Anderson and Combs Ditch

Begin at a unique church with original aged oak beams, saved by the spirit of Thomas Hardy and described by Prince Charles as exquisite. Pass the 17th century Manor House, now growing old, its formal landscape fading back to nature. The house was a home for freshly captured German soldiers in WW2, still wearing pyjamas. Climb the hill to meet a Roman Road to then follow the footsteps of the soldiers. Appreciate views stretching over South East Dorset from the chalk tracks and discover the ancient earthworks of Combs Ditch. Follow its path and cut though its mighty rampart to views over North East Dorset. Wander through thick ancient woodland and through chalky fields to return to the Roman road and the valley of the little Winterborne stream.

Distance:  7 miles/11 km

Duration: 3-4 hours

Ability: Easy

Terrain: Path, track and field.

Total Climb: 320ft

Max Height: 434ft

Min Height: 153ft

Map: OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis

Start Point: St Andrew’s Church, Winterborne Tomson (Postcode DT11 9EZ, Grid reference: SY883973, What Three Words: piled.dustbin.wider.)

How to Get There:  From Dorchester, take the A35 to Bere Regis. At the roundabout, take the first exit onto the A31.  After about 2.5 miles, turn left onto Marsh Lane, signposted for Anderson. Follow the road down the hill and turn right just before the bend, following the signpost to the historic church. Park on the right, just at the entrance to the private road.

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

Refreshments: None on route but nearby are The Botany Bay Inne, Winterborne Zelston or The Worlds End, Almer.

Anderson, Winterborne Tomson and Winterborne Muston are little more than hamlets sitting on the river Winterborne, which usually dries up in summer, hence the name. From the parking space, make your way up the private road to St Andrews Church. Although diverting from the main route, it is worth the extra wander. St Andrews is a unique little chapel with its round design and waggon-like roof. It dates from the 12th century, having had a number of sight alterations over time. As you approach the building through the graveyard, you pass an old Norman window that has been filled in and enter the church via an 18th century oak door. Inside timber ribs curve around the apse, decorated with 16th century oak bosses at the rib intersections. Oak box pews site either side of the flagstone floor and a rather sensitive looking gallery still magically defies gravity above the door. It all echoes history, ingrained within the surrounding wood and white walls. In 1929 the church was in a state of disrepair. However, it was, apparently, one of Thomas Hardy’s favourites, although it was never referred to in any of his books. The favouritism continued after his death by a number of his manuscripts being sold and the money raised was used for its renovation. Prince Charles described the church, after a visit in the 1980s, as ‘exquisite’ and ‘worth a drive for hours just to be there’. The drive possibly impacting his day more than the church!

St Andrew’s Church

From the church, retrace your steps to your vehicle and then out onto the road. Turn right and follow it around the bend. Anderson, sometimes known as Winterborne Anderson or Winterborne Fife-Ash, is nothing more than an old manor house, a small farm and a hidden church. The village has vanished so the manor house and the church are left isolated on either side of the river. Passing the main entrance, no longer used, to Anderson House on your right, you can appreciate the fact that its well tendered landscape is now not quite so manicured, although this adds to its charm. Facing the house, the avenue of horse chestnut, pine, walnut and sycamore trees still hold fast, leading down to the house and the entrance, marked with stone pillars and a rustic iron gate. Behind you, on the other side of the road, the avenue continues to meet the A31 to the south west, the formal trees slowly merging into the surrounding landscape.

The manor, at the time of the Domesday Book, was held by William de Schohles (Stokes) and then by the Turberville family, the name made famous through Hardy’s literature. In 1450 it was bought by the Moreton family and was acquired by John Tregonwell of Milton Abbey from Sir George Morton in 1620. The construction of the house that stands today began in the 1590s by Sir George with John Tregonwell finishing the job. It is partly Elizabethan with many features of the house confirming this; for example, it appears to be planned on the ‘E’ principle. Two years after the purchase it was complete, bearing the date of 1622 on rainwater heads on the south-east façade. It has high gables and towering chimneys, which are the clearest things to be seen over the surrounding stones walls and towering trees.

John Tregonwell retired here in 1624 when his elder son married and assumed control of the families Milton estate. In 1761, Anderson Manor became a tenanted farm but remained in the Tregonwell family until 1909, when private photos show it to be in disrepair, shrouded in ivy and with a well overgrown garden design. The new owner, Mrs Gordon Gratrix, undertook an extensive scheme of repair and restoration to both the house and garden. She put a huge amount of work into the grounds, reviving the framework of the 17th century design but to 20th century capability. Many small decorative brick buildings were also resurrected, built into the garden walls, some of which occasionally appear through the trees. In July 1913, the property was again sold this time by her own son, him claiming that she had gone crazy. All the house contents were sold off and the bespoke furniture, and Tregonwell artefacts, were taken from the house.

During the Second World War Anderson House was requisitioned and used as a training centre for Special Operations who specialised in night time raids across the Channel. Their role was to snatch prisoners for interrogation, to investigate enemy installations and, on one occasion, to capture and bring back to England the entire German crew of the Casquets lighthouse on the Channel Islands, while leaving no trace. It was known as operation Dryad. Despite the prisoners being brought back to the house, wearing pyjamas, the success of the mission was debatable.

Today the house is still in private ownership. The owners having to, for the third time, resurrect the 17th century garden design, but this time using the 1910 blueprint. Over the past 40 years they have successfully carried out this mission and the gardens are occasionally open under the National Garden Scheme.

St Michael’s Church
An18th Century sketch of The church and Manor

Continue along the road, passing a few cottages, to then take the next right. Follow the little lane to arrive at St Michael’s Church. This medieval church became redundant in 1968 and is now part of the manor estate. Originally 12th-century, it was restored in 1889. On the west gable is a notable feature – a twin bell-cot, inside of which still remain the old bells. The graveyard is slightly shabby and overgrown, graves and headstones appear behind bushes and dark holes lead underground. Sadly most of the stones are now illegible. However, just like the Manor House drive, its shabbiness adds to its charm. At the back of the church, you can also glimpse the Manor House, with a smart stone bridge guiding visitors over the Winterborne having arrived via the drive and passed through the iron gates.

From the church, make your way back out onto the little lane and turn right. Walk through the farm buildings and around the back of the Manor House to join a chalk track taking you up the hill, not to be distracted by footpaths taking you into fields. Walk on up the hill for just under half a mile to then meet the Roman Road, the crossroads of bridleways marking the spot. There are very little clues in the landscape to provide evidence of the long gone Roman road other than the remaining hedge boundaries and a few straight tracks.’ It was once one of the most important Roman routes through the county, joining Dorchester (Dunovaria) and Badbury Rings (Vindocladia). Turn right, and enter into a field, keeping the hedge on your right, following the footsteps of the Roman soldiers.

The Roman Road (Ackling dike) traveling west
The Roman Road (Ackling Dike) traveling east

Away from the village and having gained some height it is easy to appreciate the chalk landscape that surrounds you. The large open fields fill the landscape with different coloured crops while peppered with trees. The sky is wide and the views stretch far and, to your slight right the tip of Charlborough tower is visible on the horizon, peeking out of the trees. It is part of Charlborough Estate, the country seat owned by Richard Drax, the Conservative MP for South Dorset. As you continue though the field, the large woodland appears ahead marking the location of Combs Ditch.

Eventually the path diverts away from the Roman road and becomes narrow and cocooned by trees. This junction occurs at a metal gate. Cross over the track and onto the footpath. It is easy to imagine the tribes, who were strongly defending South West England from the invading Saxons, using this route to access Combs Ditch ahead. Meanwhile the Roman Road slinks away on your right, only marked by the field boundary.

The brow of Combs Ditch

At the next crossroads of tracks turn left to Great Coll Wood. Depending on the time of year, the woodland may be carpeted in bluebells, while the oaks give way to taller spruce trees and occasionally animal tracks cut across the footpath. Keep following the edge of the wood until you finally meet Combs Ditch. When the footpath turns to the left, the ditch can be clearly seen on your right. It is incredibly overgrown and its full magnitude is hard to picture, however, hidden so deep in woodland, it can’t help but create a sense of mystery. Plus who knows what other secrets lie hidden in this woodland.

The ditch of Combs Ditch

The ditch is a linear earthwork and covers a distance of 2.75 miles, although it is thought that it once stretched much further. It is constructed out of a single rampart and ditch, defending the South West against oncoming advances from the North East. Today it is completely overgrown, sunk into the landscape and destabilised by vegetation, erosion and rabbit tunnels, however it is still an impressive relic and must have once been an impressive and strong line of defence. Its history is relatively unknown; it appears to be prehistoric in origin, beginning its life as nothing more than a boundary. Limited excavation carried out in 1965 produced evidence that suggests use right through the Iron Age, through the Roman period and into the Anglo Saxons, becoming a substantial defensive monument.

The full length of today’s Combs Ditch

From the mid-5th century, the Saxons arrived and three Dorset north-facing defensive earthworks played an important role. Approaching from the North East across land, the invaders would have been faced with Bokerley Ditch first, a defensive earthwork over three miles long on Cranborne Chase in north-east Dorset. The origins of the Ditch are just as obscure and similar as Combs Ditch; possibly originating from the Bronze Age as a boundary marker, still defining the Dorset boundary today. However, once the Saxons broke through and continued South West they were then faced with Combs Ditch. Both these defences were successful to a certain extent, the Anglo Saxon influence being much more strongly felt to the eastern side of the country, meaning little Combs Ditch and Bokerley Ditch have had a huge impact on how our landscape developed as a country. The third Dorset defence, used when the Saxons attacked by sea, is west of the Saxon town of Wareham along a ridge between the rivers Frome and Piddle. The adaptive reuse of Combs Ditch, over a considerable period of time, does make this isolated landscape anomaly a special place. The surrounding woodland and wide open views also add to its magic.

When you reach the end of Great Coll Wood, turn right to cross over the ditch. On your right you can appreciate the sink and rise of the dich and rampart as it meets the track. Continue straight ahead, into the next field, possibly filled with pigs to keep you company. Turn left, heading to the wood ahead. At the end of the field, turn right and keep your eyes peeled for the gap in the hedge to enter into Little Coll Wood. Continue straight through the woods and at the next junction, turn right to then be led back out again to wide open skies.

The views are expansive. Below you is Gorcombe Farm a good example of 21st century diversification; solar farms, piggeries and adventure centre, quad bike paths marked in the fields below. On the horizon, the high point of Win Green, marked by a clump of trees, can be seen, marking the Dorset boundary with Wiltshire; neighbouring to the highest village in Dorset – Ashmore. For the keen eyed, you can even make out Hambledon Hill, slightly off to the left, hidden slightly by the wooded hill in between. The small town of Blandford Forum is nestled in the centre of the view.

The view across North East Dorset

Turn left following the edge of the forest to then curve around to the left again, bringing you back to Combs Ditch. As you approach, the linear earthwork is clearly marked by its heavy vegetation as it continues down the hill to your right.

Walking back to Combs Ditch

Cross over the Ditch for the second time and continue straight ahead. Bere Wood is ahead, sitting on the hill opposite, marking the start of Wareham Forest. The A31 runs along its boundary, the glinting cars drawing the attention of the eyes.

Follow the track down the hill and through the first boundary. Turn right and on meeting the next boundary turn left. Pass through the next hedge, but turn right down and round to the left following a narrow path, cocooned by the trees. When you reach a barn the path turns into a chalk track and the trees drop away.

On arriving at the farm buildings, you meet the Roman road again. Turn right but then shortly after divert off to the left to enter into Winterborne Muston.

Cross over the Winterborne River and up the small hill to meet the road. Turn left, heading back to Anderson. The newer buildings, on the opposite side of the road to the manor house, clearly demonstrate modern development occurring in the village. However, on the opposite side of the road is a field that contains numerous lumps and bumps. Lidar information provides us with a clearer view, the site possibly being the location of the old Anderson village, lying undisturbed, waiting to one day to reveal its secrets.

Village earthworks
Lidar information covering the village earthworks

Continue along the road, passing the road to the church and manor house on your left and retrace your footsteps back to your vehicle.

Walk excerpts

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