From the depths of Thorncombe Wood discover the poet and author Thomas Hardy’s birthplace. Travel through the little village of Higher Bockhampton to Stinsford, following the footsteps of Roman soldiers. Pass numerous stately homes including Kingston Maurward, Birkin and Stinsford to meet the River Frome. Visit the memorial to Hardy at Stinsford church containing his heart that, possibly, went on its own perilous adventure. Walk through the tree tunnelled path, accompanied by the babbling brooks of the River Frome, to Lower Bockhampton and its ancient Manor House. Pass Heedless William Pond with a tragic history that led to the growth of an impressive ash tree. Return via Puddletown Forest where, amongst heath and wild horses, obvious traces of the Romans still remain.
Distance: 5 miles/8km
Duration: 2.5 hours
Max Height: 385ft.
Min Height: 170ft.
Total climb: 340ft.
Terrain: Path, track, road and field.
Map: OL15 Explorer Purbeck and South Dorset
Start Point: Thorncombe wood car park – payment required, even for National Trust members. (Postcode: DT2 8QH, Grid Reference: SY725921, What Three Words: system.hypocrite.levels)
How to Get There: From Dorchester head east towards the A35. At the Stinsford roundabout turn off towards Kingston Maurward. Continue along the country road for about a mile and at the cross roads, turn left. In half a mile, turn right down a track, the car park is in the woods on the right.
Dogs: In accordance with the Countryside Code and any notices on route.
Thorncombe wood is a magical pocket of mixed woodland and heath, home to a great diversity of trees including mature Oaks, Sweet Chestnut and Beech. Complementing the woodland is Black Heath with its own herd of Dartmoor ponies. However, the site is not open access and therefore movement is restricted to the footpaths and bridleways that cut through the forest.
Make your way from the car park to the visitor centre and then turn right into the woodland. Follow the path through the woods to reach Hardy’s cottage, the modest thatch roof appearing through the trees. Follow the track around to the left to circle the house, passing a memorial to Hardy, dated 1931, on your right. Wrap around the house to join the track and shortly you come to a small garden gate on your left that provides you with a perfect view of the cottage.
Hardy’s Cottage is the birthplace of Dorset’s most famous author and poet, Thomas Hardy, born on the 2nd June 1840. The cottage was built by his great grandfather and little has altered since. It is here where Hardy was influenced and inspired to begin his writing career, his first five novels including ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ and ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ were written in the bedroom behind the right hand dormer window.
The heath would have originally stretched all across south east Dorset to Studland, only patches now remain; the largest here at Puddletown, at Wareham Forest and on the Isle of Purbeck. The heath and forest, along with other parts of the Dorset landscape, always played a dominant role within all his novels. The term “cliff-hanger” is considered to have originated with his serial novel, ‘A Pair of Blue Eyes’, also written at the cottage, in which he literally left the hero hanging from a cliff. The cottage is now owned by the National Trust and payment is required for entry.
From the cottage walk along the track to the road at Higher Bockhampton. Higher Bockhampton is a tiny hamlet consisting of only a few houses and farms. Turn left and then take the second right through a small metal gate and onto a track, passing the small ‘Business Park’ on your right. At the end of the track, walk straight ahead through the next gate and down the hill towards the trees. At the bottom take the left hand gate and cut diagonally across the next field. On your right, at the top of the hill, the trees mark the estate of Birkin House, beyond is the A35, the hum of which accompanies this part of the walk.
When you reach the bottom, walk straight through two gates and turn right walking parallel to the lane, following the path of the old Roman road. This Roman road, although not that prominent in this location, is known as Ackling Dyke. Cutting across Dorset it begins its journey at Old Sarum/Salisbury (Sorviodunum) entering the county at Bokerley Ditch. The road travels straight over the ancient landscape of Cranborne Chase to Badbury Rings (Vindocladia). A fording point crosses the River Stour and continues along the chalk down land to reach Dorchester (Durnovaria), eventually travelling westwards to Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum). It is one of the best preserved Roman roads in the country.
Join onto the modern road and continue in the same direction, passing the drive to Birkin House on your right. Kingston Maurward house sits on the opposite side of the road. The estate of Kingston Maurward includes an 18th century park and lake, together with early 20th century formal gardens, laid out by Sir Cecil and Lady Hanbury.
The original 16th century manor house was superseded by the large house we know today and was completed in 1720 for George Pitt. In 1794, allegedly at the strong advice of King George, who was a regular visitor due to his frequent trips to Weymouth, the whole house was cased in Portland Stone covering the ‘passé’ red brick. This was all at great cost to the Pitt family. In 1845 the house left the ownership of the Pitts and was sold to Francis Martin MP whose wife educated the young Thomas Hardy; the house later becoming Knapwater House in Hardy’s novel ‘Desperate Remedies’. In the following years the house changed hands a few times until the widowed Lady Hanbury sold it to Dorset County Council as a farm institute. Today it is Kingston Maurward Agricultural College as well as a farm park. The original 16th century manor house still stands in its shadow, but is in private ownership.
Once past the Kingston Maurward drive, cross the road to join a pavement and take the next left to Stinsford. Stay on the same road, making your way through the agricultural buildings, to St Michael’s church. As you approach, the large Stinsford house is on you right. The gates of the church marked clearly ahead with its two stone pillar either side. The church of St Michael was where Thomas Hardy was baptised and the village was the inspiration for ‘Mellstock’ featured in Hardy’s novels ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ and ‘Jude the Obscure’.
Within the churchyard is a monument, dated 1928, to Hardy containing his heart. Hardy wanted to be buried in Dorset but his fame led to the nation requesting his burial to be in London. Therefore the arrangement was that his heart be buried in the place he loved, next to both his first and second wives, his ashes laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. However, not everything always goes to plan. The village gossip, which has been passed down the generations (and told to me by the great granddaughter of the trusted family), claims that the farmer’s wife, who was guarding the heart, safe in a box in her larder, had a cat that unfortunately was quite curious. The farmer’s wife discovered the cat midway through munching the almost disappeared heart. Her and her husband had no choice but to immediately replace it; apparently using the cats. Also buried in the churchyard is the poet laureate Cecil Day Lewis, a fan of Hardy, as he himself arranged to be buried next to the memorial and died in 1972.
Stinsford’s name may derive from stynt, an Old English word for a small area of pasture, most probably referring to the limitations put on the land thanks to the River Frome’s flood plains. The parish contains a number of manor houses with the surrounding thatch cottages having once housed the staff. These include Birkin House, Frome House, Kingston Maurward House, the Elizabethan Old Manor House and Stinsford House.
Exit the church and turn right, walking around the side of the graveyard. Continue alongside the iron railings and at the end turn left to reach the river.
The River Frome is 30 miles long rising at Evershot at St John’s Well and flowing into Poole Harbour to the east of Wareham. At this point, east of Dorchester, the river travels over the shallow, sandy geology that sits on top of chalk causing the water to travel slowly along a gentle gradient with wide flood plains. The plains themselves are scattered with channels that dive off and meet again further downstream. Cross straight over the water and walk along the track with two streams running either side. Follow the flow of the water along the river banks and under the shadow of oaks, maples and hazel trees. This is classic Hardy country, with the Frome valley setting the scene for the Valley of the Great Dairies in ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ and also featuring prominently in ‘The Return of The Native’.
When the woods begin to thin, take the next footpath on your left into Lower Bockhampton. At the end turn left to see the 16th century original Kingston Maurward Manor, skimming the lake and gardens of Kingston Maurward on your left.
The 16th century manor, stands only 300m east of the 18th century mansion and is constructed in rough ashlar, forming the original E-shape to honour Queen Elizabeth I. Originally constructed by Christopher Grey in 1590, the house was extended in the early 17th century. The associated gardens are situated to the west and south of the building, enclosed by stone walls. There are further walled garden enclosures to the east of the house, which became the kitchen gardens for the new mansion, open to the public to explore with free entry. One famous inhabitant, worthy of a blue plaque, is George Singer. Known for his involvement in bicycle development, he was born in the house in 1847. Over time the old manor began to crumble, and was nearly set for demolition. However, thankfully, it was saved by renovation in 1960 and today is a private home.
Retrace your steps along Knapwater Road (the name most probably the inspiration for Thomas Hardy’s version of Kingston Maurward), pass the footpath on which you arrived on you right and continue ahead into the village. Pass through a gate and onto another road to shortly discover Thomas Hardy’s school.
The Old School House, which Thomas Hardy attended as a young boy, is also now a private home but was not forgotten by Hardy who immortalised it in ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ where Fancy Day worked as a teacher. Next to the school was a tree that the locals referred to as the Greenwood Tree. The school was officially closed in 1961.
When you meet the road, turn left, leaving behind you the early 19th century stone arched bridge that the road uses to cross the river Frome. Head straight through the village passing Yalbury Cottage and an ancient stone on your right. Walk on up the hill, through an avenue of trees, to Bockhampton Cross and turn right.
Continue ahead for 500 metres or so to turn then left up the hill towards Pine Lodge Farm. On your right is Heedless William Pond and its ancient standing stone. The purpose of the stone is unknown but could date back to prehistoric times, with possible use for the Romans too, being so close to the road. The name derives from a legend which tells of a reckless coachman named William. One day, travelling to Wareham from Dorchester, laden with luggage and four passengers, he sped along the wide valley’s narrow lanes, whipping his horses to increase the efficiency of the journey. On meeting this section of the road, heading down hill at speed, he careered off into the field, crashing into the pond, the carriage horses and passengers all sank immediately into the deceivingly deep water and drowned. Only his whip was left standing above the ripples, having got stuck in the middle banks. The whip later sprouted and grew into a magnificent ash tree standing central in the water, the tip of which you can just make out on your right. Once again Thomas Hardy uses this local landmark in his tragicomic, vaguely supernatural tale ‘The Fiddler of the Reels’.
Follow the tree lined track up the hill passing Pine Lodge Farm, with the option of refreshment. Behind you the views open up to the south east, all the way to Bindon Hill, near Corfe Castle. Head through a succession of barbed wired gates to then enter into Puddletown Forest. Head straight on over the heath and shortly you arrive at a cross roads of paths marking the Roman road. Straight ahead is Rushy Pond which is home to a wealth of wildlife including Grass Snakes, Palmate Newts and Dragonflies. On hot summer days, you may often find the Dartmoor ponies in the pond taking a cooling dip.
Turn left (or if retuning from Rushy Pond, turn right) to follow the Roman road. Running through Puddletown Forest is a section of the Roman road which is magnificently well preserved. In 2011 Forestry workers discovered 1,600-year-old prominent remains of the road during clearance work. Although its existence was known about, it was so densely covered by trees it simply could not be found. It is a monstrosity of an earthwork, at 26 metres wide and 5 metre high, it includes a central cobbled ‘street’, which would have been used for rapid troop movements, and outer ‘droving’ roads for livestock and water drainage. Its sheer scale is assumed to have been a method to intimidate (or at least show off to) the locals/natives. The quality of construction and engineering puts our present day roads to shame.
Head through a wooden kissing gate and fork slightly left to return to the Roman road path, rising high above your surroundings. When the path dips, at the bottom, turn right onto a track. Make your way through the woods to return to the car park.