The White Hart Link, a 50-mile circular walk between North Dorset’s five towns, is now complete. A group of thirteen walkers today completed the final 6.5-mile stretch between Fontmell Magna and Gold Hill Museum, where dignitaries attended a reception.
Alfred met the triumphant trekkers.
“It’s nice to achieve that milestone,” said Martin Hibbert, as he strode up the slopes of Castle Hill in his lime green walk leader’s vest. Jan Wardell has been one of the project’s drivers over the last two years. She was relieved that the route around the area was finally open. “I might be able to sleep tonight. A couple of years ago, I didn’t think we would really get it done in this amount of time,” Jan admitted.
After Sunday’s record-breaking heat, Bank Holiday Monday’s cooler temperature of 24°C was more pleasant for the party, who set off from Fontmell at 10.30am, pausing for lunch at Twyford. “It’s been fine,” said Martin. “It was quite misty when we set off. We were just hoping for some decent sunshine because this walk is all about getting the views. We saw Duncliffe coming through the mist, and a good view of Melbury Hill.”
The only incident during the walk was a beast on the route. “We had a little episode with a bull, just the other side of Foyle Hill. It was an interesting challenge,” he added. If the group had spotted deer it would have been appropriate. The name ‘White Hart Link’ was chosen because of historic connections with the former Royal hunting grounds between Shaftesbury and Gillingham.
“Henry III had it as a hunting forest and there was a favourite white hart, which was supposedly protected. It was killed by one of the locals, so the community had to pay ‘white hart silver’ every year as a penance, hence the name of the White Hart Link,” said Martin. He added that the other name for the Blackmore Vale was the Vale of the White Hart. He says that term is used on the 1902 Ordnance Survey map.
Although this circular route uses established paths and rights-of-way, some infrastructure improvements have been necessary. “We had to do maintenance. When we were on today’s walk, we saw that quite a lot of new footbridges have been put in by Dorset Council. They have a statutory responsibility for maintaining bridges, but it’s a question of priorities. We’ve able to achieve some prioritisation of things that matter to this project,” said Martin.
The group had a special guest for the walk around the final stretch of the route. Kate Ashbrook is Chair of Ramblers Great Britain, General Secretary of Open Spaces Society and Patron of the Walkers Are Welcome Towns Network. She had journeyed down from Buckinghamshire for the Bank Holiday Monday outing.
Kate was impressed with the walk. “It is helping people to discover the beauty of this part of the county, but it’s also promoting walking as being good for the local economy and good for businesses,” said Kate. “If we encourage people to come and walk this path, they will stay in the area and spend money, which is helpful to North Dorset. Dorset Council has put an effort into this route and local volunteers have done an amazing job working with the Council to get the path opened up. I want to congratulate them on their hard work and to celebrate part of the route by seeing it for myself.”
Walkers often head to Poole to pick up the South West Coast Path which begins or ends in the town. Kate says the White Hart Link should be offered as an alternative. “People shouldn’t all flock to the coast. If you come here, you won’t see so many people on the routes. You’ll have a quiet and uncluttered walk. You will be able to enjoy it and discover not only the beauty of the countryside but all the cultural associations and the Hardy connections. I’ve learned so much about the geology and the history of the area,” she said.
Kate has advice on what the White Hart Link’s team could do next. “First of all, you need to make sure that the route stays in good order. It is pretty good now but there are stiles that could be improved, and many could be replaced with gates. I think the communities should agree to take on a part of the route. It might be an individual, a parish or a village committee but they need to identify which bit they’re going to keep an eye on and make sure that it stays in tip top condition,” Kate said, adding that the link is, “certainly worthy of promotion.”
Martin and his team do want to develop extra elements, including suggested side walks around the White Hart Link’s five towns, including Shaftesbury. “The Walking For Health Group is very active in Shaftesbury,” said Martin. “They do quite a lot of local walks. We want to document those routes, so other people can share them. We’ve got the basis for a set of walks,” he added.
Kate says that’s a perfect approach. “It means people will use the route in other ways, not just to do the whole round walk but also shorter day walks. They might stay in one of the towns and walk around the area.” She suggested exploring the potential for media coverage. “Get it in the newspapers and The Guardian or Sunday Times supplements, when they talk about walks. This is one they should be promoting because it’s great.”
The party paused to take in the breath-taking Castle Hill vista and crossed town to Gold Hill Museum, where Janet Swiss had arranged a cream tea. Janet dreamt up the White Hart Link concept. “I just had the idea, the fun part. They have managed it beautifully,” she said.
Dignitaries were waiting for the walkers inside the museum’s Garden Room. Gillingham’s Mayor, Cllr Barry Von Clemens, and Sturminster Newtown based Cllr Pauline Batstone, Chairman of Dorset Council, made the trip to Shaftesbury. Shaftesbury Town councillor John Lewer, Mayor when the project launched, joined current Mayor Cllr Tim Cook.
“It’s a very good way of linking up north Dorset. It’s great for tourism, people’s health, they can get out and they can walk a bit of it or all of it. It’s just a lovely thing to happen in Shaftesbury, another way of publicising the town,” said Tim, before he tucked into the scones.
After the walk, Martin and Jan’s energy was not depleted. “This is not the end of it by any means. We’ve just got started,” said Martin, as Jan launched into her vision the future. “We’re looking forward to way-marking the route properly with good, bespoke fingerposts that tell you where you’re going and how far places are, or if there’s a pub on the way. We want to put interpretation boards in various places,’ she said.
You can find the White Hart Link route on their website at WhiteHartLink.uk.