Walking ancient Dorset paths to megaliths – and a village pub | Dorset holidays

With Stonehenge, Avebury and Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire is the English county most associated with Neolithic stone circles and barrows. Dorset, its southerly neighbour, has nothing on this scale, but there is an ancient quarry – the Valley of the Stones – and a number of smaller, but equally atmospheric archaeological sites surrounding it and snaking footpaths connecting them.

Our day out has maximum atmosphere. We park in the village of Portesham, a former quarrying community where boulders can still be seen along the main street: the land above us is shrouded in mist, which blurs the lines of the winter scene.

The cloud-shrouded hills gave the walk added atmosphere.

We head north-east from the village, up a stony path towards the Hardy Monument, named not for the Dorset writer and poet but for Thomas Masterton Hardy, Nelson’s deathbed companion. The tower was designed to resemble a naval spyglass and rather glowers over the land, its Victorian brutalism visible for miles.

To the south, views of the coast are wide, from the 14th-century St Catherine’s chapel at Abbotsbury standing sentinel above Chesil Beach. Then comes the brackish Fleet lagoon, hemmed in by the ridge of sparkling stones, and across the sweep of the bay is Portland, still a centre for quarrying. Rather than climb Black Down towards the Hardy Monument, we skirt past a roofless stone barn and take the footpath leading to an exposed plateau where buzzards mewl above. There we find a stone inscribed with the words: “To the Hell Stone”.

The Hell Stone is a neat burial chamber consisting of a few grey sarsen stones and a capstone above. It is perfect, with a little chamber to clamber into. Actually it’s a little too perfect: around the same time as the Hardy Monument was completed, the Victorians decided to “improve” the Hell Stone, and the capstone was  replaced on its open chamber.

The Hell Stone dolmen on Portesham Hill.

I’m a little queasy about these interventions, but musician and author Julian Cope, writing in his magisterial book The Modern Antiquarian, describes the effect as beautiful. In any case, this has always been a profoundly human landscape, where people have lived, worked and made alterations. The south of England was settled early, and these higher lands with thinner soil were the easiest to farm and more forgiving to crops, especially in winter. We meet few people on our long walk, but this was once a busy place.

Finding the lane leading north, we come to the Valley of the Stones, the centre of this ancient landscape, a huge dry bowl of land formed by retreating ice ages, dotted with boulders like static sheep. This was the natural quarry from which stone circles and dolmens in the area were made. Much of this nature reserve is open access so we are free to explore the stones.

Last year a Neolithic polishing stone, or polissoir – a boulder with a smooth and slightly hollowed top – was found by volunteers clearing the scrub, a rare discovery. The stone is immovably large, prompting speculation that the valley was once a working area, where people would need to hone their tools.

There are plenty of helpful signposts to aid navigation on a day where landmarks are hidden in the cloud.

Climbing back through the valley, we take a quiet lane and then a footpath heading north-west along the edge of a field where cows are gently mobbed by gulls and a few cattle egrets, just one of the more recent migrants to these shores. Beyond the birds and the cows, and over a new stile, we find the Grey Mare and her Colts. This long barrow was probably more significant in scale once, and while it’s likely that 19th-century antiquarians opened the tomb, we know little of their discoveries. This was before the professionalisation of archaeology by Augustus Pitt Rivers, after whom the Oxford museum is named. Still, the Grey Mare and her Colts has presence, sitting in the corner of a field grazed by sheep.

We could retrace our steps at this point for a shorter walk, but the Kingston Russell stone circle is less than half a mile away, a low circle of stones towards the summit of a wide hill. Even through the mist the views are dramatic. This circle is remote and modest, but I’ve met people who say it’s a better place than Stonehenge to watch the sun rise at summer solstice.

Two walkers emerge from the mist on Portesham Hill.

A loop back through the valley below, past farm buildings, joins us to the Ridgeway. Making our way back east along it we come to the tiny Hampton Down stone circle, right by the path. If I was a little suspicious of Victorians re-arranging the Hell Stone, then they weren’t the only ones. In the mid-20th century, with slightly more sensitivity, the Hampton Circle stones were replaced in what was thought to be their original positions. We drop back towards Portesham through a land of deep hollows and medieval field systems, their ridges still clearly delineated.

No single walk can encompass all the Neolithic archaeology here. At Winterbourne Abbas, on the busy A35 to the north, stands the Nine Stones circle, which folklore has attributed to the devil, his wife and their seven children; and I’ve heard of at least one “lost” stone circle, described by the 17th-century writer John Aubrey.

The Kings Arms in Portesham.

There may have been others too, their stones carted off for more urgent, practical needs. But recently the power of the stone circle has been acknowledged with the construction of a new henge, with car park, close to the Hardy Monument.

It was completed for the summer solstice sunrise in 2018, when for the first time, the rising sun pierced a gap in the stones, striking the single stone at its centre. Those present, who included a druid and the engineer, were relieved and delighted at their success, much as their Neolithic forebears must have been.

Google map of the route

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Start/end Portesham, Dorset, near Abbotsbury
Distance: 9 miles
Time 4-5 hours,
Difficulty: moderate, a few stiles
OS Explorer Map OL15
GPX track of route at Ordnance Survey website

The pub

Venison goulash at the Kings Arms – the perfect end to a long, damp walk.

The Kings Arms in Portesham offers mains of chalk stream trout and local venison goulash alongside bar room favourites such as burgers and fish and chips. I also enjoyed an excellent pint of Tiger Tom Ruby Mild from the Cerne Abbas Brewery. For food on the go, Duck’s Farm Shop in Portesham (open every day) sells all sorts of picnic supplies.

The rooms

The pub’s three rooms, Chesil, Jurassic and Hardy’s (after the novelist), are in soft neutral palettes.
Rooms from £91 B&B, kingsarmsportesham.co.uk

Jon Woolcott is the author of Real Dorset (Seren, £9.99) To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


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