Explore the little villages of the Fifeheads. Discover a giant mausoleum in the churchyard and the pack horse bridge over the River Devilish (one of only a few surviving in the county). Pass the site of one of Dorset’s most impressive Roman villas, which has unearthed Roman jewellery, elegant stone columns and elaborate mosaics. Return via medieval trackways and wild woodland, fighting with the forest, far from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
Distance: 5.5 miles/8 km
Duration: 3 hours
Terrain: Path, track and field.
Total Climb: 143ft
Max Height: 320ft
Min Height: 200ft
Map: OS Explorer 129 Yeovil and Sherborne
Start Point: (Postcode DT10 2AL, Grid reference: ST768109, What Three Words: sprouting.calms.inspects.)
How to Get There: From Sturminster Newton, go over the bridge and turn right onto the A357. Take the next left onto Glue Hill and continue for just under a mile. When you curve around a sharp left bend, turn off the road onto Crate Hill. Stay on the same road, keeping right, to join Dark Lane. Pass the entrance to the church on your right and the parking spot is around the corner on the left.
Refreshments: Plumber Manor or nearby are the Antelope Inn in Hazelbury Bryan and the Green Man in Kings Stag. There is also Olives at al, near Sturminster Newton, which offers a huge choice of delicious picnic supplies (10% off for TotV members!).
Fifehead Neville is a little village tucked away down back roads off narrow country lanes, deep in the Blackmore Vale. The first part of the name Fifehead derives from the Old English ‘fīf’ and ‘hīd’, meaning five hides of land and it was simply recorded as such in the Domesday Book of 1086. A hide was originally the amount of land that would support one free family and its dependents – this varied in different parts of the country, but was typically 48 acres in Wessex. The second part of the name derives from the de Neville family. In the early 1200s, William de Neville, who originated from Neuville in France, married local heiress Isabel de Walerand, the daughter of Waleran the Hunter. There are a number of Fifehead villages in the area all gaining the second name from manorial holdings to help differentiate between them.
From the parking spot, next to a small bench, walk on the road to the right and then around to left to visit the church. This is not the original church of the village. An older church was once here in the 13th century, its first known rector, John de Purecombe, was installed in 1298, but nothing remains of it. The existing church dates from the 15th century, the tower removed in the 18th century. It sits hidden from the road, behind a huge yew tree guarding its gate. At the rear of the churchyard is one of the largest table tombs in Dorset – 20ft (6.1m) by 15ft (4.6m) and nearly 6ft (1.83m) tall – and is the mausoleum of the Brune family. Built from ashlar stone, surrounded by iron railings and with an arched entrance that gives access to the vault below, it dominates the churchyard. The family tree of the Brune family goes back to the 13th century, the first known member being Sir William le Brun who died in 1301. The earliest inscription on the tomb is dated 1707 and the last 1760, descendants of the family still living in the Fifehead Neville area at Plumber Manor.
Inside the church is a Tardis, seeming a lot bigger than what appears on the outside. The oldest feature is the Purbeck stone font, which is 14th century. There are elaborate memorials to the Ryves and Salkeld families, the former having a bridge named after them which we encounter later on the walk.
From the church return to the road and pass the parking spot on your right. Continue straight ahead down Green Close Lane. Bulbarrow Hill, marked with its two communication masts, towers above the landscape ahead. Walk past the houses following the track that turns into a narrow path. Cross over the small stream and up the other side to arrive at Fifehead St Quintin. Fifehead St Quintin’s manorial affix is from the family of ‘de Sancto Quintino’, here from the 13th century. They also named the other Dorset village, Frome St Quintin.
When you meet the road, continue straight ahead and curve around the left hand bend. Pass Peach Farm House and cross the bridge over the shallow River Divelish to meet a T-Junction. Turn left, following the river alongside the road. Trace the right hand bend and turn left, just before the old stone barn and opposite Lower Fifehead Farm to enter into a field. Cross straight over passing an old windmill on your right, forking slightly left.
Cross over the wooden fence (the stile hidden at its side) and in the next field continue up the hill to the wooden crossing. Continue straight over the field as the river darts away for a while, only to meet again at the next crossing. Walk over the next bridge, beside sluices and a mill pond, all part of an old mill system, keeping right in the next field. As you approach the small wooden gate the packhorse bridge comes into view.
This bridge is one of only a few surviving medieval packhorse bridges in the county (others can be found at Rampisham, Tarrant Monkton, Gussage St Micheal, Corfe Castle, Holwell and Sturminster Marshall). The bridge was constructed approximately 800 years ago, in about 1200, and is 6ft (1.83m) wide with two distinctive pointed arches 6ft (1.83m) tall. It is a neatly-made structure and very well built. Its form, without parapets, illustrates clearly how the bridge allowed laden pack animals to cross without obstruction, before transport of goods by cart became the norm.
From the exit of the last field, turn right and then left through the next gateway. On your right, towards the electricity poles, is the site of what was once was of Dorset’s most elaborate and impressive buildings. In 1880 and 1903 the remains of two extensive wings of a Roman villa were found, complete with columns, floor mosaics, hypocaust systems, lead piping, a rectangular plunge bath, a horde of tools and early Christian jewellery. The jewellery included two silver rings found engraved with the Chi-Rho symbol, an ancient Christian symbol, suggesting that they were wealthy Christians that lived here. Many of the artefacts are on display at the recently renovated Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. Who knows what other artefacts may have, over the generations, washed down the hill and into the river Divelish!
The villa was not alone in the landscape. Placed nearby a Roman road, which connected Hod Hill to the bustling Roman town of Durnovaria, it was just south of another Roman building discovered in Hinton St Mary. Investigation at Hinton St Mary unearthed another mosaic (made by the same workshop in Durnovaria) which included a depiction of Christ and has since been argued to be the earliest surviving representation of the figure in the entire Roman Empire! However, it is also thought that the building was not a villa but instead a place of worship. The residents of Fifehead Neville must have been aware and even visited this shrine to the north.
Continue to follow the river downstream and when the trees block your route, dive down to the river on your left. Follow this narrow, wooded river path (a perfect place for a splash) to meet a stile. Head straight across the next field, ignoring the little foot bridge on your left.
Go through a small gap in the hedge into the car park of Plumber Manor and turn left to approach another small, arched bridge. On your right the front of Plumber Manor comes into view. It was built by Charles Brune (the family of the mausoleum in Fifehead Neville) in the early 17th century and has remained a family home of the Prideaux-Brunes ever since. Today the imposing Jacobean manor house is a country house hotel and restaurant.
Cross over the arched bridge and curve around to the right to join the drive way. On your right the road crosses the river Divelish via Salkeld Bridge, named after the family who have been immortalised in Fifehead Neville Church. Cross straight over and through a little gate, then fork slightly right to meet the next gate through the hedge. In the following field, fork slightly left to join a track running along the side of Puxey Farm. As you continue down its drive a tunnel of Lombardi Poplar trees appear guiding you elegantly to the next junction.
Turn left and follow the road all the way to the end where it splits. Take the left hand fork and continue onto the grass where it becomes Ducks Lane. This must have been an important route, linking the scattered farms in the area to the market town of Sturminster Newton. The boundaries alone show some effort has been put into the maintenance of the route, the raised ditch and bank preventing flooding and aged hedge clearly marking territory.
This area is a really wild section of Dorset. Even the distance from any main road means that there is no traffic noise and the wildlife you encounter seems to be surprised at your presence. The track turns to the right and at the signpost turn left following it to Haydon Corner. ‘Hay’ is the Saxon ‘Haeg’ meaning a hedge or a hedged ground. ‘Hay dun’ would mean the down with a hedged field or fields on it. Even today this name fits perfectly; walking along the hedged tracks with gnarly oaks towering above and ferns brushing your ankles, while the fields you can glimpse through the branches adhere to the patchwork design of the Blackmore Vale. At the next junction turn left again, this time heading for Haydon Lane.
At the next junction you have a choice. For an easy return to your vehicle, turn left and follow the track past Haydon Farm to a country road. Cross over onto another bridle way and continue straight on back into Fifehead Neville, turning left at the end to return to your vehicle.
Alternatively, you could have a little more of an adventure. The landscape from here on has a tendency to become a little wilder. This means that the footpaths, depending on time of year and maintenance, are only just passable. The ground can also become boggy, even in the summer months.
At the junction turn right and follow the footpath all the way to the end as it narrows. When you meet a fork, keep left heading for a small gate to take you into Deadmoor Common, be careful not to miss this gate by aiming for the alternative clearly seen straight ahead. The route to follow here can be difficult to find or, the one you do find, may just disappear. As you clamber your way around the trees and branches, keep the left hand boundary tight to your side and at times the path returns.
Deadmoor common is one of the last remaining tracts of what was once a wonderful species-rich habitat that extended over the Blackmore Vale. Nature has claimed it as her own and you can’t help but feel like you are intruding. Every now and then a surprised animal suddenly reacts to your step. As you make your way through the oaks and brambles, the path gradually becomes more defined. The woodland narrows and the path shares its route with a water course, or a small stream in wetter months.
Eventually, when you emerge from the woodland, you join a track, turn left to meet the road at Woodrow. Cross straight over, down the road signposted for Fifehead Neville, and once past the houses, take the footpath on the right hand side. Cut straight across the first field, over a stile and straight across the following one, aiming for the left hand side of the houses.
In the distance Okeford Hill rises high in the landscape with its ridge leading, across to the right, to Bulbarrow. Climb over the last stile, meeting the same track had you taken the easier route, and turn right. At the village road turn left to return to your vehicle.