Abbotsbury overlooks the head of The Fleet, a long, salty lagoon separated from the sea by the high shingle bank backing Chesil Beach. The sheltered lake and surrounding reeds provided ideal nesting, and the monks of the nearby 11th-century Benedictine monastery learned how to manage mute swans and other birds as a source of meat. Today the swannery comprises around 600 birds and is a nature reserve and popular visitor attraction.
Legend has it that a church predating the abbey was founded by Bertulfus in the early 5th century following the saint’s appearance in a vision. It was sacked 100 years later by Saxon raiders, who eventually settled the area and began farming the slopes above the town, beginning the cultivation terraces known as lychets on Abbotsbury Plains. After the Saxons came the Vikings, who in turn established rule under King Cnut (Canute). Cnut gave Abbotsbury to his trusted steward Orc, who was a Christian and founded the abbey.
Although the abbey was largely demolished after the Dissolution, the Great Barn and St Catherine’s Chapel were left alone. The barn served as a storehouse while the chapel’s hilltop prominence made it a valuable navigation mark for ships. It is thought to have been built on an existing pagan site, and served as a retreat for the abbey’s monks. St Catherine was the patron saint of unmarried girls, and later on the chapel attracted young maidens, who climbed the hill to pray for a husband.
The surrounding hills are rich in prehistoric remains. Just to the west is an impressive Iron Age site overlooking the English Channel and known as Abbotsbury Castle, while along the high ground of the ancient ridgeway are the mounds of numerous tumuli. On top of Tenants Hill beside the convergence of several paths is one of the walk’s highlights, the Kingston Russell Stone Circle. Dated to the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, it is around 4,000 years old and consists of 18 fallen stones in an irregular oval some 90ft by 60ft (27m by 18m). Tumuli and the earthworks of a settlement are scattered on the northern slope of the hill, while 0.5 miles (800m) to the southeast is another monument, perhaps 1,000 years older: the remains of a chambered long barrow known as The Grey Mare and her Colts.
Leave the car park entrance and go left along the road, keeping with it as it bends right through the village. On reaching the Ilchester Arms Hotel, go right again past The Old School House Tea Room and public toilets.
After 150yds (137m), leave up Blind Lane, a track on the left signed to ‘Hillfort and Hardy Monument’. Swinging left behind cottages and then right, it climbs steadily on to White Hill above the town. Through a gate at the top, carry on at the edge of scrub, passing a signpost to a gate higher up. Keep ahead over a grass bank towards a limestone outcrop, aiming for a field gate that comes into view.
Through that, bear right following a sign for the Hardy Monument. The way slants up between grassy hummocks, passing through another gate (the left of two field gates) and on by the left fence over the crest of the hill. Beyond a gate in the corner, go right through a smaller gate to descend along a contained track. Joining a concrete farm track, continue down to a farm lane along the wooded valley.
Follow it left to Gorwell Farm, passing between the buildings. Immediately after a gate below Mead Cottage at the far end, abandon the track and climb right beside the boundary to the top right-hand corner. Go through the gate ahead and walk beside the right hedge, continuing in a second field to emerge onto a track running along the top of the hill. The onward route lies to the right, but first go into the field opposite to have a look at the Kingston Russell Stone Circle.
Return to the track and follow it southeast for 0.75 miles (1.2km). Eventually merging with another track, keep ahead to a metalled farm track and go left out to a lane.
Follow it right, going ahead at the next bend through a gate along a climbing field track. Abandon it on a bend at the crest through a gate on the left, bearing half right following the sign to Abbotsbury. Towards the far side of the field, the town comes into view and a developing grass track guides you down to a gate. A few paces later, fork left to follow the hollowed out track. Carry on, cutting across ancient ploughing terraces. Ignore a path signed off left and continue down to exit through a final gate onto a lane.
Turn right back to Abbotsbury, passing houses before forking left along Rosemary Lane, which returns you to the main street opposite the car park.
Field paths and tracks, a short distance along lanes
Dogs on leads near grazing livestock
OS Explorer OL15 Purbeck & South Dorset
Pay-and-display car park in Abbotsbury, just off B3157
In Abbotsbury village
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
Dorset means rugged varied coastlines and high chalk downlands. Squeezed in among the cliffs and set amid some of Britain’s most beautiful scenery is a chain of picturesque villages and seaside towns. Along the coast you’ll find the Lulworth Ranges, which run from Kimmeridge Bay in the east to Lulworth Cove in the west. Together with a stretch of East Devon, this is Britain’s Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, noted for its layers of shale and numerous fossils embedded in the rock. Among the best-known natural landmarks on this stretch of the Dorset coast is Durdle Door, a rocky arch that has been shaped and sculpted to perfection by the elements. The whole area has the unmistakable stamp of prehistory.
Away from Dorset’s magical coastline lies a landscape with a very different character and atmosphere, but one that is no less appealing. Here, winding, hedge-lined country lanes lead beneath lush, green hilltops to snug, sleepy villages hidden from view and the wider world. The people of Dorset are justifiably proud of the achievements of Thomas Hardy, its most famous son, and much of the county is immortalised in his writing.