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Dorchester - from Cathedral City to Commuter Village

Soak up the atmosphere of an ancient settlement before climbing to an outstanding viewpoint above the Thames.

Distance 4.5 miles (7.2km)

Minimum time 1hr 45min

Ascent/gradient 115ft (35m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Field and woodland paths and tracks, stretch of Thames Path and main road with pavement

Landscape Thames Valley

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 170 Abingdon, Wantage

Start/finish SU 578939

Dog friendliness Under control in vicinity of Day's Lock and at Little Wittenham Nature Reserve. On lead near livestock

Parking Parking area in Bridge End at southern end of Dorchester

Public toilets At parking area

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1 From the parking area walk towards the centre of Dorchester, keeping the abbey church on the right. As you approach the Fleur de Lys, turn left into Rotten Row and walk along to Mayflower Cottage and Pilgrims. Take the path between the two properties and pass beside allotments. On reaching a row of cottages, veer left to follow a track. Swing right after 60yds (55m) at the sign for Day's Lock. Pass between fencing and out across a large field. Ahead is the outline of Wittenham Clumps. On reaching the low embankment of the Dyke Hills, turn right in front of the fence.

2 Follow the path along the field edge, pass over a track and continue ahead. The path, enclosed by hedge and fencing, heads south towards the Thames riverbank. Go through a gate and follow the path, now unfenced, to a footbridge at Day's Lock. Cross the river to Lock House Island and head for St Peter's Church at Little Wittenham.

3 Turn left just beyond it, at the entrance to the manor. Keep right at the immediate fork, go through a galvanised gate and begin a steep climb to the viewpoint and beech trees on Round Hill at the top. Veer left as you approach a seat, pass a second seat and keep left at the next fork, heading for Castle Hill. Head towards some gates at the foot of the hill, avoid a stile and go through a galvanised gate, up a flight of steps and into the trees. On reaching a T-junction, turn left.

4 Emerge from the trees and pass the commemorative stone, keeping it on your right. Go down the grassy slope to a gate and pass through the trees to a field. Keep ahead along the perimeter, with woodland on the left. Pass a stile, continue along the field edge and round to the right in the corner. Swing left to join a nature trail and follow it through Little Wittenham Wood.

5 At a barrier and T-junction in the heart of the wood, turn left and follow the path back to Little Wittenham. Recross the Thames and then turn right to follow the river downstream. On reaching the confluence of the Thames and the Thame, swing left and head north towards Dorchester. As the Thame bends right, go straight on to a gate. Keep to the right of Dyke Hills to another gate and skirt the field to a track (Wittenham Lane). Pass the Catholic Church of St Birinus and return to the car park.

Dorchester is steeped in history. On the surface it seems to represent the quintessential English village, inhabited by commuters and retired professionals. But there is much more to it than quaint winding streets and rows of chocolate-box cottages. The Romans built an important town here, Dorocina, though its ramparts are now only faintly recognisable, and the present abbey stands on the site of the first Saxon cathedral in Wessex.

Excavations have revealed a number of Roman artefacts in the locality - among them an altar to Jupiter and Augustus, various tessellated pavements and some Roman coins. Who knows what other relics of their occupation may lie beneath surface.

In effect, Dorchester is one of our oldest cities, though it seems hard to believe looking at it today. In 1140 the Bishop of Lincoln founded a priory here, endowing it with various valuable possessions of the bishopric. As a result, the cathedral became Dorchester's abbey church. Thankfully, it was saved from demolition at the time of the Dissolution and purchased by a local resident for the modest sum of £140. He bequeathed the abbey church to the parish of Dorchester in his will.

The abbey remains at the heart of Dorchester and is a very special place in the history of Christianity in this country. Inside are many treasures that illustrate the abbey's long and distinguished history. The 12th-century lead font is decorated with figures of 11 apostles seated beneath a striking Romanesque arcade.

The nave is thought to have been built over the remains of the original cathedral and the east window is defined by a line of small sculptured figures depicting scenes from the life of Christ. Most of the glass in the top three rows dates from the early 14th century. The Jesse Window has 14th-century tracery, sculpture and stained glass bound together in one single theme. It depicts the story of how Christ was descended from King David's ancestor Jesse.

The Right Revd Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury 1980-91, described Dorchester Abbey as 'a building which keeps alive our sense of the sacred in a busy world', while John Betjeman said it was 'splendid in its proportions and details.'

However, at the start of the 21st century Dorchester Abbey faces something of a crisis. A campaign has been launched to raise £5 million - the sum needed to make significant improvements to the abbey. The installation of a new heating system is required and work needs to be carried out to restore the shrine area as a place of prayer for peace and unity. Detailed plans have been drawn up and a lot of changes are expected, but no one doubts that the spirit and beauty of Dorchester Abbey will live on far into the future.

Where to eat and drink

Dorchester's 16th-century Fleur de Lys offers morning coffee as well as drinks and home-cooked pub fare. Outside is a large beer garden. The Kingfisher Inn at Shillingford is open all day for snacks and meals. The Shillingford Bridge Hotel has a popular riverside restaurant and bar.

While you're there

Explore Little Wittenham Nature Reserve, established by the Northmoor Trust in 1982. Listen out for a fascinating variety of bird calls and songs from such species as robins, blackbirds and song thrushes and, in late autumn, the mistle thrush, fieldfare and redwing.

What to look for

On Castle Hill is a beech tree known as the Poem Tree, with a poem carved by Joseph Tubb of Warborough Green, near Dorchester, in 1844-5. The nearby stone, commemorating the poem's 150th anniversary, was erected in 1994.

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