Apr 062024

First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Oak and bluebells, Rotherley Wood apple blossom, Tollard Royal track above Munday's Pond spring greenery and blossom above Tollard Royal Skulls information pillar by General Pitt-Rivers's excavations, Rotherley Down view from Ox Drove Track descending to Ashcombe Bottom Track descending through bluebell woods to Ashcombe Bottom Bluebells by the track to Ashcombe Bottom King John Inn, Tollard Royal track in Ashcombe Bottom

A cloudy, murky morning over Cranborne Chase. The views from Win Green were all melted into muted greys. The topograph on the saddle of high ground hinted at the prospect: fifteen miles northeast to Salisbury, twice that to the Isle of Wight down in the southeast.

Children skipped and tumbled down the steep slope towards the wooded Ashcombe valley. The sharp spring wind was soon shut away, and calm descended on the deep green cleft where the path ran edged with primroses, violets and pungent wild garlic in full flower.

These woods of the Ashcombe Estate are a prime example of careful management and discreet signage. The vast hunting forest of Cranborne Chase, on whose borders they lie, was once a different affair – a tangled tract of deep forest where outlaws skulked and wild locals in straw helmets beat up gamekeepers and poached the deer.

Down in Tollard Royal all was peachy, the snugly thatched cottages of flint and clunch, the gossipers on the benches round the village pond, all in a Sunday morning peace under steep valley slopes.

We climbed over a ridge where spring lambs were busy butting milk out of their mothers’ udders. In the cleft below the rains of late winter were drying, leaving Munday’s Pond a soggy circle of nettles.

Our path lay uphill, breasting a slope beside the old hazel coppice of Rotherley Wood. A marvellous sentinel oak, twisted, split and bow-backed, stood with its feet in a flood of bluebells, and the hazel stools themselves were circled by the sharp evergreen leaves of butcher’s broom, another indicator of ancient woodland.

Up on the back of Rotherley Down lumps and bumps in the turf showed where a Romano-British settlement was excavated in 1886-7 by local landowner General Augustus Pitt Rivers. ‘Skulls’, says the inscription on a modest pillar. ‘1 was brachycephalic, 3 were mesaticephalic, 6 were dolichocephalic, 3 were hyperdoliocephalic, one was uncertain’. The General, father of modern British archaeology, remained an educator to his fingertips.

Beyond the settlement site we turned along the chalky white track of the old Ox Drove ridge road towards Win Green. The clouds had cleared, and the Isle of Wight lay blue and humped on an invisible sea far in the southeast, a view familiar to those residents of Rotherley Down two thousand years ago.

How hard is it? 7¼ miles; easy; downland and woodland tracks

Start: Win Green car park, near Tollard Royal, SP7 0ES (OS ref ST 924204)

Getting there: Tollard Royal (B3081) signed from A350 (Shaftesbury-Blandford Forum). At top of hill before Tollard Royal, follow ‘Donheads’, then ‘Win Green’.

Walk: Through gate at top of car park; follow path along fence and downhill. Follow ‘Wessex Ridgeway’/WR and ‘Footpath’ signs through Ashcombe valley. In 1¾ miles, hairpin back left (937185, ‘Tollard Royal’ fingerpost); in 50m right through 2 gates (WR); follow path with fence on right. In ¾ mile, just before Tollard Royal pond (945178), left over stile. (NB for King John Inn, right at road). From stile climb bank, at top, on through gate (arrow) along fenced path to stile (949181). Diagonally left down to gate (940184, Munday’s Pond on left). Ahead on grassy track up slope beside Rotherley Wood. In ⅔ mile track enters wood; ahead through gate onto open down; Pitt-Rivers information pillar and excavations to right (950194). Opposite pillar, left through gate; right up middle of fields (arrows) to Ox Drove road (949205). Left; in ½ mile fork left (938206, ‘Cranborne Droves Way’), then right on chalk trackway. In ¾ mile, beside NT ‘Win Green’ sign, left (928207) up grass path to car park.

Lunch/Accommodation: King John Inn, Tollard Royal SP5 5PS (01725-516207, kingjohninn.co.uk)

Info: cranbornechase.org.uk

 Posted by at 01:16

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