Start at the beautiful, bygone and bustling building of Athelhampton, sitting on the banks of the River Piddle in Hardy’s Vale of the Great Dairies. Follow the river as it flows downstream, the clear, sparkling waters having influenced both poets and writers in stories that are still read today. Cross earthworks of a Roman Road, once marched by soldiers, now buried by nature. Meet the remains of a medieval park pale that penned in the deer for the hunting gentry, but now run free across the landscape. Wander up to the thick woodland that sits on the hilltop, lined with tall pine trees, giant beech and ancient oaks. Their hefty trunks circle the many naturally deep sinkholes and raised ancient burial mounds, while the floor can be carpeted in bluebells. Discover the stone dedicated to a war hero and a memorial garden for contemplation. Pass farms and manors, many ruined then repaired, though narrow paths and open fields all with wide open views across south and west Dorset.
Distance: 4.5 miles/7km
Duration: 2 hours
Max Height: 350ft.
Min Height: 160ft.
Total climb: 340ft.
Terrain: Track, path, road and field.
Map: OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas and Bere Regis
Start Point: Athelhampton House. (Postcode: DT2 7LG, Grid Reference: SY769942, What Three Words: overcomes.spend.dreamer.
How to Get There: From Dorchester, travel east on the A35. Turn off at the Puddletown roundabout and head into the village. At the T-Junction, turn left and Athelhampton appears on the left in about a mile.
Dogs: In accordance with the Countryside Code and any notices on route.
Refreshments: At the start and finish of the walk is the The Coach House Restaurant (open to the public the same hours as the house). Nearby is The Blue Vinny in Puddletown. The Martyrs Inn in Tolpuddle is currently closed.
The small hamlet of Athelhampton is dominated by the house that gives the village its name. The manor is believed to be one of the finest Tudor manors in the country and is surrounded by impressive gardens, all sitting on the banks of the little River Piddle. It was first recorded in the Domesday Book as Pidele Manor and was owned by the Bishop of Salisbury. The name Athelhelm appeared in the 13th century and by the 14th century it was in the ownership of the Martyn family, who remained there for the next 250 years. The family proceeded to make a number of alterations, the most notable being the Great Hall, built in 1485. In 1495 the family received license to encastellate the house as well as the permission to create a 160 acre deer park. Further developments occurred during the 16th century including the Gatehouse (demolished in 1862), the west wing and the dovecote. The family’s crest was of an ape, staring at a mirror with the motto ‘He who looks at Martin’s ape, Martin’s ape shall look at him’.
In 1661, the only remaining heiress to the Martyn family, Mary Brune, married Sir Ralph Bankes from Corfe Castle and Kingston Lacy. With the management of his other properties already enough, in 1665 he sold the house to Sir Robert Long. Long’s Grandson, James Long, was an avid gambler, amassing a number of debts. He successfully managed to hide in the house, away from the creditors, saving the house from being seized. However, the house fell into disrepair, the family rarely returned and the manor was reduced to a farmhouse occupied by tenants. In 1825 it was inherited by William Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley.
In 1848 it was sold to George Wood, who went on to repair the roof to the Great Hall and build the new church in the village but it was he who demolished the Gatehouse. He later built Bardolf Manor, to the North West, selling Athelhampton, but keeping the majority of farmland, to Alfred Cart de Lafontaine in 1891.
Lafontaine set about restoring the house (using some of Wood’s rubble) and initiated the garden design. He took on Francis Indigo Thomas who created the architectural splendour that still exists today. Lafontaine was an elusive yet flamboyant character. His history was more middle class than aristocratic, apparently adopting the name ‘Lafontaine’ to his simple ‘Cart’ to appear more upper class. He was friends with Thomas Hardy, who would often visit. The house did not escape his tales either, calling it Athelhall in in the short story ‘The Waiting Supper’. On the opposite side of the River Piddle sits Waterston Manor – the home of Bathsheba Everglade from ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’.
Sadly Lafontaine’s favourite nephew and heir died in the First World War and, disheartened, in 1916 he sold his beloved mansion to cover the costs of his refurbishments and embellishments.
In 1957 it was sold to the surgeon Robert Victor Cooke. His plan was to continue the restoration of the manor and use it to house his collection of 16th and 17th-century furniture, paintings, tapestries and carvings. He was also the first owner to open the house up to the public. In 1966 he gave Athelhampton to his son as a wedding present, who continued to bring up his family in the house. Patrick Cooke inherited the manor in 1995 and continued his family’s legacy.
The house became a popular tourist destination having appeared as the backdrops for a number of films too. The Coach House was renovated for visitors in 1997 and the thatched River Cottage turned into a secluded getaway.
In 2019 Athelhampton was put up for sale with a guide price of £7.5 million, its contents being put up for auction. The house was purchased by the economist Giles Keating. Although almost immediately hit with the Covid restrictions, Keating’s focus was undeterred in preserving the house for the future; not only in terms of restoration but in sustainability too. The house is still open to the public and there are plans to reduce the use of gas and oil and introduce solar power. Keating’s passion for the property is demonstrated further by him writing his own book about the history of Athelhampton, available on Amazon.
The house is also known for its residents that have never left. Some believe it to be one of the most haunted houses in the country. Characters include a barrel maker known as Cooper, a grey lady and a monk, believed to be the catholic priest of the Martyn family. Noises echo through the halls consisting of gentle tapping on walls and footsteps along corridors, but nobody there to produce them. The sound of scratching claws can also be heard, claimed to be the spirit of a monkey, which died in a secret chamber in 1595, still desperate for escape.
From the car park head out onto the road and turn left, being aware of any passing traffic. Turn right, just before the old toll house, with a redundant Victorian post box set into its wall, and onto a track to meet St Johns Church. George Wood employed John Hicks of Dorchester as the architect, building it in a new location away from the house. Thomas Hardy was an apprentice for Hicks at the time and so no doubt had some involvement with its design and construction.
In 1975 the church had fallen into disrepair and was declared redundant. Sir Robert Cooke bought it from the Church Commissioner saving it from ruin, but just used the building for storage. In 1996 it was discovered by Father John Nield who was looking for somewhere for an emerging Greek Orthodox group. They had already dedicated themselves to St Edward the Martyr and with an engraving of him in one of the windows, it seemed to be fate. A congregation still worships at the church every Sunday.
After the church, turn left (or leave through the rear of the churchyard) and onto a track. Pass the houses, with their frontages facing this old road, and stay in the river valley. The water meanders through its floodplains and curves to meet you as you approach Highwood Dairy.
The small stream is surprisingly one of the larger rivers of the county. Its name dates back to AD 966 as Pidelen and a number of villages have adopted its name, such as Piddletrenthide, Piddlehinton, Puddletown, Tolpuddle, Affpuddle and Briantspuddle. Rumour has it that the Victorians were worried the name may offend Queen Victoria and therefore changed some Piddles to Puddles. However, some Puddles were recorded on pre-Victorian maps. The river didn’t escape Hardy’s pen either, flowing through his Vale of the Great Dairies. Poets from further afield have also been touched by this landscape. Ogden Nash wrote a poem called ‘Paradise for Sale’ for the New York Times in 1959, about the River Piddle.
Had I the shillings, pounds and pence,
I’d pull up stakes and hie me hence,
I’d buy that small mixed farm in Dorset
Which has an inglenook and faucet–
Kiddles Farm, Piddletrenthide,
In the valley of the River Piddle.
I’d quit these vehement environs
Of diesel fumes and horn and sirens,
This manic, fulminating ruction
Of demolition and construction
For Kiddles Farm, Piddletrenthide,
In the valley of the River Piddle.
yes, quit for quietude seraphic
Con Edison’s embrangled traffic,
To sit reflecting that the skylark,
Which once was Shelley’s now is my lark,
At Kiddles Farm, Piddletrenthide,
In the valley of the River Piddle.
I’m sure the gods could not but bless
The man who lives at that address,
And revenue agents would wash their hands
And cease to forward their demands
To Kiddle Farm, Piddletrenthide,
In the valley of the River Piddle.
Oh, the fiddles I’d fiddle,
The riddles I’d riddle,
The skittles I’d scatter,
The winks I would tiddle!
Then, hey diddle diddle diddle!
I’ll jump from the griddle
And live out my days
To the end from the middle
On Kiddles Farm, Piddletrenthide
In the valley of the River Piddle.
‘Paradise For Sale’ By Ogden Nash (1959)
Just after the farm, and in an open field, you cross the old route of the Roman Road from Dorchester (Durnovaria) to Badbury Rings (Vindocladia). Its line is marked by a hedge coming from the river side and then cuts across the field to Cowpound Wood, where earthworks still remain.
Following the river, the next boundary marks the edge of the medieval Deer park, introduced by the Martyn family in the late 15th century. Earthworks can just be made out on the slopes to the right and is clearly the origin of the next farm’s name, which must have once guarded an entrance.
Enter into Park Farm and cut through the buildings on the main track. Stay in the valley, between the river and the wide open fields, and in the company of a gentle hum from the invisible A35, to reach Southover Farm. Keep to the left hand side of the barns to then divert slightly left and straight ahead to a wooden gate. Turn left and then right on the road (with Tolpuddle appearing across the valley) then right again circling the old lodge and passing the entrance to Southover House.
Fork left when the track splits keeping the three storey high, thatched Beech Tree Cottage on your right. Follow the track straight up the hill and when the trees thin on your left, the view looks down upon Southover House (climbing the bank may give you an advantage). It is a relatively young house built in 1863 with a wing added in 1926. More recently it has been used as a holiday venue but was put up for sale in April 2022 for £1,500,000 and again in May 2023 for the same price.
Continue climbing the hill as the views grow behind, over the Piddle Valley, the aspect changing through the trees and often restricted by the high hedges. However, on approaching Southover Heath, the wooded tip of Weatherby Iron Age Hillfort can be seen peeking over the chalk ridge on which the A35 sits.
Curve with the track to arrive at Southover Heath and Southover Woods. Deep in the forest are a number of secrets. A wild camping site is nestled amongst the trees while scattered in the woods are a large number of natural sink holes and ancient burial mounds. This landscape used to stretch from Studland to Dorchester still thick with wildness as recently as Hardy’s time, renaming the area Egdon Heath in his novels. Encroachment and development has since occurred shrinking the sandy woodland to a few scattered pockets such as Puddletown Forest, Bere Wood, Wareham Forest and Studland Heath.
When the track splits continue straight ahead, running alongside a number of slender pine trees. Enter briefly into deeper woodland to pass the first of many sinkholes, buried under a glutton of rhododendron. Sinkholes are caused by the sandy soil trickling down to water below, acting like the top half of an hourglass. The rhododendrons are an invasive species which were introduced by the great plant hunters of the early 20th century, like Joseph Rock and Frank Kingdon-Ward, sponsored by gentry to decorate their lavish country estates. The plant has since thrived in Dorset’s climate.
Walk along the edge of Southover Woods, continuing up the hill, and on meeting a set of cross tracks at the top, turn right. Down the slopes and through the trees to the left is Clyffe House. Built in 1842 and designed by architect Benjamin Ferrey, the impressive country house was turned into a number of dwellings in the 1980’s. The main house was put up for sale in April 2022 for £1.5 million.
Continue along the main ridge, weaving your way around sink holes, burial mounds and ancient boundaries (possibly part of the park pale). Pass the Old Keepers Cottage hidden on your left to then drop down into Tincleton Hang. Stay on the same path under a canopy of giant beech and ancient oak, to rub shoulders with prickly holly and letting the nettles, ferns and, at the right time of year, bluebells, snap at your heel.
At the end of the woods you pass more earthworks of the park pale (the precise borders are still unknown) before exiting through a metal gate. Turn right and walk up the hill onto the Van De Wever memorial park. The Van de Wever family bought Clyffe House in the 1920’s. Sadly their youngest son was killed during the Second World War. The family erected a stone inscribed ‘Adrian Van De Wever, Rifle Brigade, Calais, May 26 1940’ in his memory. His body was buried, along with 879 others in the Calais Southern cemetery.
As you reach the highest point the views open up to the west towards Puddletown Forest and to the south towards Chaldon Down, blocking the view to the sea. In between is the wide valley of the River Frome and the large village of Crossways, highlighted by its solar panels. Bear slightly left to discover the memorial stone to then return to the edge of Cowpound Wood, following the boundary down the hill. Head through a metal farm gate and follow a narrow footpath through the woods to the left.
Leave the woods through a little rusty gate, passing a cottage on the right to then curve with the track down to Admiston Farm (an old name related to Athelhampton). Turn right at the next track and then right again through a farm gate. Make your way past the barns on the left and up to the top corner of the field. Here you meet, for the second time, some faint remains of the Roman Road. The earthworks are more prominent in the woodland but its path to Puddletown Forest has been completely washed out of the landscape by agriculture.
At the top of the hill the field narrows to a gate taking you into Cowpound Wood. Follow the track uphill, passing more remnants of the Roman Road and medieval deer park boundary.
Once over the peak, head directly down the hill to arrive back at St John’s Church. Turn left on the road and then right to return to Athelhampton House and your vehicle.