Walkers bring over £2 billion into England’s rural economy each year, according to the Ramblers Association. And the team behind the White Hart Link is hoping that their footpath between North Dorset’s five main settlements will encourage walkers to discover businesses and attractions in our area.
Keri Jones joined the group as they officially launched a 4-mile long section of their route between Motcombe and Shaftesbury.
Jan Wardell volunteers as the group’s Project Officer. She is keen for visitors to discover our countryside instead of heading down to the coast.
“It’s a bit galling when you come into the North of Dorset and you see a sign saying ‘Welcome to Dorset, home of the Jurassic Coast’. So we wanted to do something that people would come to North Dorset for. There’s nothing like this at the moment,” Jan explained.” You have the Stour Valley Way which runs through the county but there’s nothing to identify as a walking route within North Dorset.”
The White Hart Link uses existing rights of way and quieter lanes to form a circular route taking in Shaftesbury, Blandford, Sturminster, Stalbridge and Gillingham. Jan wants to showcase the places to visit and activities in each community the link passes through.
“Were having information boards wherever we can, with permission. That’s where we want the local community’s input to say that we have this brilliant church, sculptor or whatever. It won’t be the same for each village. Some places will be more nature-based,” she said.
Jan is keen for parishes and town to tell the White Hart Link committee about businesses which could benefit from an influx of walkers. “As we get to each settlement we want to engage with the communities so that they can show off all of the good points, heritage assets, pubs and bed-and-breakfast establishments,” Jan said.
Since the project launched in April 2017 the route has been opened in stages. Signs have been placed to map the way. “We’ve opened up the Stalbridge to Gillingham and Sturminster to Stourpaine sections first, because they were easy stretches,” said Jan.
The route from Gillingham to Motcombe was inaugrated at the start of May. On the sunny Spring Bank Holiday Monday, 20 walkers met in the Motcombe Meadows Car Park to launch the link to Shaftesbury. Chairman of Motcombe Parish Council, Allistair Leask, came out to hand over a pendant, which would be carried to Shaftesbury to declare the route ‘open’.
“The Parish Council do an awful lot in opening up the byways and pathways. We have an allotted councillor that looks after them. We like them being used and in the correct way,” said Allistair.
Even though existing paths have been adopted, the volunteers have had to devote a great deal of time to formalise it. White Hart Link members have met with landowners and addressed parish and town council meetings to explain their vision.
“Because there are so many public rights of way in Dorset and because there has been a gradual reduction of council staff to maintain them, it has become more difficult,” Jan said. “The Council’s Rangers do a brilliant job and they are supporting us in this project but they can’t do everything. They have their own priorities.”
“The Blackmore Vale has an alternative older name – the Vale of the White Hart,” Martin explained. “The Blackmore Vale used to be the Blackmore Forest in the 11th century. It was the King’s hunting ground and the legend is that the King had a favourite White Hart, which was to be spared. Unfortunately, local landowners didn’t respect that and they killed it. As a result, the King made them pay a yearly fine, the White Hart silver.”
When our walking party reached Motcombe Memorial Hall we turned left, off the road through the village. Our group strolled across fields filled with sheep and then cattle. As we approached a copse, a sign warned of active badger setts. Their tunnel entrances were evident as we climbed a style leading into the leafy shade.
“We’ve tried to make it a relatively easy route so that more people can use it. We have avoided going up very steep places like Hod Hill,” Jan explained. The track did get steeper as we climbed towards Kingsettle Woods but for many walkers, the biggest physical challenge for many people seemed to be getting over the stiles. “We’re looking to replace some of them with gates, with the permission of the various landowners,” Jan said.
Although the paths are rights-of-way, the group is not entitled to improve access. “As long as there is an accessible means of getting through the hedgerow or across a field then there is no legal requirement for it to be a gate,” Jan said, rather disappointedly.
The response from landowners has been varied. “We wrote to all known landowners along the route just to advise them that this was going to be happening. I had very few responses,” said Jan. “A couple of them wanted to know more details, which we were happy to provide. I also spoke to the local NFU representatives so that they were aware.”
We paused as Martin shared his opinion on Kingsettle Wood, a magical part of the rambling route. “It is a hidden gem in the sense that it is very close to Motcombe and Shaftesbury and yet it is not that easy to get to. You need to walk to it. There isn’t any car parking,” he said.
It was incredible to think that this peaceful, enchanting woodland lay less than two miles from Shaftesbury’s town centre. The woods felt a few degrees cooler on that warm spring afternoon. That was welcome. But you’ll need decent shoes, which won’t be ruined by the muddier parts of the path.
“It’s a pity that we didn’t come a couple of weeks ago because you could smell the wild garlic even though you could not see the blossom,” said Martin. I had noticed the distinctly salty smell immediately and it was getting stronger as we went deeper into the wood.
“This is a very old wood owned by the Woodland Trust,” Martin explained. “All of the woods, from this point into Shaftesbury are woodland hangings. They were woods that were too steep to clear for cultivation. They were used instead for heating and cooking. They have remained really untouched for several hundred years and are sites of nature conservation interest.”
Once we are out of the shade of the sycamore, ash and mature oak, we took in the magnificent landscape. The hillside rolled down toward Motcombe and Gillingham in the distance. This stunning scenery is quintessentially English.
As we continued walking we re-entered woodland and trudged through fallen leaves, which lined a shaded path sunk deep at the bottom of a narrow valley. “The old hollow ways are interesting,” Martin continued. “They possibly accessed the old quarries. They are very close to Shaftesbury but they are not known to many. That’s what we want to do as part of this project. We want people to have access to these wonderful places which otherwise would not be known.”
Minutes later we reached Shaftesbury’s Guildhall. The small crowd applauded as mayor Piers Brown officially received the White Hart pendant. The link was open. The speech was short. Everyone was looking forward to a cuppa and cream tea in Gold Hill Museum.
Martin hopes to open the longest section of the White Hart Link between Shaftesbury and Blandford Forum next. The group need to ensure that infrastructure is assessed and, if necessary, improved before that happens.
“There’s a footbridge which is slightly rickety so we are working with the County Council to get that repaired. Soon we will make a final decision on where we might link into the local villages. The route will go down to Fontwell Magna, Sutton Waldron and Iwerne Minster,” Martin said.
You can follow the group’s progress and see maps of the route at WhiteHartLink.uk.