Winterbourne Abbas Walk Two

October 1st, 2012 § 0 comments



Route:  Winterbourne Abbas – Martin’s Down – Kingston Russell stone circle – Little Bredy – Winterbourne Abbas

Length:  c. 11 miles



Inset of Chesil Beach                                      






The walk starts in the car park of the Little Chef on the A35 at the western end of Winterbourne Abbas. On the right-hand side of the car park is a notice saying ‘Footpath to Nine Stones’ nailed to a gate though the path is barely visible in the grass. The field is not under cultivation and you can orientate yourself by keeping the hedgerow on your left, a line of gnarled, possibly once pollarded[1], trees half-way up the field with a grass-covered bank at both ends. This appears to be a long-established field boundary that might be as old as the Nine Stones themselves. Whereas the A35 curves northwards the path goes straight, which suggests that at some point the road was diverted from its earlier route.  The Nine Stones themselves are not visible from here even though they are only a few yards away next to the large copse on the hillside ahead. It may seem odd that stones are less prominent than neighbouring copses but this is characteristic of megalithic landscapes. It is as if the megaliths themselves are somewhat esoteric while the route to them is always clearly marked.

The Nine Stones are contained by iron railings with two gates for access. The circle is quite small but radiates an air of stillness, all the more noticeable given its proximity to a busy road with only the narrowest of grass verges between the railings and the tarmac. The modern road connects Bridport to Dorchester, but in Megalithic terms this would translate as connecting Chesil Beach with Maiden Castle. It is quite wrong to take a name like Dorchester and suppose it to be Roman, it is equally wrong to suppose this main thoroughfare from the south-west to be anything other than Megalithic in origin.[1] Today’s lorries thundering past have no alternative route either.

[1] Another stone, not included in the walk, which is marked on the map as Broad Stone, lies next to the A35 half-way between the Nine Stones and the standing stone at Martin’s Down. The map shows that the three sites are clearly in a direct alignment beside the present road.

Nine Stones (Map ref. SY 610904). Looking north
 The circle was laid out using the ‘Megalithic Yard’ according to Alexander Thom, the founding father of studies into Megalithic Engineering. The Nine Stones is demonstrably on an important east-west route, the A35, and almost certainly on a SW-NE leyline crossing the River Frome via Muckleford (Michael Ford?) to St. James’s Church at Avebury, from where (according to John Michell) it continues to Stonehenge.

From Nine Stones climb the steep slope away from the road following the contour of the wood since looking for a shortcut will result in an encounter with nettles and barbed wire.  Once past the end of the trees, carry on to the hedge at the top of the hill where you can get through a gap in the far right-hand corner. Turn right beyond the hedge and go along the side of the field bounded by a barbed wire fence on the right to the end where you turn left onto a track heading south-west skirting a wood marked “Big Wood” on the map.  ‘Keep out’ signs in red letters have been put up so you need to keep to the path around the perimeter.  Perhaps ‘Big Wood’ belonged to the local bigwigs up at Big House; at any rate you may be startled by game birds skidding away (there are pheasant woods in the area).  The track affords a good view of the countryside and a line of cone-shaped tumuli have resisted the plough, reinforcing the impression that the area around the A35 was particularly significant.
 Tumuli south of A35 (looking south-west)
A series of tumuli are on cultivated land, clearly visible from the path next to Big Wood, and two in particular stand out on the ridge.  The landowner has ensured that at least some sites survive including the nearby Nine Stones.  In the distance the skyline is marked by Hardy’s Monument which, though a modern landmark, is on a hilltop surrounded by ancient barrows.

At the far edge of the wood the path continues diagonally across a field and joins a stony track which ends at a minor road. Turn right onto the road and ahead, immediately beyond the T-junction signposted to Littlebredy and Winterbourne Abbas, you will see two gates with clearly marked footpath signs. Take the left-hand path heading north-west and keep straight for a couple of miles.  On your right is a series of barrows and Black Down; on your left there are fields with more barrows culminating in Martin’s Down and a standing stone.  Even a trained eye has difficulty differentiating between natural and artificial mounds—the safest bet is to assume that every shape in this landscape is man-made unless proven otherwise.  The consensus among geographers is that this area was never glaciated so, if they are right, ‘drumlins’ do not enter the equation.

The path peters out at the summit of the field near a conspicuous bank barrow on Martin’s Down. Beyond it a gate with a faded sign opens onto a concreted slipway that only leads down to the A35, which is not worth crossing because from the top of the hill you can survey the standing stone on the other side of the A35, small and forlorn in the middle of a fenced-off private field of poppies and long grass. However it is worth pointing out because of its possible significance: to the north-west is the fort of Eggardon Hill connected to Dorchester by a Roman road that runs roughly parallel with the A35 and is now the northern parish boundary.


Barrows on Martin’s Down 
 Martin’s Down is next to the A35. On its summit is a ‘bank barrow’, which seems to be a landscape feature particularly associated with Dorset but whose function is unknown. It is a distinctive mound with a commanding view in all directions. Bank barrows are rare, only ten have been recorded in England of which three are concentrated within six miles of each other in this area. There is a profusion of other kinds of barrow on Martin’s Down, some large enough to suggest they were part of a cursus,[2] a notoriously difficult feature to recognise.

A little to the east and also on the ‘wrong’ (north) side of the main road is the near-deserted village of Kingston Russell which formerly had a chapel dedicated to St. James. The wife of the first recorded lord of the manor named Russell was Rohesia and ‘Rohesia’s Cross’ is the original name of Royston, a key megalithic intersection on Ermine Street in eastern England. The Kingston in Kingston Russell refers to the nearby menhir or ‘king stone’ just as Royston is another version of ‘king stone’. Oddly, this esoteric place, though on a crossroads (of sorts), is not the nearest village to the Kingston Russell stone circle. The fact that its name has been applied indicates that either Kingston Russell used to be far more important or the Russell name has major local connotations.  The Russells are one of those Whiggish families that pop up with disconcerting frequency in British history.

Go back past the bank barrow and retrace your steps across two fields to where the path intersects with a footpath; ignore a stile on the left and instead turn right onto the path heading downhill. It leads past a couple of houses, a chapel and a pink castle (!) At the bottom of the hill cross the road and go through a gate with an official footpath sign. This ultimately leads to Kingston Russell stone circle about two miles south; the path is muddy here as it is close to the source of the Bride which was dammed in the eighteenth century and is now Bridehead Lake. Little Bredy, or Littlebredy as it is written on the map, takes its name from the Bride (Bredy is pronounced ‘Briddy’ locally).

There are no signposts so watch for gates which have a blue arrow right of way symbol.  When you see a farm in the valley to the left, leave the track and keep straight ahead up a steep bumpy hill, Tenants Hill, climbing parallel to a wood on the left (the bumps are marked as ‘hut circles’ on the map).  At the top go through a gate a little to the right of the trees which opens onto a large flat field.  From here you can gaze at the splendours of the Dorset countryside as well as glimpse the sea. The site is elevated and absolutely level, designed for maximum visibility it would seem.

The large clump of cordoned-off trees is a reminder that wood was essential for industrial purposes such as smelting and also as a high prestige building material. From your walks you will be very aware that stone is abundant, even ubiquitous, while wood is clearly cosseted.  This is worth bearing in mind as a corrective to the usual notion that ordinary people built in timber. In fact, ever since the accurately named Neolithic, they have lived in houses made using the drystone wall technique so characteristic of the British countryside.  The engrained misconception of widespread timbered housing is the chief reason why archaeologists, relying on their ineffable post-holes, are never able to find any village older than Anglo-Saxon.

In the far left-hand corner of this grassy plateau you will happen upon a circle of stones, more or less flush with the ground. The circle itself is unprepossessing and does not occupy a central position. There are no obvious signs of other tracks apart from a footpath to the south-east that does pass by the stones. The size of the stone circle suggests this was formerly an interchange on a busy trade route, but its present unloved air demonstrates how completely this entire area has fallen out of economic favour. Hemp, the local cash crop, found a new route to market when Bridport, further to the west, became the major rope-making outlet for hemp. But this is just one instance of much more profound changes that occurred when Sandbanks, like Chesil Beach, was replaced by custom-built harbours.

If you look west you will see a distinctive hilltop a couple of miles away, St. Catherine’s Hill, standing sentinel over Chesil Beach and the Abbotsbury swannery. Although out of sight from here, the swannery, like Chesil Beach itself, is a unique feature of Dorset / Britain /the world.  Further west is Abbotsbury Castle, labelled an ‘Iron Age hill fort’, the standard tag employed by archaeologists for everything of this nature.


  St. Catherine’s Chapel (map ref. SY572848) looking east

St. Catherine’s chapel, built over an earlier pagan shrine, is on a platform and closely resembles the hilltop chapel at Glastonbury. It presumably replaced a menhir erected to assist sailors looking for a landing-place, at any rate the chapel survived the Reformation for this reason. The wife of Ore or Orc, the founder of St. Peter’s Abbey, Abbotsbury, was from Rouen in Normandy which had a particularly strong link with the cult of St. Catherine. The chapel-on-a-hill overlooks a bay, possibly a man-made inlet on the lagoon (the south-eastern edge of the bay is called Shipmoor Point). The access road to the Fleet lagoon passes between St. Catherine’s and the Abbey, the two acting as a pair of gate-keepers.


Have another look at Chesil Beach and see if it strikes you as unusual. Even orthodox geographers concede it is without close parallel anywhere in the world, so you might speculate that Megalithia Inc. had a hand in constructing this long shingle bank, ideal for landing one lot of cargo and then loading up with the local stone, Portland chert[3]. Widely regarded as the finest stone in the country, samples have been found in Cornwall, another hive of megalithic activity, and further east in Cranbourne Chase, not to mention St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Bank of England and the UN building in New York. Portland chert is still mined on Portland Bill and the Isle of Portland is similarly linked with the mainland by both the hypothetically megalithic Chesil Beach and the modern causeway.

From the circle return across the plateau to the gate and go a little way northwardsthis is uncultivated landtill you find yourself overlooking an enormous bowl-shaped crater, seemingly too perfect a bowl to be either a quarry or a natural dip. The escarpment you clambered up earlier is part of a ridge from where you get the best views of the West Dorset coastline.  There is no marked path but head downhill going east towards the farm buildings where you rejoin the track by the farm, passing some stones embedded in the grass on your left at the edge of an overgrown pit.  Keep on the path straight past the farm and, once through the last farm-gate, turn immediately left and follow a barbed-wire fence up the side of a steep hill crowned by trees (marked ‘Farm Wood’ on the map).  At the top of the hill go through a pair of gates on the left.  Beside the second gate is a small circular copse where several broken or eroded stones appear to have been carefully positioned at the base of the trees.


Copse near Farm Wood

With no mention on the map, the copse may just be a dumping ground for unwanted boulders from the nearby Valley of Stones, part of the Bridehead estate, but since it is at the point where the track forks it may be the remnants of  a stone circle.  A good way of judging these things is to stand beside them and if the feeling of a “sacred grove” affects you then the landscape is tugging you in the right direction. This is not being unduly mystical, it is presumably the result of many years of careful neglect or some other landscape characteristic that we sense but cannot precisely name. This inchoate perception may be the origin of some dowsing claims, though clearly a lot of this ‘science’ is bogus.


The hill above Little Bredy is called the Old Warren and as usual is thought to be a hillfort (or, bizarrely, an ‘unfinished hillfort’) though its name straightforwardly tells us it was a warren providing fresh meat either for visiting traders or the local gentry. You may notice buzzards overhead, which bespeaks a healthy current rabbit population.  Ancestors of the rabbits and hares were no doubt here long before the Roman catering corps arrived with their own supplies—historians always rely on written records so are under the impression that rabbits are a Roman introduction, although technically they do not appear in the historical record until the twelfth century. This would imply that rabbits were introduced by the Normans which even historians generally find a step too late.[4]  Warrens were still being maintained in the 1800’s by aristocratic estates but originally they sustained workers, albeit privileged groups of workers, and are often near prehistoric industrial sites, even in apparently otherwise unsuitable areas like Dartmoor where artificial burrows called ‘buries’ or pillow mounds had to be constructed.

Like Dartmoor the Isle of Portland was a substantial mining area with a skilled workforce that needed feeding. However, wild rabbits are regarded as bad luck, the very name is a taboo because their enthusiastic tunnelling causes quarry walls to collapse.  Conversely, on British heath and grassland, rabbits are invaluable in maintaining the habitat.  It might even be that, as with prairie dogs in North America and termites in South America, rabbits keep the grass down rather more efficiently than grazing ungulates. Perhaps too efficiently judging by nearby Foxholes Coppice and Foxholes Farm.  At any rate, it would seem the Megalithics had a rather better understanding of the natural balance, i.e. the unnatural balance, than we do.  The notion of setting up “fox warrens” is by no means fanciful.  [But then a particular breed of fox-hounds would presumably be needed, which might call for a specialised breed of human beings with braying voices and red coats.]

There is no obvious path from the gate across the field but if you go north with the trees on your right you soon pick up a grassy track.  From the brow of the hill you will see a curve of the road to Littlebredy below, behind ‘Bridehead Lake’ adorning the grounds of a large handsome house.  Consider for a moment the true significance of the vista set before you. Eighteenth-century parks were not created from scratch;  despite being credited with setting a new trend landscape gardeners were well aware they were following a tradition in the footsteps of medieval and Tudor deer-parks.  What you see is a composed landscape, not perhaps on a Capability Brown scale, but nonetheless it represents some rather substantial earth-moving.  As you look at this artificial lake, the gentle folds of the hill and the sweep of the valley, reflect on how much can be wrought by one obscure gentry family within a single generation and apply the same principle to an entire mobilised population with thousands of years at their disposal. It is important to remember that the technology is much the same;  even if one group was using antler picks and the other Brummagem shovels, it still comes down to human beings muck-shifting by hand.

Train yourself to think looking at the landscape rather than relying on acquired knowledge. For instance, have another look at that lake.  It was formed by damming the River Bredy. Damming rivers to form lakes… Chesil Beach encloses a ‘lake’ (a tidal lagoon in fact, the largest if not the only example of this kind in the country)… but, wait, there are no major rivers reaching the sea in this area.  That is odd in itself.  Where does all that water go?  The whole geography of this area would repay study but this time assuming that nature is not unaided.  This is the sort of grand-scale imagining you should indulge in while you walk in order to look it up and flesh it out (or throw it out) when you get back to the comparative sanity of home and hearth.

Further down the hill join the footpath which leads past a couple of fields to a playing field with a cricket pavilion.  How old is cricket?  Megalithic Man played sports too, it is part of the human condition.  Megalithic monuments are often said to have been built by giants competing to see who could lob stones the furthest, presumably a reference to a contemporaneous sport, and individual megaliths are sometimes named after petrified people punished for playing games on the Sabbath. May Day itself seems to have the air of a sports day in a bucolic setting but May Day and Megalithia are inseparable for much more technical reasons.

Leaving the Littlebredy cricketers behind, turn left along the road and almost immediately you get to White Hill Wood on the right. What makes a hill white and why would you want it white except to make it more visible in the landscape? Barrows made of chalk would have stood out spectacularly.  White hills or mountains in folklore are burial places of sacred kings, giants, elves, oracular (talking) heads and so forth.

Follow the track through the wood and across the minor road, retracing your steps past Big Wood until you reach a stile at the end of the trees; the path carries straight on eastwards along the edge of a field to another stile and starts to go downhill hemmed in by tall hedges on both sides.  The trees are tall and spindly, similar to poplars in shape and unlike the usual low thick-set hedges dividing fields.  The path is so straight it might have been the landowner’s private driveway from manor house to church door.

After about half a mile you will see the square church tower of St Mary’s, Winterbourne Abbas; climb over the stile on the left and follow a narrow path winding between houses which comes out in the churchyard.  From the outside St. Mary’s is just another parish church but inside it has a minstrel’s gallery, a quirk of church history that is not often seen outside Dorset. The majority of ‘singing galleries’ were dismantled and replaced by church organs in the eighteenth century, not surprisingly since it appears that the musicians did not always sing from the approved hymn-sheet.[5]  Cross over to the pavement side of the A35 and turn left to return to the car park of the Little Chef, a few yards away.



[1] Pollarded tree trunks have a rounded head from which shoots sprout and lack lower branches. The technique is similar to coppicing but carried out several feet up, above the height at which grazing animals can reach the new growth, so it is suitable for trees in wood pasture, deer-parks and along drovers’ routes.

[2] The longest surviving cursus in England, over six miles in length, is at Cranbourne Chase, a few miles east of Martin’s Down and in a very similar location. It lies parallel to the main road (the A354) but there is little to distinguish it now save for long barrows and the church of St. Rumbold at Pentridge. The effort involved in both cases suggests they had an important transport function related to the main SW-NE ridgeway route. Cranbourne Chase may be longer than is admitted, the cursus continuing north into Wiltshire as Fovant Down, best known for its ‘badge carvings’. The preservation of the earthworks in the Cranbourne Chase area is largely due to its use as a hunting ground, as the name implies, much as the MoD’s requisition of land prevents farmers from ploughing up tumuli. The Cranbourne Chase/Fovant Down cursus is south-west of Salisbury.

[3] Portland chert is a type of quartz found in the limestone of the Isle of Portland. Cherts that occur in chalk are called flint though their present classification has resulted in a geological jargon as dense as cryptocrystalline quartz itself. Cherts are of lower quality than flint for fashioning tools and producing fire-sparks but are far superior as building material. The greater transport requirements for shifting construction stone over long distances must have been a driving force in Megalithic development.

[4] Rabbits are associated with trickery, promiscuity and cunning, all characteristics of Hermes; the White Rabbit guides Alice underground and in many legends hares act as messengers of the moon goddess.  The traditional recitation of ‘hares’ and ‘rabbits’ at the end and beginning of the month is a folksy reminder of the link between the moon, fertility and sacred hares.

[5] The plot of Thomas Hardy’s first ‘Wessex novel’, Under the Greenwood Tree, involves the replacement of a group of church musicians with a new-fangled organ. ‘Greenwood tree’, an archaic term that has pagan connotations, is the kerm-oak or holly-oak, an evergreen species linked with the winter solstice and Saturnalian rites.


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