From White Mill, sitting on the River Stour, and the medieval bridge, of the same name, discover the old railway cutting through the floodplains. Walk through the forested park of Henbury, the land developed into the modern age. Meet the boundary of Charborough Park, one of the largest private estates in the county, its 120ft folly peeking through the trees, and its dubious history mixing slavery and extravagance. Return to the valley via the village of Sturminster Marshall, The Rose and Crown pub nestled opposite the church. Return to the river where the mysterious bells of Knowlton church are said to lie, immersed within the river bed.
Distance: 7 miles/11km
Duration: 3-4 hours
Ability: Easy, relatively flat.
Max Height: 250ft.
Min Height: 75ft.
Total climb: 180ft.
Terrain: Track, path, road and field.
Map: OS Explorer 118 Shaftesbury and Cranborne Chase.
Start Point: White Mill National Trust Car Park. (Postcode: BH21 4BX, Grid Reference: ST958006, What Three Words: wounds.tests.upward).
Dogs: In accordance with the Countryside Code and any notices on route.
Refreshments: On route is the Red Lion in Sturminster Marshall.
From the car parking spot, head straight out and turn right to the junction. Turn left on the road to reach White Mill, sitting on the River Stour. The mill is part of the Kingston Lacy estate and is the only one surviving from many that once stretched along the Stour’s river banks. The mill and the attached cottage were built in 1776, replacing an older building. Inside contains the renovated elm and apple wood machinery that would have been dusty and noisy as it carried out its work. For many years the mill was run by the Joyce family who were respected tenants of the Bankes of Kingston Lacy. So much so that Mr Bankes offered John Joyce the freehold, but he respectfully declined claiming that ‘a Joyce always pays for what he has’. In 1866 the mill suffered severe flood damage, the channels connecting the mill unable to be repaired. It meant that commercial milling was no longer viable; however, the owner at the time, who also happened to be the baker, converted half of the mill to run on steam meaning he could still grind flour to make bread. The mill eventually fell out of use, turning into a crumbling ruin. It wasn’t until 1994 that the National Trust restored both the building and its associated machinery.
The name comes from the surrounding chalky landscape. To the north was the site of the Roman town Vindocladia that translates to ‘The Place of White Walls’. The car park still clearly exhibits this colour too, being an old chalk quarry. The island on which part of the mill still stands is artificially constructed from the white stone, meaning that the landscape would have had a much whiter glow than it does today.
Leave the mill on your right and follow the road around to White Mill Bridge, complete with its warning plaque of deportation if any damage is done. The bridge site is apparently one of the oldest in the county, the surprisingly wide (12ft) bridge dates back to the 16th century but stands on timber pilings that date back to the 12th century. It sits between two other medieval crossings of Crawford Bridge, which led to the old abbey at Tarrant Crawford, and Julian’s Bridge, which took people to the Minster in Wimborne.
The river beneath the bridge claims to hide the bells of Knowlton Church, stolen in the middle of the night and dropped into the flowing water. However, the silt on the river bed only sucked them deeper when they were trying to be retrieved, leaving them there for only the future to find.
Cross over the river and remain on the road to pass the pill box on the right, buried in vegetation. Operation Seelow was put into force to defend Britain from any land invasions during World War II. White Mill was seen to be a vulnerable crossing and so defence mechanisms were put into place, this included not only the Norcon pill box but also a road block on the bridge where elements of the concrete bases are still faintly visible.
Walk straight on to the first field boundary on the left. Turn left onto a farm track and through the right hand gate to join a permissive path heading to the old railway. Stay on the track for nearly a kilometre and when the solid terrain ends, keep following the boundary on the left. After walking under the pylon, take the gate on the left. Turn right and right again onto a narrow path through the trees. Continue straight ahead to arrive at Dorset Springs, a caravan and camping park with lakes primed for fishing. Once out into the open and faced with a number of paths, turn left to climb a stile, joining onto the Wareham Forest Way, and skim the lake’s edge. Despite the lakes being hidden by the trees, the sound of the waterfowl alone is evidence that they are there. Cross over a small footbridge and curve to the right. Head straight for the rising pylon to meet the earthwork remains of the dismantled Somerset and Dorset railway. Run parallel with its old route for a short distance to then be guided straight over its path.
The railway was opened at Sturminster Marshall in 1860, but called Bailey Gate (its turnpike name), to avoid any mix up with Sturminster Newton. Bailey Gate was not used for passengers but instead concentrated on the export of cheese, an old factory in the village once being the largest producer of Cheddar Cheese in the country. The station was closed under the Beeching Axe in March 1966.
Once over the railway, veer left in the field, not to be tempted by the track continuing straight ahead. Keep to the left hand side of the next boundary to join a grassed path leading to stile and the A31. Cross the road carefully, turn right and walk along the verge to pass the upcoming house. Take care as you pass the house as there is no pavement but then turn left up the small lane road to leave the busy traffic behind. Take the gate on the right to cut diagonally across the field and across the drive of Henbury House.
Henbury House was built in 1770 but has gone through many changes. In the 1980s it was part of a failed Holiday time-share scheme resulting in the estate being sold to a private housing development company in 1985. A new development was then built, and is still being developed called Henbury House Gardens.
Cross two fields and then the drive with the house coming into view on the left. Circle the right hand edge of the trees and pond to walk through the remains of Henbury Park and straight ahead to the woodland. Follow the path through the trees, which are heavily populated with deer and muntjac, to the other side. Once out walk straight ahead keeping just inside the edge of the woodland. Follow the track around to the right to then meet the next busy road, the A350, through a small gap in the hedge. Once again there is no pavement so take great care. Stay on the right hand side of the road to face the oncoming traffic and then turn left down the road, signposted for Higher Coombe Farm only.
Follow the narrow country lane, bordered with high hedges, to pass under the large pylon wires. On reaching Higher Coombe Farm, continue straight ahead onto the grassed track, following it all the way to Dullar Lane. At the junction, turn right, slowly climbing the hill with the estate of Charborough beginning to appear on the left.
Charborough Estate is one of the oldest and largest private estates of the county. It was held by King Harold before the Norman invasion and then it was passed through a number of Norman knights to the Erle family, whose descendants still own it today, the current owner being Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, the MP of South Dorset.
During the English Civil War, Sir Walter Erle fought for the parliamentarians. In 1664, he led the successful and devastating siege on the Royalist Bankes family, who lived at Corfe Castle. In retaliation his house was destroyed, but, undeterred, Sir Walter rebuilt his manor to a grander scale, using many of the valuable remnants of Corfe Castle. This was all in full view of his new neighbours the Bankes who had moved to Kingston Lacy on the opposite banks of the River Stour. Letters were exchanged requesting the materials to be returned, but this never happened. Sir Walters’s manor is what still stands today.
The house is surrounded by 13,870 acres of impressive gardens and a deer park, with the majority of the land bordered by a long boundary wall, split by gates adorned with a lion and a 5 legged stag. The wall was constructed from over 2 million bricks and is considered to be one of the longest brick walls in England. It was commissioned by John Samuel Wanley Sawbridge in 1841, who had married the heiress Jane Frances Erle-Drax in 1827. He was known to be extravagant with his developments. He owned Holnest Manor, to the north, where he built his own mausoleum that ended up being bigger than Holnest church; it was demolished after his death as no one was willing to pay for its upkeep.
On the left, the tip of Charborough Tower is visible. It was built by Edward Drax in 1790 but in 1838 it was struck by lightning. Sawbridge took it upon himself to rebuild and kept to his usual extravagant design by increasing the height from 80ft to 120ft. The octagonal shape hide 161 steps inside while outside gargoyles and beasts are carved into the label stops.
Despite theses extravagant embellishments, the house sits under a dark cloud. The family made most of their fortune through slavery plantations of the West Indies. The University of the Islands claims that as many as 30,000 slaves died on the Drax plantations in both Barbados and Jamaica over the 200 years of their control. They also claim that more harm was done to the black population of the islands than any other family. Sawbridge received a large sum in compensation from the government when slavery was abolished, but today reparations are being called for.
Charborough House was used as a model for Wellend House in Thomas Hardy’s novel ‘Two on a Tower’. In more modern literature, Reginal Drax, Richard Drax’s grandfather, was a friend of Ian Fleming and apparently was the inspiration for the character Sir Hugo Drax in the James Bond novel ‘Moonraker’.
At the top of the hill, just off the road on the left, is Windmill barrow sitting on the ridge overlooking the Winterborne valley to the north. Despite being a Bronze Age burial mound, it gained its name from having a windmill built on its peak during the medieval period, a small embankment on the top of the barrow marks its possible location.
Follow Dullar Lane through the woods and down the hill to the A31. Cross over with care, continuing on Dullar Lane, though wide fields and under large skies to return to Sturminster Marshall. Badbury Rings, with its forested peak and circling ramparts, tops the hill straight ahead. Cross straight over the final main road (the A350) to enter into the village via Station road.
The name derives from Stur being the Stour and Minster being a church – Church on the River Stour (just like Sturminster Newton). The Marshall refers to William Marshall who inherited the estate after marriage. He was a faithful supporter to King John and one of the witnesses to the Magna Carta.
Make your way along the road, crossing straight over the small roundabout that sits on the old railway route. Slowly the buildings begin to age; thatched 16th century cottages merge with newer developments as you continue to Kings Street. Walk straight onto Church Street to shortly arrive at The Red Lion Inn with the church sitting opposite.
The Church of Saint Mary is encased in a 17th century stone wall that separates it from the road. The church was built in the 12th century but in 1802 the church tower fell down. It was completely rebuilt in 1805 but had to go through extensive renovation in 1859. The bells that the thieves wanted to replace with Knowlton’s date back to the 14th century and apparently came from Spetisbury. The grave yard is filled with a number of 14th century crosses and table tombs.
From the church continue to follow the road out of the village. Curve around the right then left hand bend to rejoin your footsteps from the start of the walk. Cross back over White Mill Bridge and turn left then right to return to your vehicle.