Evershot to Rampisham

From Thomas Hardy’s Evershot, pass the source of the River Frome and a church whose tower was designed by the same man who designed the Elizabeth Tower – home to Big Ben. Travel over the hills to the hidden hamlet of Rampisham and its secret packhorse bridge. Walk on to Chantmarle, a stunning Elizabethan manor house with its own canal acting like moat – left to ruin but rebuilt and turned into a police academy. Return back to Evershot via the ancient stone three sisters, punished for dancing on the Sabbath.

  • Distance – 8 miles /13km
  • Duration – 4 hours.
  • Exertion – Medium.
  • Terrain – Path, track and road.
  • Dogs – Be aware of livestock and keep to the Countryside Code.
  • Map – OL Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis
  • Start – Parking on the road near the Acorn Inn (Postcode: DT2 0JW, Grid Reference: ST573044, What Three Words: assure.archduke.mostly)
  • Refreshments: The Acorn Inn
The Acorn Inn

Evershot is the second highest village in Dorset at 175m (625ft.) above sea level, the highest being Ashmore. It is the source of the River Frome which rises from a spring at St John’s Well. The name has a few interpretations relating to the red colour of the soil, the once large population of wild boar and the river itself. To the west is a prominent rounded summit known as West Hill which is 224 metres (735ft.) high.

A devastating fire hit the village in 1865 and destroyed eighteen buildings leaving more than a hundred people homeless. The presence of the River Frome saved them and not a single person died.

The village became famous thanks to its Thomas Hardy links and has changed little since his time. His mother, Jemima Hand, was born, raised and married in neighbouring Melbury Osmond. In 1893, as a young architect, he worked designing an extension on the Dower House (today known as Summer Lodge). Whilst here he became a regular at the 16th century Acorn Inn (then called The Kings Arms) which once brewed its own ales with water drawn from the river. In his later years he immortalised the village in his writings, the most recognised being ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’. Evershot became Evershead, The Kings Arms became the Sow and Acorn and Tess Cottage (as it is now known, just next the church) was where Tess stopped for refreshments on her way to Emminster.

Despite the village being portrayed, and appearing, as a rural country village, the stunning Summer Lodge Hotel has introduced some modern day luxury.

From the pub, head to the back of the car park and onto a path. Follow it around the houses to come out onto Back Lane. Turn left and pass the old Gospel chapel on your right to then curve around to the left. In about 10 metres or so, turn left though a gap in the hedge to arrive at St Johns Well.

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St John’s Well

St Johns Well marks the source of the River Frome, the water pouring from a gap between small stones in a larger stone encasement. It is first referred to in 1761 when the churchwardens imposed penalties against anyone fouling the water, and early accounts describe it as a ‘black iron pump’. It was restored in the year 2000 and features information on local geology and history. The Frome is the second largest river in Dorset, after the Stour, and meanders for 35 miles across Dorset to Wareham. Evershot’s geography forms the watershed between the drainage basins of the River Yeo, which flows north to the Bristol Channel and the River Frome, which flows southeast through Poole Harbour to the English Channel.

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St Osmund’s

Continue along the road to meet St Osmund’s Church. There has been a chapel on the site of St Osmund’s since at least the reign of Richard Lionheart, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. All that remains of that first edifice is the chancel arch, part of the tower arch and the basin of the font. The church we see today was rebuilt in the 15th century and was renovated dramatically in the 19th. The West tower was designed by Edmund Beckett Dennison, the designer of Big Ben’s Elizabeth Tower in London, and built by Edward John Dent, clockmaker to the Queen.

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Tess Cottage

Pass the church on your left and at the road turn right, circling Tess’ Cottage. Opposite the following house, turn left to some steps leading up to a stile. Cut straight across the field, making your way up West Hill to exit onto another road, turn right and then left into the next field.

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It is a straight run to Rampisham; however the patchwork fields prevent it being too easy and can mess with your sense of direction. Walk across the first field heading for another stile in the gap the hedge. Follow the next field where it channels you on to a grassed track. Go through the next metal gate and keep the field boundary on your left, passing a few patches of wild wood on the way. When the hedge disappears off to the left, continue straight ahead, keeping the boundary on your right.

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In November 1939 the BBC purchased 189 acres of land on Rampisham Down. It became the location of one of the main transmitters of the BBC World Service until it was shut in 2011. The site consisted of 26 gigantic transmitter pylons that were visible across huge swathes of Dorset. Now the majority have been removed, only three remain that you can see on the horizon ahead. The future of the site is still undecided.

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The next footpath is accessible on your right through a small metal gate and into a tree tunnel. It can become overgrown so it is possible to slip around the left hand side, to exit out through a metal gate, meeting back with the footpath. Turn left and continue through another farm gate. Keep to the higher end of the field, walking almost parallel with the left hand hedge to meet your next stile. Follow the next field down to the wood, the metal gate sitting on its right hand side.

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Looking towards Rampisham Down

It was in this area where, in 1799, a Roman mosaic was found; it measured 4m by 3m and was well preserved, having a pattern of rings and a floral decoration, but it was destroyed by treasure-hunters. However, it indicates that a large, impressive villa must have been present here at one time.

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Head for the bottom corner, through another gate and keep tight to the left. At the bottom of the hill you meet the river. Cross over a small stile on your left taking you into woodland and over a bridge. Walk straight on through the next couple of fields, running parallel to the farm, and then out onto the village road for Rampisham.

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Rampisham is a small secluded village buried in beech trees along the narrow river valley of the Wraxall Brook. The meaning of the name ‘Rampisham’ is uncertain, but could refer to the enclosures in the valley for sheep, wild garlic or a guy called Ram!

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The old school house
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The manor and the church looking down upon the crossroads

When you enter the village via the farm drive, turn left to follow the valley road. Pass the Old School House on your left to arrive at the ford. Here, on right hand side of the crossroads, is the old pub ‘The Tigers Head’, now a private home. Ahead are the old Manor House, largely dating to the 17th century, and the Church of St Michael and All Angels both of which look down upon you from a wooded knoll above the village. Rampisham’s parish church originally dates from 1326. Like some of Evershot’s architecture, it was later influenced by Thomas Hardy as a young architect, under the supervision of Augustus Pugin, who worked on the Houses of Parliament. Pugin also built a schoolhouse, that we just past, and rectory for the village, now both private homes.

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The Tiger’s Head

Walk straight through the crossroads, past the pub to take the next bridle way on your left hand side. The landscape either side of the track suddenly drops away and is replaced with the bridge walls. Crossing the river, this old medieval packhorse bridge is one of only three in the county (the others at Tarrant Monkton and Fifhead Neville). The solid, surprisingly high, bridge was built in the 16th to 17th centuries and was just wide enough for a loaded horse to cross. The new road diverts away from this crossing and so it’s only purpose today is to carry this short bridleway.

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The Packhorse bridge
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Heading for the old Post Office

When you exit onto the road, you are faced with the whitewashed old Post office. Turn right and start your climb out the village. Outside Broomhill Farm, which is occasionally open for the Dorset Gardens Trust, is an ancient cross. Dating from the 15th century it has faint remains of a carved figure etched and eroded on its main body.

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The ancient cross

Shortly after, take the footpath on your right, between the buildings and enter into a field via another stile. Once again you approach a stretch of patchwork fields to navigate. Curve around the right hand side of the trees and fork left, heading for the far corner of the next field. Exit onto a road and turn right towards Broad Witcham. Sadly the name has no mystical history associated with witches instead it is more likely to originate from with the Romano-British wīc-hām, a homestead. With the villa and the nearby Dorchester-Ilchester Roman road, this relationship is quite likely.

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Follow the tarmac drive, scattered with sleeping policeman, to the next building. Divert right when you meet the house gates and keep to the left. Take the next stile on the left to circle the house and then enter into a slightly boggy section. Head straight up the hill, guided by the odd waymarked post and into the next field, cutting straight across again. Go straight across the next field, heading for the right hand side of the woodland to a metal gate, leading to Inpark Farm. Follow the boundary on the left past the farm and down the hill. Turn left through a wide gateway to join onto a short track. Head up the hill and take the right hand option of the two gates. Keep the boundary on your left and it then becomes a track again, passing numerous ruined barns of West Holway. Continue along the footpath and when faced with your next metal gate, turn sharply left onto a track leading to the road.

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The barns of West Holway

At the road, turn left and then right onto the next footpath, keeping the boundary on your left as you head down the hill. On the opposite hill is Chalmington, a large country estate that used to have its own private airfield. On your right, you can make out the earthworks of Cattistock Castle. You may also notice the growling sound of the racing karts at Clay Pigeon raceway that sits on the ridge ahead.

Turn left onto a long distance route, the Macmillan way, passing the 17th century North Holway Farm on your right. Go through the gate and straight over into the next field. Fork left, taking a nicely cut path through the crops and when you meet the trees, turn right heading for the corner to meet a wooden gate taking you into Chantmarle.

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Walk past the old sheds and, for now, ignore the path to your left. Instead continue straight ahead, passing the old courtyard that faces an area beyond of open grass and fruit trees, surviving from the orchard shown on early Ordnance Survey maps. Pass the house and continue on to the railway bridge. In 1857 the Wilts, Somerset and Weymouth Railway (later the Great Western Railway) opened a line through the parish with a station for the village at Holywell. The railway bridge, on the main and only official entrance to the estate, was built by Inigo Thomas with ornamental stone balustrades.

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Remains of the old orchards
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The railway bridge

Return back the way you came to appreciate Chantmarle. The house is an impressive, traditionally E-shaped, 17th-century manor house set in formal 20th century gardens that have incorporated the 17th century design. Its name derives from the Chauntermerle family, the name in Norman French meaning ‘song of the blackbird’.

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Chantmarle

Originally built in 1212 and owned by monks from Milton Abbey, Chantmarle later came into the possession of the Cheveral family in the late medieval period, before being sold in 1606 to Sir John Strode, younger son of John Strode of Parnham. Sir John was responsible for building the new house, retaining a wing believed to date from the C15. In 1628, Sir John inherited Parnham from his brother, making Chantmarle his secondary residence.

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The ‘moat’

During the 18th century and 19th century, it became partly ruinous, losing its wings (which were recorded in an 1823 sketch by John Chessell Bukler). In 1898, the estate was sold to the Earl of Ilchester, before being sold again in 1907 to Francis Savile who repaired and restored it, commissioning Inigo Thomas to design the new gardens. In April 1950 Chantmarle was sold to the Home Office and used for police training; a number of buildings were constructed for the new purpose. It has been in private ownership since the year 2000, used for wedding receptions and as a restaurant, but was most recently sold in July 2016.

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J C Bukler’s 1823 sketch of Chantmarle

The building is stunning with an oriel window above the entrance door; balcony framed by obelisks, an abundance of yews and it all overlooks a long, narrow canal bounded on its western side by stone walls. Even its boundary is creative with stone walls surmounted by balustrades, tall stone piers with obelisk finials and tall wrought-iron gates; while its landscape is littered with modern, degrading school buildings.

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The iron gates

During the late 18th century wails were heard in the house, calling out for a search for Wat Perkins’ Bones. Some labourers digging up a hedge found a dismembered skeleton and informed the old lady next door about the discovery. She told told them to keep quite which did nothing but arouse suspicion and, after interrogation, she admitted the head was under her hearth. She was tried and executed for the murder and the wails were heard no more.

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Return to the track near the sheds and follow it to the right. Soon after, turn left into the woods and right up the hill. Enter into an open space with some old football goals, cut straight across the ‘pitch’ and out though a gate. Cross over the track, pass a pond and head up to the corner of the woods. Climb on up the hill, where the fences channel you to a gate. When faced with a choice of gates, go through the one marked with orange arrows, bringing you past Fortunes Farm barns. Take the small left hand path that brings you out to the house, where, if you’re lucky, you will be greeted by a beautiful rhea.

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Join onto the drive and continue climbing. When it turns sharply to the left, take the footpath ahead walking straight across the field. In the following field, keep the boundary to your left all the way to the next gate, neighbouring a stone trough. Head on through to then meet a track, follow this track though the hedge and around to the left. Fork left across the next field, passing a tree on your right with some impressive roots, exiting onto the road.

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Here you meet the gates to Summer Lodge. Summer Lodge Country House Hotel was built in 1798 as a Dower House by Henry Fox-Strangways, 2nd Earl of Ilchester. It was enlarged in 1893, a wing of which was designed by Thomas Hardy. When Hollywood came calling, to film the 1996 version of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’, the cast, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Alan Cumming and Toni Collette all stayed here.

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Summer Lodge

Turn right heading down into the village and at the junction turn right again to meet The Three Dumb Sisters in the middle of a triangle junction, one of the roads of which leading to Melbury Sampford House. These stones are the oldest remains to be found in Evershot, today adapted into a bench. Local legend says that these are three sisters turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. For comfort, they are not alone; there are many tales of merry maidens across the country, being punished in a similar way for dancing on the sacred day. It is believed that the stones originate from a plot of land close to the village, but it is not known when, or why, they were built or moved but are most probably Bronze Age in origin.

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The Three Dumb Sisters

Turn around to head back the way you came and back into Evershot. The Acorn Inn will shortly be on your left.

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