Explore the little known peak of Shipton Hillfort, towering above its little hamlet below with views over the Jurassic Coast. Wander along the high slopes, across narrow valleys and through the scattered pockets of woodland, passing gushing streams, old farms and manor houses. Discover the rare Real Tennis Court, built to impress a king, and escape through wild landscape on the old medieval trackways. All in the company of wide open views deep inland over West Dorset, the horizon marked with a number of other ancient Hillforts.
Distance: 5 miles/8km
Duration: 2 hours
Ability: Medium – a couple of big climbs.
Max Height: 540ft.
Min Height: 640ft.
Total climb: 300ft.
Terrain: Track, path road and field.
Map: OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis.
Start Point: Shipton Gorge Village Hall Car park. (Postcode: DT6 4LY, Grid Reference: SY497914, What Three Words: recruiter.clenching.upset).
How to Get There: From Bridport, head east on the A35. Soon after the road turns back into single lanes, turn right towards Shipton Gorge. Follow it into the village and at the crossroads, turn right. Turn right again onto Church Lane to park safely out of the way. It’s a little steep so if you struggle there are other options in the village.
Dogs: In accordance with the Countryside Code and any notices on route.
Refreshments: In the village is The New Inn
Shipton Gorge is an easily forgotten village, sandwiched between the busy main A35 road and the popular Jurassic Coast. Set deep within the steep valleys of the little Shipton stream, a tributary to the River Bride, it is looked down upon by four towering hills. Bonscombe rises to the North East and the peak of Shipton Hill to the North West. To the south are Hammiton Hill and North Hill. Despite these slopes the name has no reference to an actual gorge. Instead the name derives from the ancient de Gorges family. At the time of the Domesday Book, in 1086, the village was called Sepetone (Saxon for sheep farm), but this soon changed as William the Conqueror’s allies began to spread their wings. At first it was renamed to Shipton Maureward having been given to Thomas Maureward in 1260. The de Gorges came over the channel with William and grew as a family through the following centuries, eventually gaining the land of Litton Cheney as well as Shipton. In 1461 their only daughter married into the Coplestone family, who remained at the village for several generations, but the de Gorges name stuck. Ruins of a wall to the South West of the church sit in Manor Dairy. This is the remains of a garden wall which was once Court House, built by the Coplestone family.
During the Civil War the Coplestones took the side of the King, resulting in their lands being confiscated. Shipton then passed into the Strangeways family (the Earls of Ilchester) until the land was sold off in lots in 1910. Despite its peaceful ruralness, during the war it wasn’t unexpected for a bomb to be dropped as enemy aircraft offloaded what they hadn’t used. The beaches nearby would have been out of bounds, covered in barbed wire and dragons teeth.
Today the village is mixed with old and new, the majority around the church and made from local golden stone. A bullock’s heart was found in one of the cottages chimneys when it was being swept. It had thorns and pins stuck through it, a charm used against witches! On the road leading to the church is the thatched roofed old school. Built in 1862 it served many children of the village. However, by 1949 there were only 8 on the register, leading to its closure.
The Church of St Martin dates back to the 15th century and is placed high in the village, looking down upon the main street on one side and the old Court House site on the other. It was rebuilt in 1862 by John Hicks. who Thomas Hardy worked for, and who also designed Bettiscombe and Turnworth amongst many others. However the west tower remained unchanged, its much larger stone construction giving its age away. Inside is a seven sided font dating back to the 13th century.
From the car parking spot, walk on up to the church to follow the path along its southern edge. At the end of the churchyard, turn left to make your way down through the orchard and into the village. On meeting Brook Street turn right to pass through the narrow street, lined with golden stoned cottages. After only 50m or so, turn left at the next footpath sign, climbing up a short sharp hill up a driveway. Take the left hand stone steps up a short climb and around to a stile. Head on over and turn right. On your right is small woodland left to the village in 1985 in the will of Nicky Richardson, saving it from development and ensuring its future for the following generations. It is a pocket of wildness amongst the bustle of the village, with a small stream running through its centre and populated with badgers, deer and foxes.
Follow the edge of the wood to a muddy path guiding you down a steep slope to some more stone steps and the road. Turn right, pass the cottage and take the next footpath on the left for Shipton Hill. At the end of the path it brings you out into an open field where the climb really starts. Clamber the stile and walk straight across the field to meet a stile about half way along the boundary. The views back to Shipton Gorge appear behind, the church rises high but there is no sign of the older village buried below. Fork left aiming for the right hand side of the clump of trees. Exit the field over another stile (looking out for the big stone containing a fossil, sitting on the edge of the path!) and turn right through the trees. Climb over another stile and continue straight ahead up the hill, veering slightly right as you reach the top. A gate then guides the way onto the scrubland of Shipton Hill. The area is open access land which means you can take which ever path you feel most suited to to reach the top, a trig point making its peak.
It is best to follow the trodden route, taking you almost straight up the steep slope of its Western edge.
The views grow behind once again, this time stretching out to the coast and the peak of Golden Cap. Inland the Hillforts of Coney’s Castle, Lambert’s Castle, Pilsdon Pen and Lewesdon Hill circle the Marshwood Vale below. Continue to follow the path through the scrubland to discover the trig point.
Shipton Hill is most likely to have been used as an Iron Age Hillfort. The trig point sits on what has been suggested to be an Iron Age bowl barrow. Excavations have produced a number of artefacts dating to this period including pottery, hammer stones, flint flakes and scrapers, spindle whorls, sling stones, flint arrow heads, quern fragments, a Kimmeridge Shale ring and a possible bronze spear tip. The hill itself is a prominent landmark reaching 180 m high (588ft). Its shape is said to resemble an upturned ship, hence its name. At its base, on its north eastern side, are a number of irregularities in the landscape that suggest an ancient village.
Hammiton Hill to the south is similar in shape but not as defined as Shipton and nowhere near as high. It is more exposed too, but with the largest forest in the parish at its base. It does have a round barrow at its peak, like Shipton, but there is no public access to explore.
It is worthwhile to continue along the crown of the Shipton Hill to its eastern edge, with views stretching back to Dorchester and another Hillfort, Eggerdon. All of the hillforts having once been ruled by chieftains with a later Roman influence, the landscape below providing the communication links for these communities to thrive.
Retrace your steps back to the trig point and continue straight ahead in the direction of Shipton Gorge. When you meet a T-junction of paths (clearer on the way down as it was on the way up) turn right. At the next T-junction, turn right again to find a narrow channelled path. Weave your way through the gnarly woodland and forgotten coppice all the way back down the hill to Shipton Lane and then cross straight over the road.
Climb up another small hump and down the other side to meet a stile. Head straight across the next field, keeping the boundary on your left and at the end, climb over a double stile. Follow the boundary on your left, gently climbing again and then cut through the hedge via a stile next to the telegraph pole. A small concrete water tower sits on the peak ahead but before the slopes dip, turn left over another stile, cutting the corner of Innsacre Farm. Walk straight across the field, bearing slightly left with Innsacre appearing below on the right. Innsacre House was built in the 17th century and it is claimed that it was partially constructed out of stone from the old Coplestone Court House. The farm is placed in a deep narrow valley, completely hidden, but protected from the outside world. Shipton Hill, in comparison, rises high on the left, demanding attention and prepared for attack!
Join onto a track and shortly after it bends to the right, turn left onto the field. Follow the hedgerow on your left to meet Barr Lane. Turn right and, at the junction with Shipton Lane, turn right again, trying to ignore the later developments of Shipton Gorge on the left. At the upcoming junction, turn left onto the dead end road of Bonscombe Lane. At the end, the road splits. Take the left hand track, with Prairie De Gorge sitting on the hill ahead. This was originally two ruined, thatched farm cottages that have been lovingly restored into a luxury self-catering retreat. It neighbours Bonscombe Farm, an impressive Victorian farmhouse. Curve around to the right where the trees begin to get thicker, the slopes begin to get steeper and the mud, muddier. Gradually the path becomes more of a Holloway with the roots of trees exposing themselves through the banks at eyelevel. Keep descending along the path until you meet Cherrywood Farm and turn sharply right to follow the road and trickling stream down the hill to Walditch.
On the surrounding slopes are a huge number of strip lynchets, terraced banks built into the landscape in order to help agricultural practices dating back to the Iron Age. They are commonly found in the company of Hillforts but were still used through the medieval period, hence their survival. The lumps and bumps are hidden amongst woodland and under scrub but those that are exposed are hard to miss.
At the T-junction, the hum of the A35 is at its most invasive, the flashing colours of passing vehicles are glimpsed through the vegetation ahead. Turn left to then head straight through the village. Walditch is a little known settlement, accessible only by little country lanes with the sole purpose to reach the village. The name Walditch derives from the Saxon ‘Waldyke’, where ‘walu’ (Old English) is ridge of earth or stone and ‘dīc’ (Old English) is a ditch, so it does describe the local landscape accurately. However, the Walha’ was the Anglo-Saxon name for the indigenous people of ‘Britain’ who were left behind after the Roman exodus, providing possibly another interpretation for the village.
Pass the modern buildings to reach the older part of the village including the old Manor House, the turreted wall of the 19th century Shute Hayes, both on the left, and the ‘Ye old Post Office’ back on your right. Eventually you meet the village green with the old school house and the small chapel of St Mary’s on the left. Remain on the road to circle to the green and then take the next left hand track running past the Hyde Real Tennis Court on the right.
Real tennis is the medieval root of lawn tennis and squash, but it had more complex rules and required a specific court. It tended to be played by royalty and the rich and experienced a resurgence during the 19th century. This particular court was built in 1885 by Joseph Gundry on a site that was claimed to have had another court used by King Henry VII. Gundry wanted to try and impress Edward VII (Prince of Wales at the time) but sadly he died in a hunting accident in 1891 and never got the chance to show it off. It failed as a real tennis court and instead was used as a roller-skating rink.
In 1930 it had become nothing more than a barn but during the Second World War it was fully taken advantage of. In 1939 it was the Royal Artillery’s dining room while nearby Hyde House was the living quarters. In 1942, the Americans requisitioned the building, knocking a hole in the wall to allow access for their tanks! It is also reported that General Montgomery, General Eisenhower (before he was president) and General Bradley all visited here, all be it separately.
After the war it returned to being just a barn but in 1995, when the owner (another) Joseph Gundry died, he left it to the Bridport and West Dorset Sports Trust. In 1998 it was refurbished at a cost of £400,000, with help from the National Lottery and is now one of the best examples of a real tennis court, being one of only 25 in Britain and 50 worldwide. It continues to work as a Real Tennis Club, continuing the sport for future generations.
Behind the court, you can just make out Hyde House chimneys. The Hyde estate gained its name from the medieval Hyde family. It slowly passed through a number of other families, linked by marriage, until it was sold to Joseph Pearkes Fox Gundry in 1849.
As you begin the slow climb up the hill, only glimpses of Hyde House are possible. Originally a Tudor Manor, Joseph Gundry grafted a Victorian Gothic frontage, with the initials JG engraved above the front doors. Inside is said to be a leather tapestry from a Russian monastery. The house managed to escape too much damage after a fire in 1922 but once the Gundry family sold, it became a Bupa Care Home.
Follow the track past the barn as the route gradually gets steeper and muddier once again. Keep to the right hand side of the bushes and, at the top, join onto a track and turn left. Continue to climb and at the peak, where you meet a stile, the views span far and wide to the North West. Hyde House sits in the valley while Coney’s Castle, Lambert’s Castle, Pilsdon Pen and Lewesdon Hill mark the skyline. Below this imposing landscape sits the small settlement of Bradpole, with its little Holy Trinity Church and spire neighbouring the floodplains of the Mangerton River.
Climb the stile and fork left in the next field to meet a gate, the little hump of Shipton appearing to the east, making it possible to view your previously walked footsteps. Head through the gate and Bonscombe valley drops steeply away on your left back down to Cherrywood Farm. Follow the right hand boundary to the next stile and gate and then take the middle route though the field, ignoring the tracks either side. Cut straight across to join onto Burbitt Lane in the bottom corner. Follow it down the hill and to a crossroads back in Shipton Gorge.
Cross straight over onto Port Lane, passing the playground on the right, given to the village by George Samways from Innsacre. Shortly, you arrive at Church Lane, turn right, passing the old school on the left, to return to your vehicle.