A short tour of ancient Dorset
My aim with these notes is to provide the reader with a guided tour of some of the most ancient sites to be visited in Dorset.
Dorset is a county rich with ancient sites and settlements; Hill forts being especially widespread, In North Dorset with the series of Hill forts such as Badbury Rings, Hod Hill and Hambledon Hill, moving west towards Pilsdon Pen and Golden Cap or East towards Hengistbury head and it’s Late Upper Palaeolithic port. Hengistbury Head is possibly the first domestic settlement in England, with the earliest human occupation dating from the Creswellian culture.
We will encounter the largest and possibly greatest of these Hill forts on our route very shortly.
So let us begin in the urban centre of Dorchester, the county town of Dorset, itself . The town has been a pre-historic settlement from 4000BC righ up until the Romans invaded the Durotriges in 43AD and called the town Durnovaria.
In the center of town just off Weymouth Avenue you will find Maumbury Rings a Neolithic henge right in the middle of town. This is a wonderful site well preserved considering on how built up the area is. Maumbury has been used throughout the town’s history including being a Roman amphitheater and as a place of public execution in the 17th and 18th centuries , featuring in the story of the notorious Judge Jeffries as well as in the poetry of Thomas Hardy.
Leaving Maumbury Rings follow Weymouth Avenue (B3417) southbound until you reach the roundabout that joins the A35 and A354. Take the 3rd exit onto the A35 heading West towards Winterbourne Abbas. Drive through the village and pull into the Little Chef car park. From the front of the Little Chef there is a small gate (saying to the stones) leading along the field boundary to the Nine Stones of Winterbourne Abbas.
The Nine Stones have been been referenced in local folklore as the Devil, his wife and children, John Murray described the site as a Druidical circle called the Nine Stones, 28 ft. in diameter in 1859 in his book ‘Handbook for travelers in Wiltshire, Dorsetshire and Somersetshire’. If you look at the archeologists findings then this is a Late Neolithic to Middle Bronze Age (about 2500–1000 BC) circle with a ritual purpose, and one of only four surviving Stone Circles in Dorset.
Despite it’s close proximity to the A35 this is one of my favorite Stone Circles of any I have visited, it still has it’s very special magnetic atmosphere, however many vehicles pass by unawares just a few feet away. You can often find yourself alone here, most vehicles passing by unaware, the occasional face pressed against glass catching a passing glimpse from a speeding car.
Once back to the car park you need to turn right back into the village of Winterbourne Abbas and then take the turning on the right opposite the BP garage onto the B3159 and then the next turning on the right onto Coombe Road, signposted to Portesham. Keep going along this road for the next two and a half miles or so. The best place to park for this site is the lay-by by the Farm on Portisham Hill, next to the farm at SY601879.
The path leading from the style at the lay-by across the field will lead you directly to the Hellstone. After the first field you need to walk on the other side of the hedge, and then change back again for the third field to be on the correct side for the style and to avoid the electric fence.
This is all going to change soon though as I met the farmer who told me they are soon to change the path leading to the Hellstone.
This lay by is also the perfect place to leave the car to walk to Hampton Down Stone Circle opposite, and just back along The Valley of the Stones and if you have time why not continue on past the valley of the Stones off Coombe Road and then take the right hand turn onto Bishop’s Road. The track to The Grey Mare and her Colts and Kingston Russell is just off another right turn (the next one you come to on Bishops Road) onto a farm track.
Hampton Down must be one of the very best locations for a Stone Circle. The view across to Chesil Beach is very clear, as are Chapel Hill Abbotsbury and The Hellstone seen here and on the walk all the way down to the Portesham Hill Road, as well as Black Down Barrow Cemetery
The condition of the circle itself is quite sad, although in recent years it does seem that the site is being maintained better than perhaps it has been in the recent past.
Given that though this is a splendid place to stop and rest for a while, a stone circle with an incredible view on the crest of a Dorset Hill.
English Heritage have now helpfully nailed a very small disk with their logo on to a fence post as you take the bridleway towards the Grey Mare & Her Colts and Kingston Russell stone circle. This I assume is in case you don’t notice the very large sign warning that the other track way from the road leads to private property.
Kingston Russel is a place well worth seeing and staying for a while, the structure of the site may no longer be intact, ruinous even but still very much present and intrinsically set within the landscape.
Along the track you will soon come to Kingston Russell stone circle. On a clear day along with Hampton Down this site provides sight lines connecting views to the other ancient monuments, their interconnections in the landscape, migratory pathways, corridors or lines of passage. You might argue that this is because a lot of the monuments are on hills but the view between them only really opens up within the circles themselves and not at other points along the way. A landscape game, only revealing other points of reference at certain spots.
From standing in the center of Kingston Russell you have a view all the way across to Abbotsbury, Golden Cap, Seatown and Lyme Regis.
A good point to stop after a full days walking, and to enjoy the view and rest a while in the peace afforded.