Growing up in North Dorset, we played on hill forts, collected flint arrowheads and slingshots in the garden and saw long barrows and burial mounds every day from the school bus windows, so I’ve always been surrounded by Neolithic and Bronze Age history, but I’m ashamed to say I’d never even heard of the South Dorset Ridgeway. You may never have heard of it either, but if you’ve ever looked towards the sea from the A35 between Bridport and Dorchester and seen all the lumps, bumps, stripes and ridges in the fields and on the hilltops, you have certainly seen it.
A week ago I attended a workshop and guided walk run by the South Dorset Ridgeway Partnership, a project run collaboratively by many different national and local agencies, which aims to investigate and celebrate the richness and diversity of landscape, archaeology, geology, ecology & culture which makes the area so outstanding.
We started with a walk from Hardy’s Monument, which is an ideal place from which to see the almost full extent of the Ridgeway, stretching from Poxwell, beyond Weymouth & Dorchester in the east, over 17km to West Bexington in the west. We had a brief but surprisingly inspiring, very impassioned explanation from Sam Scriven, the Jurassic Coast Team’s Earth Science Advisor, who explained the mechanics of how the Ridgeway was formed, and the way that its geology has impacted on human life there for thousands of years. For example, along the base of the Ridgeway, the necklace of villages and farms follows the spring lines created by the layer of permeable chalk meeting impermeable clay, and these springs have enabled humans to use the area continuously for millennia.
We moved on to Blackdown, a heathy area just on the north side of the hill below Hardy’s Monument and were met by the Dorset County Council Countryside Ranger, who talked us through Blackdown’s ancient and recent history, including the mass planting of thousands of conifers by the Forestry Commision after WWII, and the plans for the future. The management plan, which runs to 2025, has involved removing the majority of these conifers to restore the land to remnant heath, which is quite an unusual ecosystem for West Dorset. Blackdown is the most westerly known habitat for the smooth snake, and also hosts nightjars and other heathland species. The whole of Blackdown is open to the public, as open access was one of the conditions laid down by the charity which purchased it, and improving access for those with mobility problems is a major aim running alongside all the ecological improvements.
Back at Martinstown Village Hall, after some pretty splendid cake, there were exhibitions by some of the SDRWP partners, including the National Grid, who were explaining their plans to remove overhead pylons from the area to restore the landscape value, which is a major undertaking.
The first speaker was John Gale from Bournemouth University, who made a slightly, but not entirely tongue-in-cheek claim that the South Dorset Ridgeway should be as celebrated on the world stage as Stonehenge. Actually, when faced with the facts and figures, I could see why. It is a huge funerary landscape, both in extent and importance. The SDR has 692 barrows (Stonehenge has ‘only’ 448), 4 circles and 14 henges – it just lacks the show-stopping spectacle of Stonehenge. The round barrows and long barrows litter the landscape, and Dorchester alone has 4 major monuments. The most obvious is Maumbury Rings, which began life as a Neolithic Henge, and has been used ever since; by the Romans as an amphitheatre, as a medieval market and fair site, and even to this day is used for festivals and gatherings. The greatest of Dorchester’s monuments was the Great Post Circle. This enormous structure was 380m in diameter, with 500 huge (2-3ft diameter) wooden posts standing erect in a giant circular henge. All that remains to be seen now, however, are some red circles on the ground floor of Waitrose car park!
Steve Wallis, Senior Archaeologist at Dorset County Council, spoke to us about the archaeology resulting from over 6000 years of continuous occupation, including Neolithic & Roman activity at Maiden Castle, the 10 mile Roman aqueduct, the medieval strip lynchets which give St Catherine’s Chapel such a distinctive backdrop, and the fact that Abbotsbury now longer has any abbey remains, as the whole thing was nicked stone by stone to build the village. One of the absolute jewels in Dorset’s archaeological crown is the so-called ‘Pit of Doom’ – the mass burial of Viking raiders that was found when excavating for the Weymouth Relief Road.
The Land of Bone & Stone project also has a strong arts side, with regular events, workshops and residencies by artists in all sorts of media working with the landscape as their inspiration, including the Inside Out festival.
Learning, both for adults and schools, is also a major focus, with lots of funding, support, outreach and sharing of expertise offered to thousands of schoolchildren and their teachers in the partnership area, including Forest Schools provision and teacher training. There is a series of guided walks, talks and workshops for adults, most of which are free of charge, and there are opportunities to learn skills such as hedgelaying and drystone walling.
Like many organisations these days, the Land of Bone and Stone couldn’t function without its army of volunteers. There are opportunities to learn about and get hands-on involvement in both the environmental management and archaeological surveying of the area, and with funding being cut off in 2018, these volunteers are the only way the project will have an active, practical role in the region after the funding runs out. Teams of volunteers have so far achieved great things, including restoring long barrows, restoring habitat and surveying over 200 barrows, more than three times the target set at the beginning of the project.
I have a bit of a thing about Dorset’s distinctive signposts, and one aspect of the project is surveying the region’s fingerposts, and restoring lost or broken ones to their former glory. Anyone with basic DIY skills can help, and it will help maintain one of the many things that make this area so distinctive.
It’s impossible to explain in one blog just how extensive the scope of this project is, with all its various facets, but I would urge anyone with any interest in art, landscape, archaeology, nature, geology or history to check out the website and see if there is anything they would like to attend or find out more about, as it is run by such a passionate, knowledgeable team and we do not have unlimited time to make the most of the expertise and opportunities on offer.
We have a world-class archaeological landscape right here on our doorstep. It’s free to visit, with fabulous information available through the AONB and other organisations, and above all, it’s absolutely beautiful. The view of St Catherine’s Chapel at sunset, or the barrows and field systems on the hilltops, or the the henge monuments such as the Hell Stone are well worth a visit purely for their stunning scenery – add the fact that each barrow may still hide the bones of a Bronze Age chieftain and it’s just another layer of mystery in this evocative and atmospheric landscape.