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The White Horse at Osmington

Where the world saw a sane King George III take a well-earned break.

Distance 4 miles (6.4km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 568ft (173m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Farm and village lanes, woodland paths, field paths, 9 stiles

Landscape Sheltered green valley behind coastline and chalky ridge of White Horse Hill

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer OL 15 Purbeck & South Dorset

Start/finish SY 724829

Dog friendliness No problems

Parking Church Lane in Osmington, just off A353

Public toilets None on route

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1 From Osmington church walk down the village street of pretty thatched cottages. At the junction keep on down Church Lane. Opposite Forge Barn, at the end of a wall, turn left up a long, steep flight of steps, signed 'Sutton Poyntz'. The path rises through woodland. After a second set of steps bear right on the path which undulates through the trees. Cross a stile and continue straight on to the end of a field.

2 Cross a stile and turn immediately right to cross a second stile and walk down the field. Turn left through a gate and head straight across the field. Cross a farm track and bear ahead and right. Cross a pair of stiles and continue along the bottom of the field, looking to your right to see the White Horse. Continue though a gap. At the end of the next field bear left, through a gateway, then go straight on (yellow marker), towards Sutton Poyntz. Soon veer right, cross a stream and bear left through a gate. Follow the path to a stile and continue to the road.

3 Turn right, pass the Mill House and the tall, red brick mill on the left. Pass the village pond and the Springhead pub on the right. Bear left and right up a lane by Springfield Cottage. Go through a gate and follow the track straight ahead. Go through another gate, with a pumping station on the right, below the bottom of the steep combe where the spring emerges.

4 Cross a stile by a gate and turn left up the grassy lane. About half-way up the hill turn right, up a track (the upper of two) that leads to the top above the combe, with great views along the valley and down to Weymouth Bay and Portland. Keep right on the green track, go through a gate and keep left along the field edge. Follow the path round to the right and walk up the field (a lane soon joins from the left). Stay on this track past the trig point. Go through a gate and keep straight on, with a good view to strip lynchets on the hillside ahead.

5 Go through a gate and bear down to the right, signed 'Osmington'. The track leads down the hill, through a gate - look back to see the White Horse again. Follow the lane back up through the village to your car.

The 1994 film The Madness of King George did much to remind the world of a monarch whose identity had been obscured by time. In the Dorset town of Weymouth, however, he has never been forgotten.

Weymouth is a trading port with a patchy history, including the first outbreak on English shores of the Black Death, and a proximity to France that had left it vulnerable to raids. The town found new life in the 18th century as a base for trade with the Americas and the shipping of convicts to Australia. The 1780s saw the emergence of the popular cult of sea bathing (and even seawater drinking) - Weymouth joined in. A royal visit in 1789, however, was to rocket the little town into the top rank of seaside resorts.

Rumours of George III's mental instability were threatening to destabilise the country. Accordingly, it was decided that the King should go on a short and highly visible tour, to enable his subjects to see how much better he was. Weymouth was picked, and a six day journey commenced for the royal party, which consisted of the King, the Queen and the three princesses. It was a great build-up and, by the time they reached Weymouth, the crowds were ecstatic, with bunting, mayoral receptions and gunships firing salutes in the bay. The King responded to their warmth with a short walk-about on his very first evening and the declaration that he 'never saw a sight so pleasing'.

Any hopes that the King might have had of a quiet dip in the sea, however, were dashed a week later by the strength and volume of local enthusiasm for their royal visitor. Even as his royal-crested bathing hut was being wheeled into the sea, a band hidden in a nearby bathing machine were waiting to burst into a loyal song as soon as the regal body hit the water. George III spent ten weeks here on his first visit, enjoying day trips to Lulworth, Milton Abbey and St Adhelm's Head, and sailing off Portland. The royal family returned two years later for a holiday and then returned every year until 1805.

In 1808 John Rainier (brother of the heroic Rear Admiral Peter Rainier, whose name was given to Mount Rainier near Seattle), arranged for a symbol of the town's undying loyalty and gratitude for the royal attention bestowed upon them, to be carved into the chalk downs above Osmington. And so an elegant silhouette of the King on horseback was created, around 324ft (99m) high, riding away from the town - presumably in a much healthier condition after his vacation. Once clearly visible from Weymouth, Portland and ships out at sea, today the chalk figure is weathered and grey, but you can still pick out the graceful lines of the horse's legs and tail, and the King's distinctive cocked hat.

While you're there

The seaside town of Weymouth has a long beach and an appealing, old seafront promenade, complete with lacy, wrought-iron decoration. Apart from the usual seaside amusements, attractions include historic Nothe Fort, and a fascinating timewalk through a Victorian brewery, combined with craft outlets and specialist shopping at Brewer's Quay, on the Old Harbour.

Where to eat and drink

The friendly Springhead pub in Sutton Poyntz is in a grand location beside the village pond and fairly buzzes on summer weekends. There's a beer garden, a family barbecue area and a children's play area and farm. (Dogs are not allowed in these areas, but are welcome in the bar and at the tables outside the front of the pub.) It serves a good range of bar food and has a more substantial restaurant menu.

What to look for

As you walk along White Horse Hill there is a clear view of terracing on the grassy slopes of the combe ahead. These are strip lynchets, relics of a farming system introduced in the 12th and 13th centuries in Dorset, to maximise the land available for cultivation. There are further good examples of these medieval earthworks in the hills around Worth Matravers.

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