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Down, Ditch and Dyke from Pentridge

A stiff climb leads to a dramatic defensive earthwork.

Distance 3.5 miles (5.7km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 475ft (145m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Steep, muddy farmland, grassy sward, farm roads, 4 stiles

Landscape Chalk downs, open grassland, fields and copse

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 118 Shaftesbury & Cranborne Chase

Start/finish SU 034178

Dog friendliness No problems

Parking Lay-by in Pentridge or start from car park at Martin Down

Public toilets None on route

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1 From the lay-by walk past the turning up to the church and cross the stile on the left by the footpath sign. Head up the field to a stile, and cross it to enter a narrow footpath. This leads between hedges, straight up the 610ft (185m) Pentridge Hill. Cross another stile into a field and keep straight ahead. As you pause to catch your breath, you can start to admire the view opening around you, with the green curve of Pentridge Down on the left. Keep straight on to the top of the hill (Penbury Knoll), passing to the left of a clump of trees.

2 At the top turn left on to the Jubilee Trail footpath, which runs along the ridge of the down beside an ancient hedge line. (There are fabulous views on either side - Pentridge is largely hidden in the trees.) After ½ mile (800m) the path starts to descend.

3 Turn right, through a gate into a copse, following the Jubilee Trail marker, and descend along the field edge. Soon bear left across the field to a fingerpost in the hedge, to turn right down a muddy track. There are good views of Bokerley Dyke curving away to your left. Descend through woodland to a gate at the bottom. Go through and turn right, on to a bridleway. Pass a metal gate and immediately hook back left on a chalky track. As you start to descend, curious mounds appear to the right - tumuli.

4 Cross Grim's Ditch and Bokerley Dyke on to the nature reserve of Martin Down, and immediately turn left on to the grassy path, which runs along the east side of the ditch. Follow this downhill for ½ mile (800m).

5 At the crossroads of tracks turn left on to the Jubilee Trail, by the fingerpost that announces it's only 90 miles (144km) to Forde Abbey. A nettly path runs up the side of mixed woodland. At the end of the woods go straight ahead, through a gate. Follow the field boundary up to the top and cross the stile.

6 Turn right and go through the farm gate into a green lane. Pentridge Down emerges to the left, with the village hidden by trees. Pass through another gate on to a farm track between high hedges. Continue down to the bottom and follow it round to the left. Walk back into the village along the main street to return to your car.

At 607ft (185m) high, Penbury Knoll has made a good lookout over Cranborne Chase since settlers first left their mark on this quiet corner of north east Dorset, some 5,000 years ago. The maps show signs of Celtic field systems (associated with the period around 1000 bc) plotted around the lovely green combe of Pentridge Down, though little is revealed to the naked eye. The extraordinary Dorset Cursus starts to the north of here, and the landscape is littered with lumpy burial mounds, or tumuli, and long barrows, the most visible signs of early settlement. Grim's Ditch marked a Bronze-Age farm boundary, but a more significant defensive earthwork remains from this period, constructed to protect the long-vanished hill fort against invasion from the north east.

Bokerley Dyke is a broad scar running down the hill. It consists of a high bank and deep ditch, which originally extended for some 3 miles (4.8km). A matter of weeks' work for a JCB, the construction of the dyke must have taken thousands of hours of punishing hard labour. In the 4th century ad it was strengthened and parts of it were re-dug, as by then it formed an important defence on the Roman route along Ackling Dyke to the stronghold at Badbury Rings, against Saxon invaders. In the 9th century it again formed a vital part of the defence of Dorset - this time from attacks by the Vikings, who were overrunning the Kingdom of Wessex. King Ethelred I was mortally wounded in a fierce battle on Martin Down, on the other side of the dyke, in ad 871. This event left the way open for his younger brother Alfred to claim the throne of Wessex and eventually make a successful peace with the marauding Danes.

There has been a settlement below the hill at Pentridge since at least the recordings of the Domesday survey in the 11th century, when St Rumbold's Church received its first mention. The quiet hamlet of Pentridge is spared the modern invasion of traffic passing through. Tiled cob walls mix with flint and brick and thatch, and there's a handsome 18th-century barn. Unusually, little Chestnut Cottage, by the turning to the church, has exposed timbers. Unlike busier villages, where houses jostle forward on to the narrow pavements, here they are set back from the single main street, tucked behind hedges and gardens, or in a silent line further up the hill. There's no orange streetlighting here. In the dusk, little squares of golden light appear, unshaded by curtains, evoking memories of Thomas Hardy's obsession in The Woodlanders (1887) with lamps and firelight and looking through people's windows to see life played out.

Where to eat and drink

There's nothing in the immediate vicinity of Pentridge, but that's a good excuse to visit the attractive red brick village of Cranborne, to the south east. Top of the list for real ale is the Sheaf of Arrows pub in the square, which has its own brewery just behind - tours are also available. Savour your pint in the terrace garden beside the pub. Further choice is offered at the popular garden centre tea rooms by Cranborne Manor. (The Manor gardens are open on Wednesdays in the summer months.)

While you're there

Explore Martin Down, on the other side of the Dyke, and just over the border into Hampshire. A National Nature Reserve in the care of English Nature, it consists of open tracts of chalk downland, dotted with wild flowers including purple clover, lilac-coloured scabious and soft blue harebells, with heath, scrub and woodland.

What to look for

St Rumbold's Church was rebuilt in 1855 and is a pleasing, unfussy structure of grey stone and flint. Look out for a plaque inside commemorating one Robert Browning who died in 1746: he was a butler and the great-great-grandfather of the famous Victorian poet of the same name.

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