Sarah Baxter heads for the hills and historic sites on a series of hikes through Hardy country
Wessex packs a potent punch for a place that has been extinct for 1,000 years. The powerful kingdom of the West Saxons created the country – King Edgar of Wessex was crowned the first King of England at Bath in AD973 – but ceased to exist as a political entity after the Norman Conquest. hills and historic sites on a series of hikes through Hardy country
And yet the word still resonates, thanks in no small part to Thomas Hardy who, many centuries later, set his novels in a fictional version of Wessex, the pastoral landscapes of his childhood repurposed for the likes of Bathsheba, Jude and Tess.
Today, for tourist purposes if nothing else, Wessex is defined as Somerset, Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire. These are counties of handsome towns and cities – Sherborne, Shaftesbury, Winchester, Salisbury, Bath – and quiet, rural countryside saturated in the past; you only need look at the amount of gothic script scribbled on the OS maps here to see that. Indeed, few regions rival it for archaeology – not only headline sites such as Stonehenge, but an ancient acne of barrows, rings, dykes and tumuli, causeways and enclosures, standing stones and sacred knolls. It’s like a bygone Braille that begs to be understood at walking pace.
One summer I followed the Great Stones Way, a 50-odd-mile trail (with detours) between the impressive Iron Age ramparts of Barbury Castle, high atop the Marlborough Downs, and the formidable spire of Salisbury’s 13th-century cathedral. I walked for three days and back five millennia, crossing chalk downland on bright tracks that have been in use for thousands of years; treading a timeline that stretched from Neolithic burial mounds and menhirs to Saxon churches, Tudor mansions, Georgian canals, Victorian white horses, MOD guns and crop circles fresh-pressed by, well, 21st-century aliens…
There was a quintessential Englishness, too: poppies bursting alongside fields of wheat; picnics spread on slopes of wild flower-flecked green; cold shandies sunk in riverside beer gardens.
En route, I followed the old way to Stonehenge, hiking from the vast Neolithic settlement of Durrington Walls, past the King Barrow Ridge and along the faint processional avenue to reach the great stone circle the way that past pilgrims most likely did, but that few do now. Most people reach Stonehenge from the visitor centre to the west, but walking in from the east gifted me a different approach.
I live in Bath, modern Wessex’s northern fringe. From my front door I can hike up to an Iron Age hill fort, around a Civil War battlefield and down a “little green valley” where keen walker Jane Austen once took a “charming” after-dinner stroll. At the southern edge of Wessex, I’ve traced the 185 million-year-old Jurassic Coast, scouring for fossils and pausing to gaze wistfully from Lyme Regis’s Cobb (just in case John Fowles’ French Lieutenant should appear). Between these extremes lies everything from cathedrals and castles to Roman roads, Somerset Levels, Quantocks, Mendips, Anthony Trollope and King Arthur – many stories, best read on foot and enjoyed with a sprinkling of autumn colour.
1. Winchester and the Itchen
The capital of King Alfred the Great of Wessex, Winchester subsequently became the first capital of England. This walk combines its historic streets and formidable cathedral with pretty water meadows and riverbanks and a short haul up St Catherine’s, a chalk downland hill that’s home to 25 species of butterfly, Iron Age earthworks and splendid views over the Itchen Valley and the city.
Distance: Six miles
Map: OS OL32
Route: From King Alfred’s statue, head south through Winchester and along the Itchen Navigation to climb up St Catherine’s Hill and descend to Plague Pits Valley. Then, return north along the River Itchen, passing St Cross, to Winchester Cathedral
2. The Writers’ Way
This amble amid Hampshire’s hangers and hillocks follows in the footsteps of two literary greats. Starting at Jane Austen’s family home (now a museum), follow back lanes, gravel tracks and holloways to loop down to Selborne, where the house of eminent naturalist Gilbert White is also open to the public, and where the 300th anniversary of his birth is being celebrated this year.
Distance: 11 miles
Map: OS OL33
Route: From Chawton head north to the market town of Alton, before veering south across rolling countryside, via the hamlet of West Worldham, to Selborne. Return to Chawton via Lower and Upper Farringdon
3. Alton Barnes White Horse
There’s a lot going on along this circular route in the North Wessex Downs AONB: Milk Hill, Wiltshire’s highest; a 19th-century white horse (several are etched into the chalk hereabout); the Neolithic long barrow of Adam’s Grave; the historic churches of Alton Barnes and Alton Priors; and a fine stretch of the Kennet and Avon Canal.
Distance: Six miles
Map: OS OL 157
Route: From Walkers Hill car park hike west along the ridge, into Pewsey Downs National Nature Reserve. Then descend to the valley (for the most impressive views back to Alton Barnes White Horse), looping back via canalside Honeystreet and the Altons
More interactive than Stonehenge, the massive, village-incising stone circles and ditches of Avebury are free to walk among. It’s a good starting point for a jaunt through the surrounding prehistory-soaked landscape, where you will find ancient trackways, burial mounds, the mysterious Sanctuary and the man-made mound of Silbury Hill. Tudor-built Avebury Manor has an excellent tea room, too.
Distance: Six miles
Map: OS OL 157
Route: From Avebury, follow the Wessex Ridgeway east, then the Ridgeway National Trail south towards East Kennett. Return to Avebury, with a diversion to venerable West Kennet Long Barrow, erected in 3650BC
You could tick off half of your monthly mileage around this handsome Wiltshire town, with the excellent Bradford-on-Avon Walking Wheel network covering a total of 42 miles of linked trails. Combining “spokes” one and two, via Lower Wraxall and Holt, takes in the gorgeous 15th-century Great Chalfield Manor and the Arts and Crafts-style Courts Garden, which are both operated by the National Trust, while Bradford itself has a medieval Tithe Barn, a Saxon church and good eating options – including the recommended Bunch of Grapes pub.
Distance: Eight miles
Map: OS OL 156
Route: From Bradford, follow blue markers north over fields to the Wraxalls, green markers east to Chalfield and Holt, and blue markers back to Bradford via Woolley
6. Hardy’s Dorchester
Hardy pretty much reinvented Wessex, conjuring the fictional county of his novels from the Dorset countryside of his youth. Dorchester (aka Casterbridge) is where he built Max Gate (now a National Trust site); his thatched childhood home (also National Trust) lies a little to the east and is reachable via the footpaths the author would have walked, and via Stinsford church, where Hardy’s two wives are buried, along with his heart.
Distance: Seven miles
Map: OS OL 15
Route: Leave Dorchester, following a stream to Stinsford and Lower Bockhampton, looping north to peaceful Thorncombe Wood Nature Reserve and Hardy’s Cottage, returning via Upper Bockhampton
Hewn from hamstone, Sherborne was a powerhouse of Saxon Wessex; Alfred the Great’s brothers are buried in the abbey church. Strike out from here into rolling countryside to find two castles that belonged to Sir Walter Raleigh – a Norman ruin and a Tudor lakeside pile – as well as a park designed by Capability Brown and the concrete remnants of the camp used by troops preparing for D-Day.
Distance: Seven miles
Map: OS OL 129
Route: Walk an upturned triangle from Sherborne: east past the castles, south at Haydon to reach Folke (and the fine interior of its St Lawrence church), and north back to Sherborne
8. Purbeck Way
Snaggle-toothed Corfe Castle was battered by Cromwell’s forces in 1646 and is one of the country’s most photogenic ruins. Ramble south from Corfe village, over wild-flowery common and via a valley gouged by the Ice Age to hit the Unesco-listed Jurassic Coast. Then head east, up-down St Aldhelm’s Head, past old Winspit quarry and the limestone cliffs at Dancing Ledge (look for puffins from May to August) to finish in seaside Swanage.
Distance: 12 miles
Map: OS OL 15
Route: Walk south from Corfe to the sea, then follow the spectacular South West Coast Path; it’s possible to return from Swanage to Corfe by steam train
9. Stanton Drew stones
The three Neolithic stone circles of Stanton Drew comprise England’s third-biggest cluster of ancient menhirs – the Great Circle alone features 26 stones in a 371ft-diameter ring. This walk links the secretive Somerset stones with charming Chew Magna, the green and rippling Chew Valley and views across to the Mendip Hills.
Distance: Five miles
Map: OS OL 155
Route: From the Saxon-dated village of Chew Magna, make the gentle climb up to North Wick, then drop back south to Stanton Drew before returning along paths above the river. Chew Magna’s Pelican pub awaits
10. Wells to Glastonbury
Make a pilgrimage between medieval Wells, England’s smallest city, and Glastonbury, with its abbey ruins and iconic Tor – this conical hill is drenched in history and mythology, not least because of its associations with King Arthur’s Avalon. Much of the route, which wends via orchards, woodland and the Somerset Levels, uses a section of the Monarch’s Way, which traces the slippery escape route taken by King Charles II in 1651.
Distance: 12 miles
Map: OS OL 141
Route: From Wells Cathedral, follow the Monarch’s Way south towards Pennard Hill, then veer west for the Glastonbury Festival site, Tor and village. Buses make the 20-minute trip back to Wells
Where to stay
The Old Forge, East Kennett, is a restored smithy turned B&B, within walking distance of Avebury (doubles from £75pn; theoldforge-avebury.co.uk).
Timbrell’s Yard, in the heart of Bradford-on-Avon, is an old pub with rustic-luxe rooms and locally sourced food (doubles from £85pn; telegraph.co.uk/tt-timbrells-yard).
In hilltop Shaftesbury (or “‘Shaston”’ to Hardy), the Georgian-style Grosvenor Arms has 16 stylish rooms and a recommended restaurant (doubles from £115pn; telegraph.co.uk/tt-grosvenor-arms).
The two Pepperpot Lodges, in the grounds of St Giles House near Wimborne, have country kitchens, log fires, antiques and excellent locations (lodges for two from £150pn; stgileshouse.com/pepperpots).
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