I woke to a glorious sunny morning, eager to get out on the trail again. I had already decided which walk I wanted to do – it started from the picture postcard village of Milton Abbas. This is a designer village with one broad main street lined with almost identical houses thanks to Joseph Damer, Lord Milton, owner of Milton Abbey. In 1780 he decided that the nearby market town of Middleton was spoiling his view so he appointed Sir William Chambers and Capability Brown to design a new village in Luccombe Bottom, just around the corner…….and out of sight! The result was Milton Abbas. The old town of Middleton was demolished and the grounds landscaped to form the parkland of his mansion.
It really is a beautiful, pristine village and it was wonderful walking down this street, passing old buildings such as the old bakery, the post office, the church and almshouses. At the bottom of the main street, I turned north and walked through the parklands towards Milton Abbey itself, lost to the church at the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The path from the village to the Abbey
I decided that I would look inside the Abbey – it is the only building that has public access as this magnificent mansion is now Milton Abbas School. Walking through the door, I was surprised at how the beautiful building had deteriorated since I last visited. There were people carrying out a survey and I chatted to one of them. He was a glass specialist who worked at Salisbury Cathedral and he told me that the problem was water ingress caused by damaged windows, gutters and downpipes. The building dates from the 14th century so it is not surprising that there is deterioration in the structure. His role was to report on the condition of all the windows, stained glass and others. I commented that his job must be really interesting and he agreed but did add a caveat that it was not quite so good in the cold and wet of winter!
There are several tombs in the abbey but none more beautiful than that of Joseph and Caroline Damer.
The tomb of Joseph and Caroline Damer
Leaving the church, I followed the path that skirts around the grounds and was able to look back across the perfectly manicured lawns for a fine view of this magnificent abbey and mansion. With the trees now clothed in their bright, verdant foliage, the view was quite breathtaking.
Milton Abbey viewed across the parklands
From the abbey grounds, my route took me briefly along the country lane before turning off along a track that runs through the valley bottom. A horse rider bid me a cheery good morning as she passed and of course, being English, we commented on the weather :) !
After a mile or two, I arrived at the next village, Hilton, which sits in the eastern part of the Dorset Downs. This village was once part of the Milton Abbey estate when it was owned by the Hambro family, and the hillsides around were forested to provide cover for pheasants as King Edward VII was regularly entertained by the Hambros. The surrounding hills are still wooded but the trees are much more recent as the original forests were cleared during WW2. The village itself is a delight to walk through, with it’s many thatched cottages with gardens full of spring colours. It is a typical Dorset village.
I made my way to the church, standing proud on it’s hillside. The graveyard was thick with spring flowers which seemed to compliment the old, lichen covered gravestones. I was walking around taking pictures when a local lady walked through the gate and we fell into conversation.
She told me that she was born in the village but left when she married her farmer husband, before returning later in life. She was sad because there were no young people in the village as they were unable to afford to pay the market price for houses that had increased way beyond the norm over the years. I asked if the village had, like many, become a place of weekend homes and she replied that although there were some second homes, it was not as bad as some villages. As with most villages, there were cottages called, ‘The Old Post Office’ etc that gave indications of their previous uses – in this 21st century, it is sad that the heart has gone from these communities.
The villager told me that the church minister used to live in The Rectory beside the church, a substantial three story, 10 bedroom pile, but now he lived miles away and looked after four other villages as well as Hilton. As always, The Rectory, much changed, is now in private ownership.
All Saints, Hilton
I left the village with an air of sadness, sadness for a lifestyle that had gone forever, sadness that these once vibrant communities now seemed so soul-less, but cheered that there are still friendly people happy to welcome visitors like me. And I left to the raucous sound of rooks cawing high in the trees overhead, their derisory scoffing echoing after me as I made my way up through Hilton Bottom.
As I neared the top of the hill, I sat and ate lunch looking down through the lovely valley with it’s rapidly ripening oil seed rape and I pondered on my conversation with the old lady in the village below.
A beautiful lunch time view
Eventually I pulled myself away from what is one of my favourite places and continued to the top of the hill, passing lines of hawthorn trees in full bloom.
The top of the hill is in fact almost the top of Dorset. At 900 feet, there are only a couple of places that can outdo its height, but not its views. From the top of this chalk hill it is possible to see for miles across the Blackmore Vale, taking in four separate counties. It was an appropriate place to site a wayside pulpit and an equally appropriate message.
The Wayside Pulpit on Bulbarrow Hill
Dropping down off the hill, my route took me through a delightful valley with beautiful but contrasting sides. The north facing side was thick with amazing spring green foliage brought to full life by the lowering afternoon sun. With long shadows being thrown down the hillside, it was a scene to just stand and absorb as the birds seemingly gave vent to their delight overhead.
Verdant spring greens
The south facing hillside was thick with bluebells gradually coming into full flower. These are old woodlands and there are many old and rotting trunks which provide a haven to a myriad of tiny creatures. With these valley walls on either side, I made my way down the track that runs between them and in the distance I could hear the cry of a cuckoo as if to prove to me that spring had arrived. It seems strange to me that even the tiniest of birds is unable to realise that in the cuckoo they have an infiltrator in their midst, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the new baby is several times the size of its own!
Bluebells and rotting trunks
The woodland track eventually gave way to a narrow country lane for a time. Now whilst I normally shun roads as much as possible, there are benefits to walking on tarmac and that is that you don’t need to watch your feet as you do on rough stony ground. That means that you can really take in all that is around you which is great even if for just a short time.
However, soon I was back of stony ground as I climbed again out of the valley onto another ridge top. This track with lovely hedgerows on either side was particularly beautiful with the now low sun streaming through the leaves, highlighting the new, spring growth.
New spring growth
The final part of my walk today took me through more, but very different, woodlands. This is Forestry Commission land with its array of perfectly vertical specimens with evergreen foliage. To me, these are not so enjoyable to walk as the mixed deciduous woodlands and yet there is a strange beauty.
Through the forest
In fact, wherever you are there is beauty, even in the smallest detail such as the unfolding of a fern on the forest floor. It is amazing how this happens each year and how these become the thick, green, ferny leaves of summer, and the orange carpet of autumn. Each stage as beautiful as the former.
I finished my walk where it started, in the postcard-perfect village of Milton Abbas where I paid a visit to the church. This is something I like to do throughout my walks, partly because churches are beautiful and interesting places, but mostly because God’s peace is so evident there. It always moves me when I think about the enormous heritage of these places with the hundreds of thousands of lives that have been impacted down through the ages, especially when they were packed to the doors with worshippers. When I think about those who are buried in the churchyard, I cannot help but think of Thomas Gray’s words, ‘Each in his narrow cell forever laid, The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep’. One day they will sleep no more!
Milton Abbas churchyard
It was a fitting place to end my day, a wonderful day of walking and conversation, of interesting places and people, a day when I have felt blessed.
Thanks for stopping by.
Until next time,
Your friend The Dorset Rambler.
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