A new walking festival will be held in the countryside around Shaftesbury later this year. Organisers say walk highlights could include Iron Age forts, Neolithic earthworks and a Roman road. Jon Woolcott from Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty told Alfred that volunteer guides are being recruited, too.
2020 will be a year of new, nature-based events in Shaftesbury. The town’s new wildlife and countryside-themed Book Festival, ‘Reading the Land’, has been recently confirmed for the 13th to 15th November. And now there are more dates to add to your diary – the 18th to 22nd September. The AONB’s Jon Woolcott says that during those days, walkers will be shown stunning scenery whilst learning about the landscape they are walking through. “They can go with guides who will know about nature, history, the ecology and all sorts of things,” said Jon.
The AONB is large, covering 380 square miles from Shaftesbury towards Salisbury, and from Warminster to Wimborne. Jon says these walks will be offered in the centre of the Cranborne Chase. “We are focusing on quite a small area that we have defined as the ‘Landscape Partnership Scheme’. It runs, broadly, south of Shaftesbury towards Blandford and then goes east towards Salisbury.”
There are no towns within this heart of the AONB, which straddles the Wiltshire and Dorset border. “Right in the middle of that area are villages like Sixpenny Handley and Martin Down which is a beautiful area of chalk downland and is rich in ecology. It’s not very much visited. There are lots of interesting walks there,” said Jon. “Closer to Shaftesbury there is Win Green. There are some circular walks from there which take in some of the great, steep-sided valleys – the combes which lead down to places like Tollard Royal. Then, in the very high points, you have got places like Ashmore, which is beautiful and offers commanding views to the south.”
Jon’s team want locals to come up with ideas for routes for these walks. You could, for instance, plot a path between local artists’ studios or walks which take in multiple archaeological sites, such as the parallel banks of the Neolithic Dorset Cursus monument. Jon says the Iron Age hill fort above Berwick St John could also provide an interesting destination for walkers. “There are places like Winkelbury Camp, which you can do a nice little walk on from the Ox Drove and back,” he said.
He’d welcome a range of ideas for walks of differing lengths. “We’re thinking about a variety of routes,” said Jon. “Some would be circular. We will take on some open access grounds as well, where we can wander over the land a bit more freely and they will also be on established footpaths. It’s something we are thinking about carefully because we want to appeal to all sorts of people, whether they are keen people and are constantly traipsing around footpaths or whether they just want to go for a wander. Maybe they don’t know the area particularly well. We are trying to have a variety of walks, some of which are short village walks and are about sociability. Some of them will be longer hikes. There will be something for people of all ages and abilities as long as they want to enjoy the landscape.”
Jon, and festival coordinator Rachel Limb, will decide which suggestions are adopted. “Between us we will work out the optimum routes. This is something we are planning on repeating in future years and making bigger. We will start with a relatively modest number of walks and develop it as time goes on.”
Jon says his group is determined to make this an annual calendar event. “It’s a good opportunity as we work on other projects within the Landscape Partnership Scheme, which we hope might open up some of the less accessible footpaths and which we can potentially incorporate in future years,” he said.
If you enjoy walking and you have local knowledge, Jon is encouraging you to volunteer as a walk leader. You’d be expected to point out items of interest on the way, and experience in walking would help. “They might be people who are already involved in walking groups. For instance, we know there are some in Shaftesbury that are keen to help us. We are hoping that the Wildlife Trust might get involved and we are talking to people in the National Trust. We have a real variety of both experts and volunteers. They are people who know and love the countryside around here,” said Jon.
The AONB’s Landscape Partnership Scheme has received funding from the National Lottery. One of their project’s goals is to encourage people to explore the features of our local countryside. That’s why the AONB has arranged this new festival, in recognition of the popularity of walking and rambling.
“There are several walking festivals in the area,” said Jon. “Our colleagues at the Wessex Downs AONB arrange one which is a bit earlier in the year and there’s the Gillingham one as well. We think it’s a great idea because it helps connect people more to the area they live in. It’s a beautiful place and we want more people to enjoy it.”
Jon says the event is designed to both encourage visitors and locals to immerse themselves in our landscapes. “We’re open to encouraging more people to visit and equally it’s for people who live here who may not have thought about getting out in that particular part of the countryside before.”
The event will be mainly promoted locally but Jon hopes that news of the festival will soon spread on social media. As yet, the name of the event has not been set in stone. “We’re thinking about calling it ‘Chalke Escape’, but it’s not been confirmed. You’re hearing this first!” said Jon.
If you have route ideas or want to help, you should contact Rachel Limb at the AONB’s Tollard Royal headquarters on 01725 517417, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.