Inspiring the writer Thomas Hardy and the artist John Constable, the small, rural town of Gillingham was hidden deep in ancient forest. Follow the River Lodden through the earthworks of Kings Court, the powerful, medieval hunting lodge, which turned into a castle. Walk on into the new landscape carved out of the old woodland, scattered with ancient trees and thick hedgerows that once sheltered the wolves and deer from encroaching huntsmen. Cross the railway twice to discover an abandoned Northern Line underground train carriage, hidden amongst the vegetation. Follow fields and farms to North End Farm, a building that has escaped modernisation and been left to grow old. Return via the remaining wild Forest of Kings Court Wood, where the trees would have encountered royalty.
Distance: 6 miles/8km
Duration: 2/3 hours
Max Height: 390ft.
Min Height: 240ft.
Total climb: 140ft.
Terrain: Track, path road and field.
Map: OS Explorer 118 Shaftesbury and Cranborne Chase and 129 Yeovil and Sherborne
Start Point: Kings Court Road. (Postcode SP8 4LE, Grid Reference: ST817261, What Three Words: cried.gratitude.hasten).
How to Get There: From Gillingham town centre, cross over the River Lodden and take the next left onto Kings Court Road. Be mindful of access when parking.
Refreshments: Just off route is the Coppleridge Inn at Motcombe. Alternatively a number of options are in Gillingham.
Gillingham, known as Leddenton in Thomas Hardy’s novels, is pronounced ‘G’illingham rather than ‘Gill’ingham and is Dorset’s most northern town, sitting on the edge of the Blackmore Vale. The name derives from an ancient family name of ‘Gylla’ and their homestead ‘ham’. It lies on a small peninsula where the two rivers of the Lodden and Stour flow either side to meet in the south, the Stour continuing its journey to Christchurch.
Gillingham’s history spans centuries, from ancient tumuli and Roman settlement to the arrival of the Saxons, when the town was truly formed. The church of Saint Mary’s mainly dates from the 14th century but it still has a 9th century Saxon cross in its church yard.
Back in 1016, King Cnut, leading the Danish Vikings, attacked England. Edmund Ironside, the self-proclaimed English King (who was gaining popularity thanks to his growing vigour and efficiency in the protection of the country) had just married the daughter of a Welsh King. With support of the Welsh warriors he attacked the invading Danes here, on the site of the town. A bloody battle took place and he was successful despite the numbers of bodies falling to the ground. The streams having now washed the landscape clean.
Entering Kings Court
During the Middle Ages, the area to the east of the town, from Shaftesbury in the south to the Dorset border in the north, was covered in thick woodland called Gillingham Forest. A deer park was established to incorporate the forest and it became prime hunting ground for the elite. It is no surprise that the forest was taken full advantage of for its abundance in both flora and fauna by any travelling monarch, the valuable land claimed as their own. Social changes meant the Park and Forest declined from the 14th Century and, in 1628, it was disparked and deforested. Although it has gone, veteran oak trees remain alongside the chalk streams, thick ancient hedgerows are broken by double stiles and scattered, wildlife filled ponds dot the fields.
The town saw little change over the following centuries and its rural idyll was appreciated and captured by the visiting artist John Constable, who stayed at the vicarage during the 1820’s. As a close friend of John Fisher, who officiated at his marriage in 1816 and became the vicar of Gillingham in 1819, he was invited to stay on a number of occasions. In 1823 he painted a picture of the bridge with the village church beyond, currently in the Tate Gallery.
The introduction of the railway in 1850 led to a rush of development. Industries grew as did the population. During the Second World War, this grew even more when the evacuation of London, Exeter, Southampton and Bristol took place, taking advantage of Gillingham’s easy railway link.
Today it is sadly seen as the town where development hasn’t stopped. New estates seem to appear here more than anywhere else in the county. With no motorways in Dorset, the nearby A303 is the next best alternative, meaning Gillingham’s easy transport links have been both a blessing and a curse.
From the parking spot make your way to the end of the road that leads to Kings Court. Head through the gate and follow the track straight towards the earthworks.
To accompany the forest and make the hunting more comfortable and enjoyable, an ancient manor was developed into a hunting lodge here in the 1100’s. It is claimed to have been visited by Kings Henry I, Henry II, John and Henry III. King John carried out extensive alterations to the lodge which were completed in 1203 and a feast was held in celebration of the finished ‘castle’, known as Kings Court. It became a favourite place of King John and he continued to visit every year until 1214, when social unrest prevented his travel. During Henry III’s reign between 1249 and 1260, Kings Court became more defensive with the construction of the moat, gatehouse and extension of the surrounding enclosure.
However, by 1354 the building was slowly falling into disrepair. In 1369 King Edward III had it destroyed, shortly after the death of his wife Queen Phillipa. He sold of the majority of the materials and left it as a ruin. In the late 1700’s the final few stones were dug up and used for road repairs on the Gillingham to Shaftesbury road. Although some stone still lay buried!
Today, although the stones and ruins are gone, the earthworks are unmissable. Its banks and moat are still clearly visible, enclosing a large rectangular area of 95m by 56m. The ditch, its deepest today at just shy of 2m, would have been filled with water from the nearby River Lodden. Some platforms exist internally that could have been locations of buildings. The entrance may have been in the south western corner where a small causeway crosses the ditch (the track today) and a platform could indicate a gatehouse. In October of 2020, Kings Court, and the land on which it sits, was sold to a private buyer at auction, £5000 below the expected price of £495,000.
Cut straight across the earthworks and head for the railway, passing a Victorian bridge over the river on your left. This single track links London Waterloo to Exeter St David’s (or more locally Salisbury to Yeovil) and is one of only two railway lines that travel west to east through Dorset (with only one more travelling north to south). It opened in 1856 with the first turf being dug for the line cut at Gillingham, marked by a blue commemoration plaque at the station.
Cross the railway and fork right, Gillingham Town football pitch appearing to the left. Continue to follow the muddy track to Woodwater Farm. River Lodden curves along the bottom of the field running upstream to the skim the path.
When you reach the buildings, curve around to the left and then right. Turn left then right again, walking through farm detritus, to a metal gate in the corner. Head through, if you can open it, climb over if not and then straight ahead to the next gap in the hedge. When in the next field, bear left walking through the middle of the field to a double stile and then follow the boundary on your left for the next three fields.
The ancient forest of Kings Court Wood covers the low peak to your right and is circled on the walk. Head though a farm gate and cut straight across to meet a hedge on your right. Walk through the next farm gate and fork right to meet Wolfridge Farm, built in the late 1600’s but with many alterations. Its name most probably deriving from the animals that once prowled the thick forest.
Take the stile on the left to cut the corner and onto a track. Pass the farmhouse to join the main drive. Follow it past Larkinglass Farm to reach a road.
Larkinglass Farm was originally a dairy farm but has been transformed into a successful racing and dressing yard. In front of the farmhouse, is a Grade II, half-timbered barn under a slated roof which is an unusual construction for this part of the country.
At the road, cross straight over and bear left, climbing the hill to the corner of the field where it meets Cowridge Copse, an area where cows must have once pastured. Turn left at the road and then right, down the drive to Withies Farm. Just before reaching the buildings, turn right and over a stile to enter into a field. Head straight over with Duncliffe Wood towering ahead. Head through the next boundary and fork left, passing North End Farm. It is an impressive ancient building, built in 1644 with a stair tower on its eastern façade. It is a true gem that has been left to grow old.
At the corner of the field, exit onto a track and turn right to meet a road. Again, cross straight over joining a small grassed path. At a gate take the stile on the right and follow the hedge on your left.
Cross a small foot bridge taking you over a stream and follow the oak trees up the hill. Climb the giant sized stile and cross over the railway for the second time.
On your right, hidden amongst the vegetation, is an old London Underground, Northern Line train carriage. It was bought by a former London Underground signalman with the intention to use it as a summer house. It is still on private land, but not quite a summer house. Sadly it has experienced even more deterioration since the photos were taken. Follow the path out to the road and into Motcombe.
Motcombe, once buried in Gillingham Forest, is one of the largest parishes in Dorset, beaten to the top stop by Marnhull. To the south of the village is Motcombe Park, better known today as the private school Port Regis. Having slowly grown from the trees, some small fields and irregular boundaries still display the pattern of movement that took over the forest.
Turn right on the road and right at the junction. When the road bends to the right, turn left onto a bridleway, passing Motcombe Meadows. When the track ends, cross a small stream and circle the trees on your right. Follow the hedge and stream through the first field and then fork slightly left to a gap in the hedge. When you meet the trees, the earthworks of the old Deer Park enclosure mark the boundary, buried under the vegetation. Some larger examples are to the south, especially near Waterloo Farm, but most have been ploughed out
Follow the path through the field where more of the earthworks may appear behind. Head through a metal gate and turn right. Cross another small stream and turn left, Donedge Farm sitting on the peak to your right. In the next field, fork right but aiming for the lower gate. Join a track and follow it up to meet Kings Court Wood. This ancient forest has not changed for centuries, its landscape and vegetation having been brushed by royals on horseback as they seek out their prey.
Keep to the track, circling the wood and then turn left, away from the trees. Shaftesbury sits on the high ridge to the South East, the tower of St Peter’s Church rising above neighbouring branches. At the end of the track, turn right and follow the hedge to the next boundary. Head through the gate and straight on to arrive back at Kings Court and the earthworks. Follow the moat around its bottom corner to arrive back at the bridge into Gillingham and your vehicle.