western edge of the village.
Starting by The Saxon Arms, head back out onto the village road. Turn right to pass the war memorial, which remembers a total of 13 men from the village who died in the two World Wars. The Church of Saint Mary, behind the memorial and hard to miss, dates back to the 14th to 15th century. It also contains a unique enclosed oak staircase in the 16th-century five-sided tower. St Mary’s parish is part of the United Benefice of Bradford Peverell, Stratton, Frampton and Sydling St. Nicholas, known unofficially as the “Chalk Stream Churches”, all placed within the valley of the River Frome and its tributaries.
Continue to walk through the village and when you approach the old Methodist chapel, take the left hand footpath that runs along its side. This brings you directly out onto the main A37. Cross straight over and over the next stile to meet the railway. Again, take care when crossing and join onto a track on the other side. Turn right and follow the track to the barns, passing a number of bridges for the use of farm traffic on your right. When you pass the final barn, turn left, keeping the small fence boundary on your right. Curve around the next hedge to turn right again and remain on the track, eventually turning 90 degrees to the left and slowly gaining height.
Pass a barn on your left and drop down briefly to climb back up again meeting two gates. Continue straight on through and then fork slightly left across the next field. The line of trees ahead marks the top of the ridgeway, signalling that the end of the climb is near.
When you reach the top, the skies grow and the valleys drop. To your right, and on the opposite side of the hill is Charlton Down, or what was formally known as Herrison Hospital. Down in the valley is the small hamlet of Forston.
Forston was home to the first Dorset County Asylum. It was founded in 1827 for 60 pauper and private patients, through the generosity of Francis John Browne, last of a line of a wealthy, influential and political Dorset family. Forston House was built around 1720 and was where the asylum was based. As the need for this care increased, pressure was put onto Forston House and it was decided to build a new hospital at Herrison, just across the River Cerne. Charminster Asylum (later Herrison Hospital) opened in 1863. Gradually Herrison Hospital became the sole asylum complex and Forston House became obsolete. However, the building has survived and has been developed into a private dwelling. Glimpses of the building are possible to your right, down in the valley, although a little season-dependent
Herrison Hospital closed in 1992 and remained vacant for some time before being sold for redevelopment as a residential complex. The main buildings and the landscape around are now another ‘Poundbury-esque’ development. The more modern Forston Clinic (the name a nod to its history), just to the north of Charlton Down, continues to help patients.
Continue to follow the field boundary, keeping it tight to your right. Pass a reservoir and duck around a barn. At the next boundary, again marked by trees, turn left to clamber over a linear earthwork. Follow the hedge on your left, cutting though a collection of trees to finally meet the woodland at the top of the hill. Here you have a choice, to continue through the gate to reach Jackman’s Cross or to extend your walk by a couple of miles to reach Forcey’s Tower. To reach the tower, turn right before entering into the woodland. Down in the valley on your right is Godmanstone, the small hamlet adding the only unnatural colour to the environment. Pass a barn and a communications mast on your left and continue straight ahead, passing an elegant line of trees, to meet the next track. Turn right and follow the ridge of Crete Hill.
Here the slopes drop down either side of you. To your right is the valley of the River Cerne, having already flowed passed the watchful eyes of the giant. To the left is the valley of the River Sydling. Both of which meet the Frome, either side of Stratton, travelling on through Dorchester and towards Poole Harbour.
As you continue along the ridge the circular white water tower marking Wardon Hill on the A37 is visible on the horizon to the North West. Below is another road, highlighted by the larger colourful lorries and cars that catch the sun. When the track comes to an end, continue along the top of the field, but when you pass a small trough, turn left down the hill to meet a gate and signpost. This then takes you out onto a track, guiding you down the hill to Crete Bottom.
This valley seems isolated from any activity other than agriculture. There are a few tracks and scattered isolated barns all cushioned in deep soft valleys. The curving hillsides dominate the scene, capped with the wide sky. As you descend, you can make out a small barn at the bottom. Then, focusing on the detail, you get your first view of Forcey’s Tower.
At the bottom of the hill, turn left and head straight to the tower. It is a simple design, not too imposing to distract from the rest of the landscape, but big enough to be impressed by once you are standing next to it. A small thin entrance and exit split the tower with small seats in the centre and the bell high above. The tower is named after the Forcey family who once farmed Bushes Bottom Farm, now nothing more than the barn. It marks the centenary of their leaving in 1914. But it is also a monument to mark the transition of farming practices to a more sustainable way of working and living in order to preserve and protect the native flora and fauna of the area. It was commissioned by the Cape Farewell Trust and developed by the Dorset based artist Guy Martin.
From the tower, follow the valley to the south. The track takes you gently through the chalk spurs and when it turns left up the hill, walk through the gate on the right hand side. When you meet a barn on your right, fork left to cross the field to meet another boundary. Make your way through the two gates, hidden amongst the trees, to come out into another field. The A37 reminds you of its presence as the sound of traffic starts to grow. Stick to the bottom boundary and then follow the track as it turns uphill. Grimstone Down comes into view ahead, its ground full of lumps and bumps and scattered with gorse bushes. This is probably the steepest part of the walk, but its short and you are greeted at the top by the stone cross marking the junction of Jackman’s Cross.
Crossroads are notoriously associated with crime, murder and even the devil. This junction certainly has the vibe; miles from anywhere, in the company of ancient barrows and earthworks while shadowed by forest. However, the views balance out any negativity, stretching out towards the west over the Sydling valley and the further higher hills rising above the Frome valley. The legend that accompanies the spot is that a man named Jackman was hung on the original cross early in the 18th century for sheep stealing. All that remains of the original cross is the small square base. The present day Cross was commissioned by Christopher Pope (1937-2004), great-grandson of Alfred Pope (from the Dorchester brewery fame). It is made from local Jurassic limestone and created by Andrew Grassby, from Grimstone, using traditional methods – bronze chisels struck with a small boulder, covered in leather, to shape the monument.
Facing the cross, turn to the right and follow the edge of the woodland. It is all downhill now, back to the village of Stratton. Ahead, Hardy’s Monument sits on the horizon with a number of pylons keeping it company. However, the pylons are in the process of disappearing, to be buried underground! Soon you enter onto the very different landscape of Grimstone Down. The lumps and bumps are obvious but their history, less so. The area consists of a number of Celtic field systems, hollowed tracks and small enclosures as well as six bowl barrows, all stretching over 100 acres.
Excavation for a reservoir on Grimstone Down, as well as maintenance of the structure, has produced Iron Age pottery sherds, an ancient trackway and late Romano-British pottery. A medieval monastic road from Abbotsbury to Cerne apparently crosses the eastern part of the field system and is known locally as the ‘Abbot’s Way’.
Pass the reservoir on your left and follow the track down the hill. When you reach the farm, turn left to join onto the Roman road to take you back into Stratton. When the road turns to the left, climb the stile on your right. Descend the steps to reach the railway and cross over for the second time. Cross over the A37 to being you straight back into Stratton. The square is on your right hand side, across the village green.