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A Lost Village at Higher Melcombe

A hilly circuit of farmland where, in centuries past, labour economics determined the pattern of settlement.

Distance 5 miles (8km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 443ft (135m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Farmland, woodland track, ancient bridleway, road, 13 stiles

Landscape Gently rolling farmland, little lumpy hills, village

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas & Bere Regis

Start/finish ST 765031

Dog friendliness Some road walking, one unfriendly stile

Parking Small parking area on north side of village hall

Public toilets None on route

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© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153

1 Turn up the road and go immediately left down a waymarked path. Cross a stile, bear right down the edge of the field and cross a stile at the bottom. Continue straight up the next field, cross a stile and road to go through a gate. Keep straight on to reach a pair of stiles in a hedge.

2 Go through these stiles then bear right, across the field. Descend and go right, through a gate in the corner. Follow the track beside a hedge, then go through a gate and bend to the left.

3 Go into the farm and turn immediately left through the furthest of three gates, signposted 'Wessex Ridgeway'. Walk along the edge of the field, above a wood. Go through a gate and continue straight ahead along the top of the ridge, enjoying superb views over the Blackmoor Vale. The track descends abruptly. Turn right, through a gate, to a crossroads of tracks at the Dorsetshire Gap.

4 Turn left down a bridleway through a deep cleft, signposted 'Higher Melcombe'. Keep straight on through three fields. Ridges and hummocks in a field to your right are the only sign of the medieval village. Pass Higher Melcombe farm, then go through a gate and turn left, on to a minor road. Bear right to walk down an avenue of young trees (look right to see the hill track leading to the Giant's Grave). Descend past some houses to a junction.

5 Turn left and walk on the road into Melcombe Bingham. Pass a row of houses then turn right. Go through a gate to take the path straight ahead across the field. Pass the end of a strip of woodland and maintain your direction up the fence towards a hut. Cross the fence at the top. Continue ahead, down the field towards Bingham's Melcombe. Cross a stile and turn right. Follow the drive round and down to the church.

6 Retrace your route to the stile and keep straight on past, up the field. Before the end turn left through a gate and bear right along a path. Where this divides keep left. Go through a gate and descend on a track. Go straight ahead to cross a footbridge. Keep straight on, bear right over a stile in the fence and continue down the field. When under some bulging trees turn left over a stile. Keep straight ahead then cross a stile on to the road. Turn right to return to your car.

Be prepared for confusion on this walk: it passes Higher Melcombe and through Melcombe Bingham to Bingham's Melcombe, which is also known as Melcombe Horsey. And Melcombe Horsey was the name of a village at Higher Melcombe that has now disappeared. Is that clear?

There has been a church at Bingham's Melcombe since before 1302. The current one dates from the 14th century. The roving bell, Regina Coeli Alla Alla, was sold twice to raise funds for the church but kept coming back, eventually resting on the floor for 50 years until the money could be raised to rehang it. Today it's safely back with its companion O Beata Trinitas in the belfry, although only chiming is allowed.

The church is cruciform in shape, two side chapels forming the arms of the cross. The Bingham chapel has a touching memorial to Thomas, infant son of Richard and Philadelphia Bingham, who died in 1711. The Binghams were one of Dorset's leading Parliamentary families during the Civil War, and their mansion and gardens (not open to the public), of which you can only catch a glimpse, are magnificent. The Dower House, opposite the church, has fine octagonal window panes.

By contrast, Higher Melcombe is, today, a solitary farm, set in a fertile green basin at the head of a valley. The buildings are dominated by the old manor house, built in the mid-15th century for Sir John Horsey, with a chapel attached later. A village called Melcombe Horsey once occupied this lovely spot. According to the map the village simply disappeared in medieval times, but why? Unlike Milton Abbas there is no sign of grand rebuilding necessitating removal.

What could cause rural depopulation on such a scale? The answer lies at Dorset's other Melcombe, the port of Melcombe Regis, now absorbed into the sprawl of Weymouth. Melcombe Regis has an unfortunate claim to fame for, in June 1348, the first case in Britain of bubonic plague - the Black Death - was brought ashore here. The disease, carried by fleas that were equally at home on black rats or people, spread through the county with devastating speed, wiping out between one third and one half of the population.

The feudal system that had operated until this time in Dorset, in which labourers had been tied to manorial land, could not survive in the face of such losses. With a drastic shortage of able bodies, labour became a prime commodity. Workers simply moved to where they could be paid for their work as free men. Once-thriving villages, such as Melcombe Horsey were reduced to little hamlets, or sometimes just a single, isolated farm. The changes meant a great reduction in arable cultivation, to the extent that some prime farmland reverted to more manageable grazing.

What to look for

Ansty's handsome, flint and brick village hall is called the Old Brewery Hall. It was the original brewery for Hall and Woodhouse beer, made since 1777. The brewery's early success was founded on a government contract to supply ale to Dorsetshire troops awaiting an invasion by Napoleon that never came. Hall and Woodhouse moved to Blandford St Mary in 1899 and still thrive there today under their better-known Badger trademark.

While you're there

Why should the understanding of lumps and bumps in the landscape be left to dry archaeology? And what better explanation for a burial mound some 23ft (7m) long than that a giant lies entombed there? Take the footpath up the western slope of Henning Hill, to the south of Melcombe Bingham. A terrace on the hillside is where you'll find the Giant's Grave. A so-called pillow mound lies near by, and there are good views along the valley.

Where to eat and drink

The Fox Inn at Ansty bills itself as 'The Country Retreat'. Inside the wood panelling gleams. You can get morning coffees, afternoon teas and snacks at the bar (where dogs are welcome) or treat yourself to a meal in one of the two restaurants. Children are welcome throughout the pub.

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