In the north east corner of Dorset sits the ancient landscape of Cranborne Chase. High on its chalk hills, wander through the spiritual environment crossed by a mysterious Neolithic causeway. Discover Bronze Age burial mounds, explore the large earthworks of an Iron Age settlement and join the footsteps of Roman soldiers on Ackling Dyke. Enjoy the bluebell filled woodlands, in the right season, before delving down into the valley of a little chalk Winterborne stream as it meanders past lonely farmsteads on the way to meet the River Allen.
Distance: 6.5 miles/10.5 km
Duration: 3 hours
Terrain: Path, track and field.
Total Climb: 375ft
Max Height: 480ft
Min Height: 160ft
Map: OS Explorer 118 Shaftesbury and Cranborne Chase
Start Point: Harley Lane, Gussage All Saints (Postcode BH21 5HD, Grid reference: ST998107, What Three Words: shameless.bricks.sits.) It is also possible to cut this route short by parking at the junction with Ackling Dyke and at the end of the route returning via the Roman Road.
How to Get There: From Blandford Forum, travel north east on the A354 towards Salisbury. After about 5 miles, turn right, signposted for Moor Crichel. After another mile or so, turn left down the hill and then round to the right, through Gussage St Michael. Stay on the valley road and when you arrive at Gussage All Saints, turn left. Parking is suitable in the vicinity of the church entrance.
Refreshments: Nearby is The Drovers Inn, Gussage All Saints. When this pub closed a few of years ago the community got together, bought it and now it is the hub of village life.
There are three Gussages that follow the small stream, of the same name, through the shallow chalkland valley. Gussage St Michael and Gussage All Saints are small linear villages, while Gussage St Andrew is a tiny hamlet on the other side of the Blandford to Salisbury road, the A354. The name Gussage comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Gwy’ or ‘gyse’, meaning moving water or borne stream and ‘sych’ or ‘sic’ meaning dry; in other words a stream that dries up in summer time, a winterborne.
The valley is placed within Cranborne Chase which is rich in prehistoric remains providing evidence of use from the Neolithic right through to the Romans, covering three millennia. It comprises one of the largest concentrations of burial mounds in England, amounting to nearly 400 having already been recorded. Also present is the Roman road – the Ackling Dyke – and The Dorset Cursus as well as numerous settlements, boundaries and enclosures. To the south there are traces of seven ditches crossing the road from here to Tarrant Hinton, supposed by archaeologists to be evidence of an almighty battle fought by the ancient Britons and a rare example of this period of activity. To the north lies Bokerley Ditch, an earthwork that also spans many ancient periods and even today is still used as the Hampshire-Dorset county boundary.
The survival of these monuments are thanks to Cranborne Chase’s Norman origin as a hunting ground, preventing any encroachment of settlement and development, enforced by law up until 1830. Its character attracted some of the pioneering archaeologists of the 19th century including General Pitt Rivers, who actually owned the majority of the land, Sir Richard Colt Hoare and Edward Cunnington.
From All Saints Church, walk down the hill, passing the stone cross on your left hand side and cross over the river. Follow the road around to the right, through the village and out to meet Ackling Dyke. Turn left, joining the Roman road and head up to Sovell Down. Here it splits, the track taking a sudden left turn, skirting the natural dip created by the Down. The Romans rarely let anything interrupt their path, so it is unlikely the bend was here for the soldiers’ use, instead it would have continued straight ahead. Take the right hand path, guiding you through a gate and into the nature reserve.
Sovell Down is managed by the Dorset Wildlife Trust and is a small remnant of chalk grassland, attracting a range of species and is a great habitat for butterflies. Follow the path along the hill slope that leads to a stile. Climb over and walk straight across the next field to the top corner. Head through the boundary to a small grassed section with hedged borders. Do not exit onto the road as the old access to the path is now overgrown and inaccessible. Instead go straight ahead aiming for the right hand corner. Enter into the trees and follow the overgrown path, parallel to the field boundary. Climb over the stile at the end to a wide, open, northern view over Cranborne Chase.
Head straight down the hill to meet another stile leading into the woods. Follow the path around to the left, passing the rope swings, and down into the village of Gussage St Michael.
Gussage Saint Michael, just like both other Gussages, gains the second part of its name from the church dedication. However it has also been called ‘Gussage Dinant’, in honour of Alain de Dinant and his descendants who held it until the reign of Edward I. It has also been called ‘Middle Gussage’ in reference to its location between the other two villages. To visit the church turn right when you meet the road. The building dates from the 12th century with a number of later additions. It contains a number of bells, the oldest dated 1350 and another two bells cast the same year James I came to the throne (1603).
From the church, retrace your steps, passing the footpath on your left. Continue straight ahead, ignoring the bend of the main valley road. Pass the old school (now the village hall) the Old School House and the village pump, all on your left as the valley opens to your right. When you meet the Manor Farm gate, wrap around the left hand brick gate post to access the drive. Walk past the immaculately presented 19th century Manor Farm house and when you reach the barns, turn right. Shortly after, when faced with a private property sign, turn left onto a track, following the river. Keep your eyes peeled for the turning on the right that leads to a bridge and into a field. Cross over, turn left and follow the signs to the left again and then around to the right, passing the beautifully placed 16th century Ryalls Farmhouse.
Many farms in this area are isolated. The chalk hills were originally densely populated and looked down into the wild woods of the valley. As the fertile valleys were tamed during the Saxon and early medieval period, the chalk hills slowly became deserted.
The path is clear to follow, leading to a country road. Turn left and then take the next track, 100 yards or so ahead on the right, leading up the hill. Continue on the track, working your way around the gates and up to the farm buildings. Here you meet the Cursus, although not recognisably so in the landscape. When you arrive at a bend to the left, follow it around, crossing directly over the Cursus remains and then turn right, following the other side up to Gussage Down.
The Dorset Cursus is a mysterious structure. It dates from 3300 BC which makes it contemporary with the surrounding long barrows; many of these are found near, on, or within the Cursus and their presence helps trace the Cursus’ today. The relationship with the barrows strengthens its ritual significance to the Neolithic people who spent an estimated 0.5 million worker-hours in its construction. It is about seven miles long and is terminated by a rectangular enclosure at each end. Remnants of these earthworks are visible both to the north east at Bokerley Ditch and at Thickthorn Down in the south west. Its name is the Latin term for race track and this was one of the original functions suggested by William Stukeley in the 18th century. It is the largest known of its kind; over three times longer than the archetypical Great Cursus near Stonehenge.
From Martin Down, on the southern side of Bokerley Ditch, the Cursus travels in a south westerly direction along a slightly sinuous course as it crosses the undulating Chalk downland, the valleys and slopes seeming not to affect or be involved with its construction. It passes Penbury Knoll, travels though Bottlebush Down and Wyke Down and then meets Gussage Hill, where a slight dog leg occurs as it passes though the earthworks of a later Iron Age settlement. After dropping back into the valley it ends at the top of Thickthorn Down, where views stretch over the south western corner of the Chase towards the valleys of the Tarrant and, further afield, the Stour.
It appears to have been built in two stages, the southern section from Thickthorn Down to Bottlebush Down (sometimes referred to as the Gussage Cursus) was later extended northeast, from Bottlebush Down to the terminal on Martin Down. It is composed of two raised banks at either side, that rarely run precisely parallel, and today it is presumed to have been used for ceremonial purpose. The Cursus has only one significant astronomical alignment related to its south-westerly orientation: an observer at Bottlebush Down would see the midwinter sun set behind the long barrow lying across the Cursus on the ridge of Gussage Down.
Later Bronze Age sites such as the barrow cemeteries on Oakley and Wyke Downs appear to have respected the presence of the Cursus. This is in contrast to the Roman engineers who built the Ackling Dyke road right across the middle of it on Wyke Down. Most of the Cursus has been levelled or severely reduced by ploughing, and for much of its length it is visible only as a crop or soil mark.
When you arrive at the top of the hill, having passed the view of the long barrow on your right, cut through the boundary and turn right onto the footpath. Here you enter into the Gussage Down settlement.
Gussage Down is an extensive multi-period landscape consisting mainly of Middle Iron Age enclosures (400-100 BC), yet incorporations earlier Neolithic Long barrows and Bronze Age bowl barrows as well as sections of linear boundaries, some of which remained in use up to the time of the Roman Conquest (AD 43). It is one of the largest native occupation sites in Dorset, with the smaller enclosures probably used for livestock. An occupation area shows up under the plough as patches and towards the Roman road a second occupation area exists confined almost entirely to later Romano-British wares, most probably highly influenced by the incoming traffic using the new road.
In 1821, when Sir Richard Colt Hoare produced his plan of the site, it was relatively intact still after 5000 – 6000 years but, today, much of the site has been lost or damaged by cultivation. From surface inspection of the surviving remains and scattered arable islands, it is not possible to recover with any accuracy the sequence of development. Nevertheless, the area is full of lumps, bumps, boundaries and paths, all of which were once densely populated and utilised, a huge contrast to the empty and quiet landscape we see today.
Scanning the surrounding views can provide further archaeological evidence of ancient activity. On the horizon to your left sits Penbury Knoll, an Iron Age Hill Fort, marked by a patch of trees, on the other side of which is the end of the Cursus and the remains of Bokerley Ditch. The Roman Road itself is clearly marked by the trees and hedges having been left to grow along its course for centuries. The Cursus, however, is a little more elusive, its visibility dependent on season, weather, sunshine and your own keen eye. Following the Roman road to the north, it crosses a small country road in the valley. When it rises again on Wyke Down it cuts through the course of the Cursus, its own path, sometimes visible in the soil or crops. Despite the odd flash of a car travelling along the 18th century turnpike road of the A354, the only modern interruption in the landscape is the little village of Sixpenny Handley, nestled in a pocket of the Chase to the north.
Keep to the top footpath, ignoring any diversions. When you meet a track, turn left passing the silhouetted trig point sat at the brow of the hill, fenced and in the company of a few trees, on your right.
When you meet the Roman road, its agger (raised bank) is undeniable. Enter into the woodland, cutting though the agger into Harley Gap. A small memorial stone to John Ironmonger (1919-1986) who was the Manager for Lord Shaftesbury’s St Giles Estates at Wimborne St Giles, sits quietly on your right, embedded slightly into the earthwork. At the cross paths, turn right to then follow the Ackling Dyke to the south, covered by a high tree canopy.
Ackling Dyke was a route that connected London (Londinium) to Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) via Old Sarum (Sorviodunum), Badbury rings (Vindocladia) and Dorchester (Dunovaria). The earthwork is some 3000 years younger than the Neolithic Cursus, which would have still been strongly present when the Romans arrived. It is one of the principal Roman Roads in southern England and the course forms the parish boundary between All Saints and St Michael.
Follow the road out of the woodland and up the hill. At the next boundary, turn left, off the road, following the hedge on your right. In the far corner, go through a gate on your right and follow another track around the woods (at the right season, full of bluebells!).
Follow the flow of the bends eventually reaching a cross roads of tracks on a sloping hill. Turn right and join onto another chalk track leading you straight back down into the valley.
The houses slowly appear including the elegant driveway to the Manor Farmhouse, eventually leading back to your vehicle. To reach the pub, turn left at the cross. In about 300m The Drovers will appear on your left hand side.