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Giant Steps to Cerne Abbas

A valley walk from Minterne Magna to see a famous chalk hill carving.

Distance 5.5 miles (8.8km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 591ft (180m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Country paths and tracks, minor road, main road, 2 stiles

Landscape Head of Cerne Valley, scattered with old settlements

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas & Bere Regis

Start/finish ST 659043

Dog friendliness Lead essential on main road stretches

Parking Car park (free) opposite church in Minterne Magna

Public toilets Cerne Abbas

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1 Turn right and walk up the road through the village. Where it curls left, turn right through a gate on to a bridleway and go straight ahead up the hill. At the top go through a gate and bear left. Follow the blue marker diagonally up to the right. Go through a gate, walk on past some trees, then bend up, round a field towards the tree line.

2 Go through the gap and take the track down diagonally left through the woods. At the bottom turn left along the road. After a bend take the footpath right, across the field. After a line of trees veer left, towards a white gate. Cross a road, pass to the right of a gate, and continue straight on down the field. Pass another white gate then continue ahead on the road. At the end bear right on to the A352.

3 Soon cross to the car park for the best view of the Giant. Take the road down to the village and turn left, signposted 'Pottery'. Turn right by the stream, signposted 'Village Centre'. Continue over a slab bridge and pass an old mill. Bear left, to the high street. Turn left, and left again in front of the Royal Oak, to the church. Walk up the Old Pitch Market to the Abbey. Turn right into the churchyard and bear left. Go through a gate, signposted 'Giant's Hill', and bear left.

4 Cross a stile, then turn right up some steps. Now follow the path to the left, round the contour of the hill, below a fence. As the path divides, keep right, up the hill, towards the top. Bear left along the ridge, cross a stile by a fingerpost and head diagonally right, towards a barn.

5 At the barn turn left and go down through a gate. Soon turn right and follow the bridleway along the hillside, with views to Minterne Parva. Keep straight ahead at a junction of tracks, then dip down through a gateway above some woods. Keep straight on to go through a gate near the road. Turn left along the grassy track. At a gateway turn left on to a gravel lane (soon turn right for Walk 44).

6 Directly above Minterne House (Walk 44 rejoins here), turn left through a small gate and bear left. Go through a gate and turn left, downhill. Continue down through several gates and keep right at the fingerpost down a broad track. Cross the stream, then walk up past the church to return to the car park.

The chalk outline of the Cerne Abbas Giant is so familiar that the reality, seen from the hillside opposite rather than above from the air, is a surprise. His proportions change at this shallower angle, and this of course is how he was designed to be seen - all 180ft (55m) of him. Quite when he was made, and by whom, is part of his mystery.

Was he drawn up there by the Romans, a portrait of the demi-god Hercules? Could he be part of a cunning neolithic plan to frighten away potential enemies from a settlement on the hilltop? On the other hand he might be of Celtic origin, for the giant has been linked to a pan handle discovered 12 miles (19km) away on Hod Hill. Made of bronze, it depicts a naked man clutching a club in one hand and a limp hare in the other. The man has wings and is surrounded by other symbols which identify him as Nodens, a Celtic god of healing and fertility. His features and the angle of his legs suggest close resemblance to the Giant, and place him in the 1st century ad. Whatever the truth of it, the Giant has been seen as a symbol of fertility for many centuries. It used to be seen as the acceptable thing for childless women to spend a night of hope on his crotch. The fencing now around the Giant is to prevent him from being eroded away.

St Augustine visited Cerne and preached to the locals on the spot now marked by St Augustine's Well. A verse on the wall there records how he offered two shepherds the choice of something to drink, beer or water. When they primly asked for water, the saint rewarded them with a brewery. An abbey was founded here in ad 987. Its most famous inhabitant, Aelfric, produced a number of schoolbooks in Anglo-Saxon. A Latin primer, in which pupils adopt the characters of working people, such as a shoemaker and a fowler, and describe their lives to their teacher, is a fascinating record of daily life. The abbey was dissolved in 1539, along with Dorset's other monastic houses, but an imposing gatehouse with overhanging oriel window and carved lions remains, along with other venerable buildings, including an ancient hospital, set around a flowered courtyard.

The village of Cerne Abbas is a lovely mixture of old houses, some half-timbered, some stone, with flint, thatch and brick in evidence. The Red Lion Hotel claims to be one of 13 original public houses and if that seems excessive in a place this size, it should be explained that Cerne was once a major staging post on the coaching routes.

What to look for

Hidden from the main road behind high stone walls, Minterne House is a large, yellow, Victorian pile, built by the Digby family. It is not open to the public, but its magnificent gardens are. Paths weave through a famous collection of rhododendrons and magnolias.

Where to eat and drink

The Royal Oak in Cerne Abbas is an old free house where you can get steak and fresh salads, Portland crab sandwiches and Dorset apple cake. The Singing Kettle Tearoom has a garden at the back and doubles as a gift shop.

While you're there

Explore nearby Godmanstone, where the Smiths Arms claims to be the smallest pub in England. It is said that Charles II was passing one day and stopped at the forge to ask for a drink. Informed by the blacksmith that he could not oblige as he had no licence, the King promptly granted him one.

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