The Dorsetshire Gap

Overlooking Hardy’s Vale from the Dorsetshire Gap
Copyright © 2001 John Allen

Plush and the Dorsetshire Gap

Plush. A small collection of houses set amongst chalk downs in an area dotted with evidence of habitation from medieval, Iron Age and Neolithic times. Field systems (terracing, banks of enclosures) cross dykes, tumuli and sites of settlements can be found on almost every hill in this area.

The downs here reach a height of 260m above sea level; from the highest points one can see Exmoor to the west, the Mendip hills to the north, the Isle of Wight to the east and the ridges above Weymouth in the south. These extensive views in all directions across the whole county probably prompted the name Dorsetshire Gap being given to this crossing of ancient paths.

Plush – Copyright © 2001 John Allen

The trail forms part of the Great Ridgeway, an ancient highway that was once an important trading route between the Devon and Norfolk coasts. Today this ancient highway provides the backbone to several recreational trails through the steep-sided Dorset hills. One constant is prehistory; the trail passes through many ancient hillforts and signs of our ancestors are frequent. It’s not just an ancient trackway but a ridge of high land that has attracted people for thousands of years – a special place to celebrate life and bury their dead.

Experts tell us that this ridge of land is as important as Stonehenge and Avebury for the scale of monuments and what they tell us of life in the past. This vast ceremonial landscape remains one of the UKs best kept secrets!

You don’t need to be a history buff to enjoy this ‘land of bone and stone’ – it’s an intriguing mix of wildlife, geology and history all wrapped up in stunning views out across Hardy’s Vale.

Ancient field systems on the southern slopes of Ball Hill Copyright © 2001 John Allen

The high, dry ground made travel easy and allowed traders to see any approaching attackers.
Evidence of the past is visible all along the route. Neolithic causewayed camps and long barrows along with Bronze Age barrows dot the hilltops and magnificent Iron Age hillforts.

Remnants of prehistoric field systems, Roman forts and Medieval settlements and strip lynchets straddling the slopes are visible along the trail. Many of the historical features along the trail have been designated as scheduled monuments, recognising their national importance and preserving them for the future.

NEOLITHIC – EARLY FARMERS
From 4300 to 3500 BC, the local people started to adopt more fixed styles of farming and moved away from the hunter-gatherer way of life. Neolithic man started to use stone to make tools and weapons and here in Dorset the local stone was flint. This was used to make arrowheads and tools such as knives and axes. The only surviving evidence along the trail from this time is causewayed camps and long barrows. These are burial mounds surrounded by a ditch and are between 30 metres and 60 metres long. One of the best example is on
Hambledon Hill.


BRONZE AGE – ROUND BARROWS AND FIELD SYSTEMS
Before the Iron Age, the main surviving evidence of prehistoric man came from their burials and how they farmed. Important people from this time were buried in round barrows placed high up on the hills. You can also see remnants of their prehistoric field systems.


IRON AGE
The Iron Age people probably lived in large groups called tribes. The local tribe here in Dorset was known by the Romans as the Durotriges. During the Iron Age, large hillforts constructed of deep ditches and large towering ‘v’ shaped banks called ramparts were built. These still look impressive today, even after 2,000 years of erosion. The purpose of hillforts has long been debated between archaeologists. Suggestions include providing places of safety for people and livestock when under siege from neighbouring settlements or from wolves. The hillforts may have also been a symbol of power for a local chief or used to control important trade routes. There are 27 hillforts in Dorset and seven can be found along the trail.


ROMAN OCCUPATION
In 43 AD, the Roman Emperor Claudius invaded Britain so he could expand the Roman Empire. When the Second Legion Augusta led by Vespasian entered the Durotrigian territory, they advanced west building forts like the one on Hod Hill and Waddon Hill to keep the
local people under control.

SAXONS
After the collapse of the Roman occupation around 410 AD the local population went back to a more rural lifestyle similar to that of the Iron Age. Around 700 AD, the area was incorporated into the Saxon kingdom of Wessex and many settlements and villages were established that
are still present today.


MIDDLE AGES
During the Middle Ages, farming continued to be one of the most important livelihoods in Dorset. Traces of Medieval farming practices still exist today in the form of strip lynchets. These were artificial terraces created so the steep-sided slopes could be ploughed. The best examples are around the Dorsetshire Gap and Plush. Medieval drovers probably used the Wessex Ridgeway to move livestock such as geese, sheep and cattle from the West Country to the Home Counties to sell.

RAWLSBURY CAMP

This Iron Age hillfort dominates the edge of the hillside as you leave the road near Bulbarrow, the second highest hill in Dorset. This hill has been used for thousands of years, first as a hillfort then as a site for one of the Armada Beacons in 1588. These were used to warn of an impending attack by Spain. Later on this site was used as part of a chain of hilltop telegraph stations running across Dorset during the Napoleonic Wars. Today this site is home to a rough cross that sits within the fort. On your way to the Dorsetshire Gap there is an opportunity to rest and picnic at the large oak bench designed and made by Reg Budd, another Creative Footsteps’ commissioned artist.

‘Mind the Gap!’


DORSETSHIRE GAP

This mysterious junction of five tracks with its steep man-made cuttings lies at the edge of the Higher Melcombe estate. The Dorsetshire Gap has been an important road crossing since the Middle Ages right through to the 19th century. All around this site there is evidence from before this time from hilltop cross dykes, burial mounds and traces of an unfinished Iron Age hillfort at Nettlecombe Tout to the remnants of a Medieval settlement in the valley below.
For many years visitors to the Dorsetshire Gap have been putting their thoughts on paper in a visitor’s book kept at the Gap. The book can be found hidden in the base of the information panel where the five trackways join.


MELCOMBE PARK – DEER PARK?
Just north of the trail lies Melcombe Park. This woodland is believed to be a deer park whose boundary follows the trail from Breach Wood to the Dorsetshire Gap. The deer park dates from around 1580 and was built by Sir John Horsey. However deer parks date broadly from the Medieval period and were areas of woodland and open grassland that were enclosed by a ditch and bank to keep deer in. This was very much a status symbol for the aristocracy. Although many are unused today, evidence of these deer parks is still visible all along the trail.


FOLLY
In the past this private house was once the Folly Inn, used as a resting place for Medieval drovers when moving animals along the network of old drove roads, including the Wessex Ridgeway.

PLUSH

High above Plush beside the trail are surviving traces of small rectangular fields, which are part of a prehistoric (pre 43 AD) field system. These once covered large parts of southern
England but are now only visible in places that survived ploughing during the Medieval period. There is also a square Celtic encampment visible near the edge of Watcombe Wood.

Strip lynchets dating from Medieval times straddle the hillsides around Plush and Lyscombe Farm. These were artificial terraces created so the steep-sided slopes could be ploughed.
You can visit the village of Plush and the Brace of Pheasants pub by taking the bridleway that runs down through the valley from the trail just above Alton Pancras.

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