Forde Abbey and the Valley of the Axe




5 miles (8kms)

443ft (135m)
2hrs 30min

About the walk

You will reach the village of Thorncombe along some of the narrowest lanes in Dorset. Go slowly and carefully along them, for signposting is erratic here, visibility is limited to the next bend, and you really don’t want to miss anything.

You could start to believe that few visitors have penetrated this charming quarter. You’d be mistaken, though, for a famous gem of Dorset heritage lies this way. It is difficult to imagine now that the majestic buildings of Forde Abbey lay abandoned for almost a century, after the then 400-year-old Cistercian monastery was closed down in 1539. (The initials ‘T C’ of the abbot Thomas Chard may still be seen on the oriel windows of the great, square entrance tower.) The splendid ruins of the abbey were bought in 1649 by Edmund Prideaux, who rose to become Attorney General to Oliver Cromwell.

Prideaux’s priority was to make a family home, and to achieve this he shortened the Great Hall, turned the chapter house into a private chapel and remodelled the monks’ gallery into a saloon. The wonderful garlanded plasterwork ceilings date from this time. Prideaux’s reputation and finances were severely damaged, however, after his son entertained the rebel Duke of Monmouth here in 1680; a hefty fine was levied on the estate after Monmouth’s defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor in Somerset. Vivid Mortlake tapestries depicting the Acts of the Apostles, which hang in the saloon, were presented by Queen Anne to the then owner, her Secretary of War, Sir Francis Gwyn.

However, it’s the setting of the abbey within its spectacular gardens that is really the most memorable thing. Take time to linger and view the clipped specimen yews and deep beds of summer flowers across the still waters of the Long Pond. Add to all of that a kitchen garden, stunning herbaceous borders, a rock garden (created from old gravel workings) and a bog garden. It’s open March to end of October, with drifts of snowdrops lining the approach in early spring and even an arboretum for autumn colour. Dog owners will be pleased to know that, providing they are kept on a short lead, dogs are actually welcome here.

Walk directions

With the church on your right, follow the road, then take a signposted path on the right through the second part of the churchyard. Bear right on the lane and immediately left before some garages. Cross the road by Goose Cottage. Go through a gate and follow the top edge of two fields, passing barns on your left, then go straight on down the hedge.

Cross a stile in the corner and go straight across the field to a kissing gate – from here to Forde Abbey, you’ll mostly follow ‘Jubilee Trail’ roundels. Through the gate bear right, down to the far corner of the field (not the obvious hedge gap). Cross a plank bridge and then a small stream, and bear left, up the fieldedge as it bends right. Go through a galvanised gate on the left, and continue up to the right. Soon go through a gate and follow a path between fence and hedge, then go through a kissing gate and turn left along the field-edge. After a gateway gap turn left through another small gate and go ahead up the field-edge to a gate. Bear right, to the left of a hidden house, onto a road.

Turn left for 500yds (460m) to a junction. Opposite the side road on the left, turn right and head straight down (northwest) to woods on a wide grassy path that splits the field. Turn left at a marker along the front edge of the woods, and at their corner go right, through a gate by a stile. Go down across a small stream, and turn right (northwest) to cross a field diagonally to a hidden gate at the far corner. This leads onto the road opposite the gates of Forde Abbey. Turn right to cross the River Axe. In another 100yds (90m) there’s a fingerpost (‘Horseshoe Road’) and a stile on the left.

Follow the footpath round past the back of the abbey. At the far corner cross a footbridge over the River Axe and bear right past a lone cedar. Bear left up to cross a stile, marked ‘Liberty Trail’. Walk along the top of the woods to another stile and bear left on a fenced track around a newly opened quarry. Bear right at the junction with a track to go around the back of the quarry to a road.

Go straight across, and head up the right-hand edge of the large field. Towards the top right-hand corner bear right through a gate under a power pole, then keep on this new direction along the top edge. Cross a pair of stiles and go through a rusty kissing gate in the corner, pass Forde Abbey Farm on your left and keep straight on to the right of the hedge. Cross a stile on the left to join the tarmac farm road.

At a junction of tracks keep straight on. Where the track ends, bear left through a gateway and head up across the field (east) to a gate in the far corner. Cross the road beyond to take a signed footpath, and head straight across the field (northeast) to some woodland. (If this field path is overplanted with crops, you can follow the Liberty Trail, which uses the minor roads to Thorncombe.) Aim for a gap in the hedge and follow the main path ahead through the coppice, keeping forward into denser woodland then gradually bending round to the right (southeast). Emerge by a stile into a field, and keep ahead along the left edge of two fields. Halfway into the third field, where houses begin, go through a gate on the left and continue ahead on an enclosed path to Thorncombe, passing a couple of shortcuts to the church to your left. Turn left on the village street, and left again to the church.

Additional information

Little-used field-edges and paths, country lanes

Tranquil, broad, fertile valley

Keep on lead along roads

OS Explorer 116 Lyme Regis & Bridport

By church in Thorncombe village centre

None on route

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About the area

Discover Dorset

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. 

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