Cerne Abbas, Bramble Bottom and St Catherine

After visiting the ancient abbey remains and the magical St Augustine’s Well, explore the southern landscape of Cerne Abbas. Pass the 13th century Tithe Barn and clamber the medieval earthworks of the deserted village before exploring the woodland and River Cerne’s valley, the water having supplied breweries for centuries (Cerne Abbas Brewery still going for a possible pit stop!). Circle the prehistoric landscape of Green Hill and climb Bramble Bottom to the lost site of St Catherine’s Chapel. The location today, once so spiritual, just a lonely farm, passed unknowingly by many travelling on the Dorchester to Sherborne road.

Distance:  5 miles/7.5km

Duration: 3 hours

Ability: Easy.

Max Height: 770ft.

Min Height: 350ft.

Total climb: 460ft.

Terrain: Track, path field and road.

Map: OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis.

Start Point: Long Street, Cerne Abbas. (Postcode: DT2 7JF, Grid Reference: ST665011, What Three Words: adopting.verge.instructs).

How to Get There: From Dorchester, travel north out of the town, turning right at Lidl onto Westleaze. Continue past Charminster and remain on the same road for approximately 6 miles. Turn left onto Piddle Lane and, at the bottom of the hill, turn left again onto Long Street to then find an appropriate parking spot.

Toilets: Public toilets are opposite the Royal Oak

Refreshments: The New Inn, The Giant Inn and The Royal Oak, all in Cerne Abbas and passed on route.

Cerne Abbas is internationally famous for its giant above all else. The 180ft. high, ancient chalk figure, carved into the steep hillside has looked down upon the village for centuries. Owned by the National Trust it represents a nude man striding towards the left, holding a knotted club in the right hand and the left arm stretched out; the nipples, ribs and male genitalia all boldly represented. His age and origin has often been debated. Despite there being no known historical record before 1694, some believe that he represents the Roman god, Hercules, or that he is a Pagan fertility symbol while others believe he represents a more recent caricature of a historical figure. To add more confusion to its history, a Celtic skillet was discovered on the Iron Age Hillfort of Hod Hill. Carved within it is an intricate representation of their fertility God Cernuous, surprisingly similar to the Giant, even matching its most prominent features. However, as recently as 2021, soil samples were analysed and archaeologists now believe he was created during the late Saxon period, AD700 to 1100. The research also suggested that the giant was forgotten after it was first sculpted and then later rediscovered. Just above his head is a rectangular earthwork called The Trendle or Frying Pan and was more recently used for maypole dancing by the villagers.

Abbey Street

The village survives today on its tourist industry, enticing people from across the globe to view the ‘Rude Giant’. Having avoided development over the years, and maintaining its medieval appearance, Cerne Abbas was voted Britain’s “Most Desirable Village” in 2008 by estate agent Savills, the award pinned to the bus stop.

On visiting the village, it is always worth a diversion down the old Abbey Street to view the medieval houses, the duck filled pond, remains of the ancient abbey and the mysterious St Augustine Well.

In AD 597 St Augustine arrived in Kent, having been sent to England by Pope Gregory the Great, to convert the inhabitants to Christianity. He led a group of missionaries along the English coast, into Ethelbert’s outlying territory, now Dorset. Originally he was rejected, laughed at and even chased out the village with fish tails tied to his clothes. But the villagers’ hearts soon changed and St Augustine believed this was divine intervention, naming the settlement Cernel, meaning ‘God’s decision’, or ‘God’s will’.

The plan of the site – on display in the porch

Walking up Abbey Street, on your left you pass a terrace of houses built around 1500, the individual tenements separated by stone party walls with elaborately moulded corbelling. No. 2 (Barnwells) was formerly the Nag’s Head Inn. The street would have once been the centre of activity for the whole village as well as welcoming guests to the Abbey.

The South Gate House or Abbey Farmhouse

Continue up the cobbled lane to reach the site of the Abbey. Cerne Abbas grew around a great Benedictine Abbey, which was founded in AD 987. The Abbey dominated the area for more than 500 years until it was surrendered to Henry VIII in 1539, with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The main building was demolished, however, a portion of the Abbot’s Porch and Abbey guesthouse remain. It is thought Abbey Farm House, which was rebuilt after a fire in the 1750s, was formerly the main gateway to the Abbey.

Site earthworks (Image: BHO)

Despite the loss of the Abbey the village still managed to prosper. Cerne’s fresh water supply fuelled a highly successful brewing trade. The beer was sold as far as London and even exported to America, the village itself benefiting, containing no fewer than 15 public houses.

The Abbey Porch

At the end of the street, behind the farmhouse, sits the Abbott’s porch, the owner allowing careful visitors. The impressive ruin contains a large oriel window looking down upon all those who enter. The elaborate structure can only feed your imagination of what the abbey must have looked like, especially if this was only the porch! There are no records that show the truth of the abbey’s appearance, but it must have undoubtedly been one of the most impressive buildings in the county. The porch itself, like Abbey Street, would have been a bustling bottleneck welcoming the arriving pedestrians, carts and horses.

The oriel windows

Head through a metal gate next to the pond which brings you into the old churchyard. Following the path to the right brings you to St Augustine’s Well, sometimes called St Catherine’s Well or Silver Well. It is in a rectangular shape, bordered by medieval walls, thought to have been part of the medieval church associated with the Abbey. Its small path is lined by lime trees, known locally as the Twelve Apostles.

St Augustine’s Well

In the 9th century, Edwold, brother of King Edmund, answered a call of a vision, telling him to travel to a Silver Well. On arriving at Cerne a shepherd showed him to this spring, which seemed to Edwold to be the fulfilment of the prophecy. He then set up home here as a hermit, living a simple holy life until his death in AD871. A century later, the Benedictine Abbey of Cerne was founded on his chosen spot.

St Augustine's Well Cerne Abbas Dorset

St Augustine’s story was later elaborated by the monks in the 11th century. They claimed St Augustine met some shepherds grazing their flocks and asked them whether they would prefer beer or water to drink. The shepherds replied, ‘Water’, whereupon St. Augustine struck the ground with his staff, crying ‘Cerno El’ and a spring gushed out, becoming known as St Augustine’s Well.

The Catherine wheel

The St Catherine link is encouraged by the presence of a carving of an eight-spoked Catherine wheel. The eight spokes may have represented the eight agricultural festival dates of solstices, equinoxes and the cross-quarter days, that our prehistoric ancestors observed and celebrated. The stone is potentially from St Catherine’s Chapel, which was located on a nearby hill to the North-East of the village, the precise location unknown.

There are many superstitions associated with the sacred water, they include the following:

  1. At dawn on Easter Day, it is said you will see over your shoulder and reflected in the water the faces of those who will die that year.
  2. Drinking the waters was said to be a cure for infertility, and helpful for those who wish to become pregnant.
  3. If you pick a laurel leaf, dip it into the water and press it to the eyes, it will cure soreness of the eyes.
  4. It was to be a benefit to dip a new-born baby in the waters just as the sun’s rays first touched them.
  5. Girls were recommended to go there and pray to St. Catherine for a husband, turning round three times as they did so.
  6. The well is known to be a wishing well.

The water is perfectly healthy to drink, but best to do so during the winter months and early spring when it is flowing freely. In the summer there is a risk of it becoming stagnant.

St Mary’s Church

Returning to Abbey Street and passing the medieval houses for the second time, you come to St Mary’s church. It was built by the Abbey in the late 13th century, retaining many of its original features. Nevertheless, it has had many alterations and apparently even gained the great East window from the destruction of the Abbey.

As you enter back into the centre of the village you pass the 16th century Royal Oak on your left to then turn right to pass the Giant Inn. The Giant Inn, originally called The Red Lion Hotel, was destroyed by a fire in 1898 and was replaced by the Victorian building with leaded windows

The Red Lion Hotel now The Giant Inn in c.1910. The little boys are sitting on an old water shute, now hidden behind the bus stop.
The same spot in 2022

Continue down the road to wander through the residential streets that were once scattered with pubs. Pass the timber framed, thatched building that was the Bell Inn and the still existing New Inn with its 19th Century carriage entrance.

Stay on Long Street, walk past the phone box and onto The Folly. Take the footpath on the left onto a rubble track leading to the old Tithe Barn. Divert off the drive to the left, passing the Tithe barn on your right.

The Tithe Barn was built in the middle of the 14th century as part of the Abbey complex. In the 18th century the south half of the building was converted into a house while the North end has been considerably reduced in length, but still has remains of a destroyed doorway in the East wall and a doorway covered by a porch in the West wall.

The Tithe Barn

Follow the footpath away from the village and into the countryside onto a collection of earthworks. They cover an area of nearly 8 acres, situated between the main road and the river, consisting of a series of rectangular enclosures and trackways. This is most likely the part of the village that suffered with the loss of the abbey, resulting in the decay of the buildings, reuse of materials and the movement of people towards the centre of the village.

The village earthworks

Bear right walking directly through the deserted village remains to the next boundary. At the corner, bear right again, climb 3 stiles and cut across the field to meet the woodland. Join a track and follow it straight through the trees to meet a farm road and turn left, heading towards Cerne Abbas Brewery. Cut through the farm, cross the river, pass the brewery and onto another track taking you up to the base of Black Hill.

Crossing the River Cerne

On the high, steep slopes above sit another collection of earthworks, representing two ancient settlements neighbouring a Bronze Age buriel mound. The eastern settlement is less prominent, with a slight triangular shape, while the western site includes an enclosure, with internal platforms on three levels, both of which are surrounded by field systems. They not only may have had connections with the Trendle site, but on the opposite slopes of the valley are similar earthworks including Smacam Down, Dickley Hill and Weam Common Hill.

The base of the steep slopes of Black Hill

At the base of the steep slopes you enter into open access land, allowing you, if you have the energy, to climb up to the earthworks. Turn right to follow the muddy track along the gradient of the Black Hill. On dipping into Oxencombe Bottom, turn sharply right and down to meet a stile and into a field. Walk diagonally down the hill to the gate, passing some watercress beds on the right and walking parallel to the babbling River Cerne. Join a tractor trail, which grows into a track, following it all the way to Pound Farm.

Approaching Pound Farm

Once in the centre of the yard, turn left and left again onto another track, curving around the base of Green Hill. Green Hill is topped with more earthworks; five Bronze Age burial mounds in a line that would have once shone white, capped in chalk. Surrounding them are further field systems, slowly fading with age. Pass through another gate and then over a stile on the left. Bear right aiming for the top corner and climb another stile. Keep the boundary on your left to then cut through the hedge, over another stile. Turn right to follow the narrow, deep and wooded path to the base of Bramble Bottom.

Leave the cocooned path by climbing a couple of stiles and head down to the gate and trough sitting in the bowl of the hill. Climb over the stile and curve with the trodden path following the dry valley up Bramble Bottom. Pass under the high wires, through a gate and onto a chalk track.

Bramble Bottom

At the top, when the track curves to the left, continue straight ahead, climbing the bank to the high stile. Cross over the farm track and over a second stile to enter into a wide field. Bear slightly right aiming for the corner of Black Hill Farm. On meeting the farm track, turn left and walk straight pass the farm houses. When the track bends to the left, continue straight ahead and over another two stiles. Once in the field, turn left keeping tight to the boundary and around its internal corner.

The views to the South West
St Catherine’s Farm

More earthworks exist on the left consisting of another enclosure while St Catherine’s Farm sits on the peak of the hill to the right. The name could suggest that it is in this area where the chapel to St Catherine was sited. If so, this area would have been sacred. Today the lonely farm and open fields are passed by so many travelling on the top Dorchester to Sherborne road, completely unaware of it’s important past. Make your way over the brow of the highest point of the walk with Giants Hill appearing opposite, the Trendle revealing its southern corner as the slopes dip down to the village.

The view back down to Cerne Abbas

Climb the stile on your left and then turn right, entering back onto the open access land. The views to the village open out with the old workhouse sitting on the northern edge. Just below are the earthworks of the Abbey, carpeting the lower slopes of Giants Hill. Once over the stile, bear left to walk down the hill to the village; clambering more questionable, yet unmissable earthworks to meet the Piddle Lane. When on the road, turn left to continue to head down the hill and, in about 150 metres or so, turn left into a gap in the trees. Walk up and over the little bank using the little steps to reach a wooden gate. Head on through and continue straight ahead. Ignore the first footpath on the right and instead continue to the end and through another gate. Turn immediately right walking down the hill and heading past the allotments. On arriving at the houses continue straight ahead and, at Back Lane, turn right.

Remain on the road, making your way through the more modern buildings and at the junction, turn left to Long Street. Turn left again making your way through the village to return to your vehicle.

Walk Excerpts

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