Skim the edge of an estate that has evolved through the centuries, old manors still traceable in the ground and whispered in the place names. While the ancient families grew, the estate also developed. Keeping with the fashion of the time, Bryanston led the way, starting from scratch three times over. The demise of the family led to the sale of the third house to become a private school. Discover the original gatehouses neighbouring the River Stour and the town bridge that once saved the lives of those that could not be saved. View the powerful yet peaceful River Stour, populated with otters and swans, but centuries ago was a hub of smuggling and piracy thanks to its easy access to the sea and controlled by famous historical figures.
Distance: 6 miles/8km
Duration: 3 hours
Max Height: 400ft.
Min Height: 120ft.
Total climb: 300ft.
Terrain: Track, path road and field.
Map: OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis.
Start Point: Bryanston Club Car park. (Postcode: DT11 0PT, Grid Reference: ST870068, What Three Words: meaty.could.short).
How to Get There: From Blandford, cross over the bridge and past Bryanston drive. Take the next right hand turn to the top of the hill and turn right again into Bryanston village. Follow the road around the tight corner and the car park is straight ahead.
Dogs: In accordance with the Countryside Code and any notices on route.
Refreshments: On route is the Stour Inn and more options are in Blandford, including the Crown Inn.
The little village of Bryanston sits on the western edge of the River Stour as it widely swerves around the market town of Blandford Forum. It lies buried amongst the trees of the larger estate of Bryanston, today a private school. The area has produced evidence of ancient activity dating back to the Iron Age and through the Roman period in the form of burial mounds, pottery and jewellery.
The name dates back to the first Lord of the estate, Brian de I’lse of the 12th century, the name also indicating a French influence after William the Conqueror’s triumph. However, he was an English solider serving King John and in 1204 was given the land by the king having confiscated it from a supporter of the King of France. The addition of ‘Tun’ is simply the old English for estate.
The original village was cited much closer to the River Stour, near the location of the oldest recorded manor. The, still existing, Portman Chapel sits on the site of the medieval church which lay in the centre of the old village. As the manor grew, the village shrunk and when the Great Fire of Blandford hit, in 1731, the few households that remained were destroyed. However, here the village was rebuilt and rose from the ashes as a bustling population gainfully employed in agriculture and service based around the main house.
From the parking spot, walk through the village, downhill, passing a number of 18th century cottages. Bend with the road around to the right and then turn left. Take the next footpath just after a farm on your right and through the first of many kissing gates. Fork slightly right and over two stiles as you climb the hill. The chimneys of Bryanston House appear amongst the trees on the right. At the next stile, turn left and cross over the road, keeping the road barrier on your right. Pass through another kissing gate to enter into a field. Wrap around the buildings, crossing a double stile and head straight up to the next gate. Turn left onto a track and, leaving the school behind, walk straight on up to the next boundary. Turn right heading towards the woods with the main school downhill on your right.
Bryanston’s history involves three manor houses. The oldest has been immortalised thanks to an old engraving by J Kip (1714), showing elaborate gardens and the original drive that crossed the river just upstream from the weir, which still gushes today. It was also recorded in a map produced by the architects John and William Bastard, shortly after the Great Fire of Blandford, to represent the damage caused by the flying flames. The drive led to Blandford via Bryanston Street that today leads nowhere. It was owned by the Rodgers family, Richard Rodgers being the Sheriff of Dorset. However, his title did not prevent him from taking part in the odd smugglers jaunt. Alongside his friend and explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh from Sherborne, they both used an old wharf based at the Crown Hotel in Blandford, which Richard Rodgers happened to own at the time. The Stour, which gains its name from the old English meaning ‘The Strong One’, provided a quick route to and from the coast whenever necessary.
The house was pulled down in 1778 by the Portman family, who had become owners of the estate after the Rodgers, and they replaced it with a new manor designed by James Wyatt. The design also included two gatehouses at the new north and south entrances, still in situ today. This also led to the privatisation of their land and the construction of Durweston bridge, to channel the traffic away from the house.
Sadly the house only survived for 100 years or so as, in the 1890’s, a second demolition took place. On and near its site, some elements still remain. The medieval church was remodelled into the Portman Chapel and the new parish church dedicated to St Martin’s was constructed nearby, completed in 1898. An old service wing also still survives along with a collection of faint earthworks. Wyatt’s house was replaced with a brand new building just to the north west of the original site with a red brick, Georgian design by Norman Shaw, who also designed Albion House (the headquarters of The Titanic Owners White Star Line) in Liverpool. The country house was one of the largest to be built at the time as well as one of the last, and was completed, like the church, in 1898.
After 200 years of owning the estate and only 30 years of living in the new mansion, the lands were sold off. The house and park (450 acres of immediate grounds) were sold to an educational trust in 1928 for £35,000 and became the home of Bryanston School. The remaining estate passed back to the Crown. The demise of the family was due to three successive heads all dying within a decade of each other and subsequently the family were decimated by death duties.
Despite a bumpy start during the mid-1930s, when it was the location of Anglo-German youth camps where the Hitler Youth and Boy Scouts tried to bond, the school flourished, following the liberal and creative principles of the Dalton Plan. Previous pupils include a range of characters including the designer Jasper Conran, the singer Cerys Matthews, the television presenter Ben Fogle, the actress Emila Fox, the Arab princess Haya bint al-Hussein, the architect John Quinlan Terry and Tess of the Vale!
Meanwhile, the estate remained in the hands of the Crown until 2015 when it was purchased by a UK company held on behalf of the Viscount Rothermere, of Daily Mail fame, and his son the Hon Vere Harmsworth for an unknown sum.
Enter into the wood through the bottom corner and over a stile. Follow the path deeper through the trees, turning left when guided by a post, to steeply descend the hill. At the bottom, when you meet another path, turn right wandering through the towering trees. Follow the route around to the right to curve down to the Bryanston drive and then left on the road, walking away from the school. Pass Wyatt’s northern gatehouse and take the next footpath on the left back up the hill while following the boundary of The Hangings.
Keep to the faint path marked in the grass along and up the dry valley and, as you approach the woodland ahead, turn left through a gate and back into the woods. Turn left, then right, then left again onto a smaller, camouflaged path up the steep hillside (eyes peeled for this elusive path!). Exit through a metal gate into a wide open field. Fork right heading to the next kissing gate that slowly appears over the brow. At the peak, the views span far and wide. Behind you, both Blandford and Bryanston sit in the valley, the chimney tops of Bryanston looking fierce amongst tree tops. Above, the communications tower of Blandford Camp marks the hilltop before the landscape transforms into the hunting ground of Cranborne Chase. The ridge then slowly merges northwards into Fontmell Down and Melbury Beacon. Further around the ancient hillforts of Hod and Hambledon, rise up, the slopes of Hambledon marked with its historic yew wood.
Pass the ruined barns hidden within the trees of The Bushes on your right to arrive at the next gate. Fork right and slowly move away from the wood heading down the hill to Higher Farm Cottages in the valley. Cross over a stile to skim past the right hand side of the cottages and, on joining the little road, turn sharply left. Circle the buildings and take the next right hand footpath through a gate and off the road. Head diagonally up the hill, crossing a stile at just over halfway before meeting the next road. The views open up wide again, back to Blandford and Bryanston as well as the previous route alongside the school grounds and on the opposite slopes, all now in the ownership of Lord Rothermere.
When you reach the road, cross straight over and follow the track past the farm buildings to Quarleston. Here you join the route of The Crown bike ride that circles the area towards the old Somerset and Dorset Railway. At the barns, fork left, then right, then left again to enter a large field, walking diagonally across towards the Lower Enclosure.
An old ruin appears in the trees on your right, a crumbling chimney of a once much larger building. Enter the woods through a gate on your right and follow the track into, and straight through, the woods. On leaving, keep to the high boundary reaching a gate taking you onto a channelled path around Beech Clump. Gradually the views over Blandford St Mary appear, dominated by the Hall and Woodhouse Brewery. Remain on the track heading towards town, the noise of its activity getting increasingly louder. In the last field before Bryanston Farm, fork left, over a stile, to cut diagonally across. Climb a second stile and follow the marked route leading around the horses and out of the field. At the road, turn right for a little diversion into Blandford. At the junction, turn left following the road past Wyatt’s southern gatehouse and towards Blandford Bridge.
The bridge marks an important and historic crossing of the river, the wide flood plain of the Stour and sheer force of the river made crossings rare but they were vital. The crossing’s importance even included in the town’s name. Records of the bridge date back to 1288, with many subsequent reports of maintenance. It is rumoured that lepers took refuge under its arches while the Great Fire of Blandford ravaged the town.
Retrace your footsteps along the lower road using the older route that would have led to the original river crossing, now lined with the old cottages and The Stour Inn. Return to the junction and turn right to begin a climb up the hill. After about ½ a mile sticking to the old brick and flint wall, turn right into Bryanston village. Follow it around the corner and through the more modern extension to the settlement. Turn left at the phone box and though a kissing gate to fork right down the hill and back to the carpark.