Cranborne Chase - narrative
Blandford Forum to Salisbury

We knew this was a lovely area from the Great Stones Way walk, and decided to approach Salisbury from the South West, through the varied-looking countryside of Cranborne Chase. The network of trading routes/drove roads meant there were good paths. Starting at Blandford Forum meant a distance of about 25 miles, though we wandered a bit and our total was higher.

This is a good walk to do with others and we walked with a couple of friends; we did it in April and the spring flowers were a constant delight. It also turned out to be an amazing history lesson for me.

DAY 1: Blandford Forum to Alvediston. 15 miles, 8 hours.
The Georgian town of Blandford Forum was a striking mix of slightly dusty 18th century elegance and modern-day charity shops. We left town, going towards the entrance gate of Blandford Camp. After some badinage with the chap on duty there, we went left beside their perimeter fence and playing fields. The path immediately disappeared and at one point we had to scramble under some barbed wire, but we found a route. The broad plain north of the camp was of a generally flat, chalky country, with farmland and young crops showing fresh, green growth on the surface fields of earth, flints and chalk.

By the War Memorial to a Signals Regiment almost wiped out at Gallipoli, we crossed the A354 to Pimperne Long Barrow and our first meeting with ancient history - one of the best preserved Neolithic burial mounds in Wessex. And as its name implied it was more than 100 meters long. Not only impressive in size, the top also had wide, spreading vistas of the surrounding downland, with numerous fields of oilseed rape. The Park, before Tarrant Gunville had some lovely old beech trees. The Manor there was one of many grand estates in these parts; they implied artistcrats who were in Royal favour, probably managing in feudal style; now the lands are well-managed farms. Up the hill there were more earth-works - Chettle's (not quite so) Long Barrow. We turned right to the edge of Little Wood, which had a haze of blue from a fine carpet of bluebells.

After the village of Chettle we joined the Jubilee Trail to Farnham, where we had lunch at the Museum pub. It was named after Colonel Pitt Rivers, whose Wessex archaeological excavations were preserved near there.

We set off northwards in the afternoon, uphill to Park View Point, with a striking orange Hindu-style gateway standing proud on the skyline. The Larmer Tree Gardens (created by Pitt Rivers) were closed, so we went on down the hill, through the woods, to Tollard Royal and more history: the very grand King John's House - an impressive Tudor mansion, surrounded by his hunting grounds. (Clearly the house was built after his time.) I began to understand the idea of this area as a Mediaeval Royal hunting ground and why it is named 'Chase'; it was the last place in the UK to uphold the traditions, while most others had disappeared in Tudor times.

The long climb towards Win Green rewarded us with ever-expanding views of the chalk downs all round. The day had been cloudy, but brightened with the beautiful slanting light of the late afternoon. We'd had a fine mixture of bird song, from the crockling pheasants, via skylarks, vociferous blackbirds, to more tuneful robins. We went over the top at Monk's Down and descended Ashcombe Lane, to another sweeping panorama. The village of Berwick St John felt quite cosy after being out on top; there were charming flint and brick cottages, layered like strata, in the local style.

After Norrington Pond, we got on the wrong side of the the (young) River Ebble; Jeremy splashed through, while Henry and I walked back to cross by a little stone bridge. The excess water was almost certainly from the rains of March, the chalk being reluctant to let it run off. It was a long day and we finally arrived at Alvediston, with little thatched cottages and a 14th century Inn.

DAY 2: Alvediston to Salisbury.
13+ miles, 6½ hours
Sunshine galore - what a glorious day! On our landlady's recommendation, we climbed the little road to Elcombe Farm and on up Elcombe Hollow. There was a semi-circular shape on the hillside: remains of an old Roman amphitheatre, of a quarry, or just natural slippage, creating 'terracing' on the hillside? The old track at the top of the hill, Ox Drove, would have been used as the route to market in the Middle Ages.

After Rookhay Farm, a path on the left took us to Little London - now smartly done-up houses with spacious gardens and fine views, but thought to have been named after the rough London -types who'd previously lowered the tone of the neighbourhood. Down by the River Ebble there was a great series of watercress beds. Sifted through the chalk, the clear water is what watercress likes; so there was a thriving business here. We put our 50p in the honesty box and took a packet of fresh cress (which later turned out to have a firm texture and strong, peppery taste). Walking on into Broad Chalke, the only shop was part of the Church, and this was a Sunday and so not open; what a pity - no picnic. The Causeway Bridge led to a glorious flowering cherry, covered in frothy, creamy-white blossom. Then it was on to the Queen's Head beer garden.

In this valley the streams often ran in several channels and the path from Manor Farm to Long Bridge has rivulets and springs on its left; then the route to Knighton Mill was between two flowing bourns. We found a delightful place beside the streams and relaxed for half an hour to the soothing accompaniment of the flowing water; we rested on sawdust from sawn tree-trunks freshly toppled in the recent extreme weather; we've seen a striking number of fallen trees, their shallow roots unable to hold on in the rather thin, chalky soil. However, we have seen a wonderful range of different trees, impressive in their variety, age, spread and positions - often silhouetted against the sky- line, as a hilltop avenue.

After the Fly Fishing Centre at Croucheston, we passed through Bishopstone, where there was an unusual old house, with the building stones arranged in a checker-board pattern and dated 1683. Then a short section of road walking from (another) Manor Farm took us to the Roman Road, and climbed to North Down. There were more sheep farms around, including one with pretty 'black' sheep (actually dark brown), and a sweet group of five lambs, lazing in the sun.

At the top we found ourselves next to Salisbury Race Course (nothing going on) and we turned East along Old Shaftesbury Drove, soon seeing Salisbury Cathedral spire. There was a settlement there with old cars and barking dogs - the first transition from the glories of nature to the outskirts of civilisation. Then on down Hareham Hill, through the city suburbs, across the (big) Avon, to the Cathedral. One of the Church Wardens was locking up; he told us it had taken 38 years to build, starting in 1220; probably it hadn't been damaged in the War as it was a big landmark for German pilots to navigate by. For us, it was an impressive building, which made gratifying conclusion to our walk. The grey, Chilmark stone had been beautifully crafted for belief and community, and boasts other impressive aspects, such as the tallest spire in Britain and housing the best surviving copies of Magna Carta.

This walk was a great education for me, with my thin historical knowledge; it was like the country showing me how things were. Of course we went principally for the beauties of the countryside; similar to the enjoyment we have felt in the Chiltern Hills, the lines and curves of the land gave us great aesthetic pleasure. Then there were the wonders of nature, ranging from the sparkling white May flowers, to water meadows with marsh marigolds and flowing willow branches; it was a rich encounter. Also there was the variety of villages, some a bit run down, others visibly prosperous, presenting their historical buildings for modern-day visitors, and many with attractive, thatched cottages. We had traversed land imbued with our history and expressing our roots, with the ground delineated by the network of trading routes. From the geology of the thick limestone of Chilmark oolite (used in many of the local buildings), with the villages and ponds in the valleys, via our famous 12th century King, through the feudal systems of the 18th century, to the wheat, sheep and dairy farming of today and the watery, weedy meadows around the River Ebble, illustrating the inundations of March.

Our friends Maryon and Henry commented on how charming it all was - charming without being pretentious or self-conscious, but natural; a lovely slice of middle England.

© Diana Ambache 2014