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Strolling historical Dorset paths to megaliths – and a village pub | Dorset holidays

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With Stonehenge, Avebury and Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire is the English county most related to Neolithic stone circles and barrows. Dorset, its southerly neighbour, has nothing on this scale, however there may be an historical quarry – the Valley of the Stones – and quite a few smaller, however equally atmospheric archaeological websites surrounding it and snaking footpaths connecting them.

Our time out has most environment. We park within the village of Portesham, a former quarrying group the place boulders can nonetheless be seen alongside the principle road: the land above us is shrouded in mist, which blurs the traces of the winter scene.

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The cloud-shrouded hills gave the stroll added environment.

We head north-east from the village, up a stony path in direction of the Hardy Monument, named not for the Dorset author and poet however for Thomas Masterton Hardy, Nelson’s deathbed companion. The tower was designed to resemble a naval spyglass and relatively glowers over the land, its Victorian brutalism seen for miles.

To the south, views of the coast are broad, from the 14th-century St Catherine’s chapel at Abbotsbury standing sentinel above Chesil Seaside. Then comes the brackish Fleet lagoon, hemmed in by the ridge of glowing stones, and throughout the sweep of the bay is Portland, nonetheless a centre for quarrying. Somewhat than climb Black Down in direction of the Hardy Monument, we skirt previous a roofless stone barn and take the footpath resulting in an uncovered plateau the place buzzards mewl above. There we discover a stone inscribed with the phrases: “To the Hell Stone”.

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The Hell Stone is a neat burial chamber consisting of some gray sarsen stones and a capstone above. It is ideal, with a bit chamber to clamber into. Really it’s a bit too good: across the identical time because the Hardy Monument was accomplished, the Victorians determined to “enhance” the Hell Stone, and the capstone was  changed on its open chamber.

The Hell Stone dolmen on Portesham Hill.

I’m a bit queasy about these interventions, however musician and creator Julian Cope, writing in his magisterial e-book The Fashionable Antiquarian, describes the impact as lovely. In any case, this has all the time been a profoundly human panorama, the place individuals have lived, labored and made alterations. The south of England was settled early, and these greater lands with thinner soil had been the best to farm and extra forgiving to crops, particularly in winter. We meet few individuals on our lengthy stroll, however this was as soon as a busy place.

Discovering the lane main north, we come to the Valley of the Stones, the centre of this historical panorama, a large dry bowl of land fashioned by retreating ice ages, dotted with boulders like static sheep. This was the pure quarry from which stone circles and dolmens within the space had been made. A lot of this nature reserve is open entry so we’re free to discover the stones.

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Final 12 months a Neolithic sprucing stone, or polissoir – a boulder with a clean and barely hollowed high – was discovered by volunteers clearing the scrub, a uncommon discovery. The stone is immovably massive, prompting hypothesis that the valley was as soon as a working space, the place individuals would want to hone their instruments.

There are many useful signposts to help navigation on a day the place landmarks are hidden within the cloud.

Climbing again by the valley, we take a quiet lane after which a footpath heading north-west alongside the sting of a area the place cows are gently mobbed by gulls and some cattle egrets, simply one of many newer migrants to those shores. Past the birds and the cows, and over a brand new stile, we discover the Gray Mare and her Colts. This lengthy barrow was most likely extra important in scale as soon as, and whereas it’s possible that Nineteenth-century antiquarians opened the tomb, we all know little of their discoveries. This was earlier than the professionalisation of archaeology by Augustus Pitt Rivers, after whom the Oxford museum is known as. Nonetheless, the Gray Mare and her Colts has presence, sitting within the nook of a area grazed by sheep.

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We may retrace our steps at this level for a shorter stroll, however the Kingston Russell stone circle is lower than half a mile away, a low circle of stones in direction of the summit of a large hill. Even by the mist the views are dramatic. This circle is distant and modest, however I’ve met individuals who say it’s a greater place than Stonehenge to look at the solar rise at summer season solstice.

Two walkers emerge from the mist on Portesham Hill.

A loop again by the valley beneath, previous farm buildings, joins us to the Ridgeway. Making our approach again east alongside it we come to the tiny Hampton Down stone circle, proper by the trail. If I used to be a bit suspicious of Victorians re-arranging the Hell Stone, then they weren’t the one ones. Within the mid-Twentieth century, with barely extra sensitivity, the Hampton Circle stones had been changed in what was considered their unique positions. We drop again in direction of Portesham by a land of deep hollows and medieval area methods, their ridges nonetheless clearly delineated.

No single stroll can embody all of the Neolithic archaeology right here. At Winterbourne Abbas, on the busy A35 to the north, stands the 9 Stones circle, which folklore has attributed to the satan, his spouse and their seven youngsters; and I’ve heard of a minimum of one “misplaced” stone circle, described by the Seventeenth-century author John Aubrey.

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The Kings Arms in Portesham.

There might have been others too, their stones carted off for extra pressing, sensible wants. However not too long ago the ability of the stone circle has been acknowledged with the development of a brand new henge, with automotive park, near the Hardy Monument.

It was accomplished for the summer season solstice dawn in 2018, when for the primary time, the rising solar pierced a niche within the stones, putting the only stone at its centre. These current, who included a druid and the engineer, had been relieved and delighted at their success, a lot as their Neolithic forebears will need to have been.

Google map of the route

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Begin/finish Portesham, Dorset, close to Abbotsbury
Distance: 9 miles
Time 4-5 hours,
Problem: reasonable, a couple of stiles
OS Explorer Map OL15
GPX monitor of route at Ordnance Survey web site

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The pub

Venison goulash on the Kings Arms – the proper finish to a protracted, damp stroll.

The Kings Arms in Portesham presents mains of chalk stream trout and native venison goulash alongside bar room favourites comparable to burgers and fish and chips. I additionally loved a superb pint of Tiger Tom Ruby Gentle from the Cerne Abbas Brewery. For meals on the go, Duck’s Farm Store in Portesham (open day-after-day) sells all types of picnic provides.

The rooms

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

Jon Woolcott is the creator of Actual Dorset (Seren, £9.99) To assist the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Supply fees might apply

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