Nestled on the Northern boundary of Dorset, butting with Wiltshire in the heart of the ancient landscape of Cranborne Chase, lies Mistleberry Hillfort and Chase Woods. A landscape which links old England to today in forms of exposed earthworks and buried barrows. Discover the hidden beech avenue planted by General Pitt-Rivers and follow the medieval route of Shire Rack, through coppice and ivy and under an oak and maple canopy. With views, when possible, through branches and across open fields, connecting you to the wider landscape of South Dorset and the coast.
Distance: 6.5 miles/10km
Duration: 3 hours
Max Height: 500ft.
Min Height: 426ft.
Total climb: 295ft.
Terrain: Path, track, road and field.
Map: OS Explorer 118 Shaftesbury and Cranborne Chase
Start Point: RSPB Garston wood (Postcode: SP5 5PE, Grid Reference: SU003194, What Three Words: hush.scorched.jets)
How to Get There: From Blandford, travel east to Salisbury in the A354. After 9 miles, take the first exit on the roundabout to Sixpenny Handley. On entering the village, turn right onto Dean Lane and then keep right and the next fork. Follow the road for about a mile and the car park will appear on the left, marked with wooden fencing.
Dogs: In accordance with the Countryside Code and any notices on route.
Refreshments: None on route but nearby is the award winning pub The Museum in Farnham.
Garston wood is an 80 acre mixed woodland, comprising of hazel, oak, whitebeam and maple trees. It is a quiet spot (apart from the cacophony of bird song) sitting on the Cranborne Chase AONB. Managed and owned by the RSPB since 1985, the site has been split up into areas for management purposes with a ‘high wood’ in the centre surrounded by coppiced hazel, providing perfect habitats for a large variety of birds, wildlife and wildflowers.
Enter the woodland through the left hand gate in the car park. Head straight on through the woods, uphill, to emerge the other side via another metal gate at Bucks Stile. Once out from under the trees continue straight on to the next hedge and then straight down the track in the same direction. The wood on the right is Chase Woods, via which the walk returns. Hidden deep amongst the trees is Mistleberry hillfort.
Gradually the chimneys and roofs begin to appear of Deanland. The Sixpenny Handley parish includes the settlements of Woodcutts and Deanland, the parish church of St Mary dating from the 14th century, its tower just out of sight. For centuries the settlement has been controlled by a feudal state in which the land was held until 1830. Cranborne Chase was once a hunting forest claimed by William the Conqueror and included sections of heath, chalk downland, rough pasture and ancient woodland. William introduced Forest Law in order to protect game animals and their forest habitat from destruction, a 1000 year old example of conservation!
William was an advocate for wildlife and was even known for favouring it above his own people. The law was divided into two categories – trespass against the vert (the forest) and trespass against the venison (the game) – this included deer, boar, hare and the wolf (which did not go extinct in England until the 15th century). However this operating system, being slightly different to the rest of the country, made it a refuge for criminals and a byway for smugglers. The combination of the isolation and lack of development, the ancient earthworks that litter the surroundings, the large population of wolves and wildlife, the occasional skulking criminal and elusive smuggler, the odd holler, shout and arrow from hunting parties all against a back drop of wild wood and dense heath, the Chase would have been a very different place to that we experience today.
In 2019 Cranborne Chase became the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the country to be designated in its entirety as an International Dark Sky Reserve. This has made the little village of Sixpenny Handley popular for star gazers.
Continue straight ahead to meet the road and turn left, walking through Deanland. After about 200 metres or so, take a sharp right to enter into wood again. Ignore the tracks that take you deeper into the trees and emerge out onto a field and turn left, climbing up the hill. When the wood ends on your left, the path diverts to the right though the field. If crops have grown, head to the top of the hill and then turn right. Follow the boundary to the top left hand corner of the field to meet a stile. Climb over and turn left walking through a narrow field. When it widens, fork right to a gate and once through fork right to the following stile. Fork right again, passing the barns on your left, to meet twin metal gates. Head straight through both, walking down hill to the next gate and then down again to the final gate. At the bottom of the dip, fork right to climb the hill where you meet another stile.
Join onto a track and turn right to then shortly meet a stile on your left. Climb over and cut straight across the field to the woodland. On your far left the views stretch to Penbury Knoll, an Iron Age hillfort, bordered with Bokerley Ditch, a Neolithic monument that was rebuilt during the Saxon invasion. Also, just about visible in the form of straight hedgerows, is the route of Ackling Dike, the Roman road to Badbury Rings.
The woods in front are thick with secrets and mystery. They sit within Rushmore Estate that was once owned by Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt-Rivers. He was a keen archaeologist and took full advantage of the ancient buried secrets we can see littering the area. General Pitt Rivers inherited the Estate in 1880 and the character of what we see today is thanks to his influence. He created a deer park and ornamental park (now Rushmore golf course,) and introduced large planting projects that have now become the avenues within the forest (Oxford Street and Bridmore Ride). He also created the Larmar Tree Gardens as entertainment for the local people, now host to the popular Larmar Tree Festival. Rushmore Park was enclosed by Pitt-Rivers and he used this enclosure as a menagerie for his exotic livestock, this included yak, llamas, reindeer, zebras, and kangaroos! The woodland on the estate has been recognised as a wildlife site of national importance as well as historical, but today it’s full of more native species.
However, it is his archaeological work that gained him most attention. Sir Richard Colt Hoare and Edward Cunnington along with Pitt Rivers are often regarded as the fathers of British archaeology due to their pioneering work carried out on Cranborne Chase. His collection of archaeological finds and artefacts were housed in the Pitt Rivers Museum near Farnham from which the present day public house takes its name. The Collections can now be found in Salisbury Museum and The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (possible to go on a virtual tour!)
After General Pitt-Rivers’ death in 1900, the family continued to live at Rushmore House until 1927, but, in 1963, the estate was sold. The House is now used as a private school, known as Sandroyd, and both it and the estate remain in separate private ownership.
Enter the woods via the stile and make your way through the bracken to the impressive avenue of Beech trees. Bridmore Ride is a one and half mile avenue cutting straight through the woods and can almost put both Moor Crichel and Kingston Lacy to shame. The wild woodland completely hides the ride’s presence and discovering it, without knowing it was there, would take your breath away. Cut straight across to meet the less impressive Oxford Street, although still an avenue none the less, and continue in the same direction to meet the Scrubbity Barrows. Although buried under vegetation they are not very good at hide and seek, their bulges clearly standing out.
Scrubbity Barrows includes a group of eight bowl barrows in total, which form a round barrow cemetery in Scrubbity Coppice. The mounds are each surrounded by a ditch from which material was quarried during the construction of the monument. The barrows were partially excavated by General Pitt-Rivers in the 1880s when a series of cremation burials, pits and flint tools were identified.
Proceed straight across the next track in the valley onto an uphill stretch via a tree-tunnelled track and out onto a wide open field. Veer slightly left to follow the path between the oak trees, passing a stalkers platform on your right. The small hamlet of Woodcutts sits on the slopes beyond, marked by an 1853-dated Wesleyan chapel facing the arable fields.
Pass the edge of the first of the earthworks (hardly noticeable) to reach a junction of four paths. Turn right to follow the drove way to the rest of Woodcutts earthworks. This route may well date back centuries, it being the main route from the ancient settlement to the wider world. At the end of the track you meet a gate. Head straight though to be greeted by the prominent earthworks of Woodcutts Common.
Woodcutts Common is where a major Romano-British settlement of Celtic farmers was excavated by Pitt-Rivers. The area includes two wells. The western well is three feet in diameter and 136 feet deep and the central one 188 feet deep, both are now grassy dips with stones recording their discovery by General Pitt-Rivers in 1882. He then carried out further investigations in 1884–5.
Head straight across to meet the completely different landscape of Rushmore golf course. Maintained to impeccable quality, with sandpits intricately carved into the grass and a large still lake sat in the dip, it is a complete contrast to the ancient environment just passed through. Walk through the gate and straight across the course to meet Chase Woods and Shire Rack, the path leading you all the way back to the car park.
Shire Rack marks the boundary between Dorset and Wiltshire; in fact the boundary sits right in the middle of the path meaning your right foot will be in Dorset and your left in Wiltshire. When you reach the woods, do not go in, instead turn right and keep the woodland on your left. Make your way up the hill, passing elegant tree collections and manicured grass. At the top the views open out to the south, a dip in the hills gives you the opportunity to see all the way across South Dorset to the Purbeck Hills in the distance.
Keep to the boundary of the forest and when it curves sharply to the right, enter the woodland but also turn right, keeping the fence and golf course on your right hand side. Shire Rack now flits between path and track as it cuts through the many sections of woodland in this large expanse of forest.
Follow the path deeper into the woods, away from the golf course to meet a forest track to cross. Head up the other side and through the thick woodland to then meet the opposite end of Oxford Street.
Its path here has somewhat faded over time. Keep following the route to then meet the opposite end of Bridmore Ride. Here new trees have been planted to encourage the life of the avenue. Despite it being less impressive than its southern section, its appearance is what Pitt Rivers would have seen. He could only have imagined what we see today.
Continue into the woods along Shire Rack making your way through Great Shaftesbury Coppice and Great Forlorn. At the end of another climb, fields appear through the bushes as the path guides you to the right, following the edge of the woodland. At the peak of the hill it is possible to make out West Chase, the white country house, accessible via Shermal Gate. Eventually the route brings you down to Shermal Gate. This junction, although quiet and peaceful, marks a confluence of 5 different paths. Cross straight over, taking the small narrow path that runs alongside the left side of the telegraph pole.
Climb on up the hill to enter into Mistleberry woods. Not long after, you meet the earthworks of Mistleberry Hillfort. They are prominent within the woodland, despite their age and camouflage. The ditch and bank, that once defended, protected or contained its interior, is clearly visible. Mistleberry is only a small round univallate hillfort appearing to be unfinished, the missing section on the western side; its role as a hillfort even debated. At its maximum extent, the bank is 24 feet wide and 4 feet high. If complete, the earthworks would enclose an area of about 2 acres. The site is also known as the Anglo Saxon site of Mealeburg or Micel Burh (Great Camp), which is mentioned in a charter of 956 AD. Otherwise there is no dating evidence as only minimal investigations have taken place, but an Iron Age date is commonly assumed. Although not noticeable within the forest, the fort occupies a prominent position on the hill and, without the trees, Mistleberry would have a clear view south, all the way to the coast, similar to the glimpse viewed from the golf course. The Hillfort was beautifully mapped by George Haywood Sumner in 1911.
Continue along the path to reach Sessions Gate. Turn left and then right, keeping tight to the boundary of Garston Wood. Remain on Shire Rack to reach the road but avoid the traffic by hugging the fence line of the wood, bringing you directly back to the car park for Garston Wood and your vehicle.