Mystical landscape of Dorset’s hinterland

The Hell Stone at sunset. This stone-chambered long barrow near Portesham was moved and poorly reconstructed in 1866, an action now considered to be part of its 6000-year-old story. It is the only known ‘complete’ dolmen tomb in Dorset. Photo by Tony Gill

Effectively the spine of the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), the South Dorset Ridgeway sits shoulder to shoulder with the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. The 17-mile stretch of the South West Coast Path National Trail from West Bexington to Osmington Mills is a sea wall separating the coast and the county’s rugged agricultural hinterland. With more than a thousand scheduled ancient monuments and many more agricultural marks, the hand of man can be seen throughout this landscape and to many experts it is just as important as the UNESCO-inscribed attraction by the sea. Indeed, as with its stellar neighbour, the Ridgeway’s story is almost entirely set in prehistory, from the Neolithic onwards.

Since 2008 a series of conservation, arts and agricultural schemes have striven to draw attention to the Ridgeway, but a decade of concerted effort to promote one of the county’s lesser-visited landscapes is to end later this year with the completion of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s fixed-term grant support.

There are many more questions than answers here, says James Sharpe, the AONB’s landscape partnership manager for the South Dorset Ridgeway and one of its most knowledgeable and enthusiastic advocates. ‘At the very first interpretation planning meeting I sat around a table with a team of experts – geologists, artists, conservationists, archaeologists, farmers – and each of us was invited to say what we love about the Ridgeway. When we’d finished, not a single fact or figure had been mentioned; it was all about feelings, emotional responses to this special landscape. That’s why I love the Ridgeway so much.’

The Jurassic Coast attracts millions of visitors a year, and if just a few of them were to turn their backs on the sea and look inland, there are even more treasures to find, but what the Ridgeway lacks is a headline-grabbing attraction. Although there are several henge sites, the biggest, near Dorchester, was made of wood and those that were constructed from stone have collapsed. Burial mounds pepper the landscape – more muted than they once were but still clear evidence of lives that wanted to be remembered.

Some of the Bronze Age barrows on Bronkham Hill are quite elaborate,’ James points out. ‘They were made to be seen, not from all around, but from specific places, presumably settlements. There are a lot of sinkholes near the barrows and one theory is that it was an important burial site because these holes in the landscape were considered portals to the underworld. There’s a mystery about them that is typical to the Ridgeway – it invites the imagination, so most of our responses are going on inside our heads.’

The Valley of Stones, designated a National Nature Reserve in 1999

The more prosaic explanation is that the base rock of soft limestone chalk was laid down in a tropical sea during the cretaceous period then overlaid by acidic sand and gravels. Over time those acids dissolved the chalk underneath and the sandy deposits collapsed into the holes, leaving conical depressions – sinkholes. There are more than two hundred on Bronkham Hill alone.

Nevertheless, James’s enthusiasm is infectious and immediately justified by the magnificent views from the recently reinvigorated Black Down, where a former Dorset County Council depot has been transformed into a car parking and picnic area with trails to the nearby Hardy Monument and across a largely cleared and managed landscape that until recently was a conifer plantation. A number of Galloway and Belted Galloway cattle are employed in a conservation-grazing project that supports the restoration and management of an important lowland heath habitat.

It is also home to a new architectural sculpture by Amanda Moore, a solar and lunar monument to the summer and winter solstices made of forest marble arranged in blocks with apertures, built using dry-stone walling techniques. ‘We hired an archaeo-astronomist to check the alignment of the sections,’ offers James with a smile. ‘We were careful to make sure it doesn’t detract attention from the Hardy Monument.’

Just over the ridge towards Littlebredy, there are no obvious human interactions with the Sarsen boulders from which the Valley of Stones takes its name. ‘There are stones in circles,’ says James, standing in the middle of one, ‘but it’s not clear if that makes them ceremonial stone circles.’

Sarsen is a durable composite rock made up of sandstone bound by a kind of silica cement and is found at Stonehenge and the Avebury stone circle as well as in similar structures on the South Dorset Ridgeway at the Hell Stone and the Grey Mare and her Colts. Unless the ancient folklore is correct and the stones were chucked there in a throwing game played by giants, they were in fact deposited in the Valley of Stones by a series of freeze/thaw actions at the end of the last ice age and slipped down the sides of the valley as softer material beneath and around them was washed away.

A new archaeological survey of the valley is under discussion, and geophysics could reveal more information about the stones that lie buried beneath the current valley floor, and so shed more light on the origins of the apparent stone circles.

Running into the valley at its Littlebredy end is a sweeping combe that is home to a rectangular, clearly man-made enclosure in which the archaeologists are also very interested. For now it is thought to date from anywhere between the Romano-British and the medieval periods – a range of more than a thousand years. ‘This is the beauty of the Ridgeway,’ enthuses James. There is so little to be definite about, so there’s space for the imagination to explore.’

It is inconceivable that the Valley of Stones would be developed, not least because it is a designated National Nature Reserve – scarce lichens grow on the stones with rare clustered bellflowers and autumn gentian on the floor and important colonies of Adonis blue and chalkland blue butterflies. There is work to be done to improve access to one of Dorset’s lesser-visited treasures, but the valley belongs to the Bridehead estate and is part of a working farm with English Longhorns grazing the remnants of Celtic field systems that overlook the stones. The new car park at Black Down suggests that such enhancements can be made with a light touch.

The AONB is primarily funded by DEFRA but its only statutory duty is to produce a management plan. The implementation of that plan is down to individual project groups winning funding from grant-making bodies. The Heritage Lottery Fund grant to the South Dorset Ridgeway Project that ends in July is an example of such funding.

The Bincombe Bumps Bronze Age landscape from near the Culliford Tree Barrow. Legend has it that fairies lived in the bumps and if you put your ear to one at noon you would hear their  music

As landscape partnerships manager, James wants to know that his work in managing the projects – some 25 in all with schools, farmers, arts and environmental organisations – has been successful before his post finishes in September. ‘I’d love to have been able to count visitors,’ he says, ‘but you’re dealing with open access land with multiple points of entry. I live in the middle of the project area and am always out and about walking or on my bike and I see lots of people, I see stiles that are muddy and well used, footpaths that are well trodden – anecdotal evidence that people are getting out and engaging with the landscape. The dream is for more people who live and work in the area to know about and visit these sites and understand how special they are. If we don’t know about places we can’t value them and if we can’t value them we can’t care for them and conserve them. So the key is to make sure people know about them.

‘The partnerships we have set up will continue informally, particularly those involving the many volunteers that have worked with us, and the legacy is looking good. It’s clear there is an appetite for discovering what’s here. That was brought home to us when we collaborated with Activate Performing Arts for the Inside Out Dorset arts festival in 2014. It featured artistic responses to the Ridgeway and a performance in the Valley of Stones and so many local people were saying they never realised the beauty of what’s here.’

• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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