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Forde Abbey and the Valley of the Axe

You'll find the going is fairly easy on this tranquil circuit through an area renowned for its soft fruit.

Distance 5 miles (8km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 443ft (135m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Field paths, country lanes, 18 stiles

Landscape Tranquil, broad, fertile valley

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 116 Lyme Regis & Bridport

Start/finish ST 373029

Dog friendliness Keep on lead along roads

Parking At crossroads south west of Thorncombe

Public toilets None on route

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1 Turn left (north east) and walk down into Thorncombe. Turn left up Chard Street and take the footpath on the right through the churchyard. Bear right down the lane and soon left on a gravel track beside a wall, opposite Goose Cottage. Cross a stile into a field, pass a barn on the left, then go straight on down the hedge.

2 Cross a stile in the corner and go straight across the field. Cross a stile and bear diagonally right, down to the corner of the next field. Cross a stile, then a second stile on the right. Ford the stream and bear left, up the field. Cross a stile on the left, and continue up. Soon cross another stile on the right, then bear right round the edge of the field. The track veers right through the hedge. Cross two more stiles and continue straight on. By a trough turn left over a pair of stiles and go straight ahead up the field edge. Go through a gate and bear right, towards a house.

3 Emerge through a gate on to a road and turn left. At the junction turn right on to a path and head straight for the woods. Turn left before the edge of the woods and, at the corner go right, through a gate. Head diagonally left to the bottom corner, opposite the gates of Forde Abbey. Cross a stile and turn right on the road to cross the River Axe.

4 Turn immediately left on to the footpath and follow it round past the back of the Abbey. At the far corner cross a footbridge over the river and bear right towards a lone cedar, then bear left up the slope to a stile, marked 'Liberty Trail'. Cross this, then walk along the top of the woods. Soon cross a stile and bear left across the fields towards another giant cedar.

5 Meet the road by a fruit-pickers' camp. Go straight across, through a gate and straight up the field. Towards the top right-hand corner bear right through a gate, then keep on this line. Cross a pair of stiles in the corner, pass Forde Abbey Farm on the left and keep straight on by the hedge. Cross a stile and walk down the track.

6 At a junction of tracks keep straight on. Where the track forks bear left, go through a gate and bear left across the field. Cross a stile in the hedge and turn right up the road. Stay on this for ½ mile (800m) to return to your car.

To reach Thorncombe you must travel on some of the narrowest lanes in Dorset, it seems. Go slowly, for visibility is limited to the next bend and you don't want to miss anything. Signposting is erratic and you could almost believe that few visitors have penetrated this charming quarter in the last 100 years. You'd be mistaken, for a famous gem on the Dorset heritage trail lies this way.

Buried deep in rolling green countryside on a bend of the River Axe, the majestic buildings of Forde Abbey today ooze charm and contentment. It is difficult to imagine them lying abandoned for almost a century yet, after the Cistercian monastery that had occupied the site for some 400 years was closed down in 1539, that is exactly what happened. The spell was broken by a new purchaser in 1649, Edmund Prideaux, who had risen to a position of power during the Civil War. His career peaked shortly after as Attorney General to Oliver Cromwell. Prideaux's reputation was severely damaged, however, when it was revealed that his son had entertained the rebel Duke of Monmouth here in 1680, and a hefty fine for suspected sympathies after Monmouth's defeat at Sedgemoor was to cripple him financially. In his early, buoyant years at Forde, Prideaux made his own modifications to a structure that was already rather splendid, thanks to the work of a previous incumbent, the abbot Thomas Chard. The initials 'T C' may be seen on the oriel windows of the great, square entrance tower. Prideaux's priority was to make a family home, so he shortened the Great Hall, turned the chapter house into a private chapel and remodelled the monks' gallery into a saloon, among other improvements. The beautiful, garlanded plasterwork ceilings date from this time.

Vivid Mortlake tapestries depicting the Acts of the Apostles which hang in the saloon were an addition in the next century, presented by Queen Anne to her Secretary of War, Sir Francis Gwyn, who had come into ownership of the estate by marriage.

While the house is fascinating, it is the setting of the abbey within the gardens which is most memorable. Photos of the house invariably show the beautiful planting at the front, viewed from across the still waters of the Long Pond, with neatly clipped specimen yews and deep beds of summer flowers. It's open all year and truly a garden for all seasons, with a kitchen garden, stunning herbaceous borders, a rock garden (created from old gravel workings), a bog garden, an arboretum for autumn colour and drifts of snowdrops lining the approach in early spring. Dog owners will be pleased to hear that, providing they are kept on a short lead, dogs are actually welcome here.

What to look for

Look into St Mary's Church at Thorncombe for a sight of two splendid 15th-century brasses, memorials to Sir Thomas and Lady Joan Brook. Standing over 5ft (1.5m) high, they depict the pair in the flowing dress of the period, their feet resting on pet dogs.

Where to eat and drink

There are attractive tea rooms at Forde Abbey, but if you're looking for something more substantial, head for the Squirrel Inn at nearby Laymore. It offers real ales, imaginative and top-notch home-cooking, freshly made sandwiches and a family room. Outside there's a beer garden and a good-sized children's play area. Dogs are welcome.

While you're there

The boast of Pilsdon Pen is that, at 909ft (277m), it is the highest hill in Dorset. It lies to the south east of Thorncombe and is topped by an ancient fort. There are extensive views south over the Marshwood Vale towards Golden Cap and the sea. William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived for a time at nearby Racedown, and climbed the hill regularly.

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