The Wessex Ridgeway Trail forms part of the Great Ridgeway. This ancient highway was once thought to be an important trading route between the Devon and Norfolk coasts.
Evidence of the past is visible all along the route. Neolithic causewayed camps and long barrows along with Bronze Age barrows dot the hilltops and magnificent Iron Age hillforts such as Hambledon Hill, Hod Hill, Rawlsbury Camp, Lewesdon Hill and Pilsdon Pen dominate the landscape.
Remnants of prehistoric field systems, Roman forts and Medieval settlements and strip lynchets straddling the slopes are visible along the trail. Many of the historical features along the trail have been designated as scheduled monuments, recognising their national importance and preserving them for the future.
Neolithic - early farmers
From 4300 to 3500 BC, the local people started to adopt more fixed styles of farming and moved away from the hunter-gatherer way of life. Neolithic man started to use stone to make tools and weapons and here in Dorset the local stone was flint. This was used to make arrowheads and tools such as knives and axes. The only surviving evidence along the trail from this time is causewayed camps and long barrows. These are burial mounds surrounded by a ditch and mound and are between 33 feet (30 metres) and 66 feet (60 metres) long. The best example is on Hambledon Hill.
Bronze Age - round barrows and field systems
Before the Iron Age, the main surviving evidence of prehistoric man came from their burials and how they farmed. Important people from this time were buried in round barrows placed high up on the hills. You can also see remnants of their prehistoric field systems.
The Iron Age people probably lived in large groups called tribes. The local tribe here in Dorset was known by the Romans as the Durotriges.
During the Iron Age, large hillforts constructed of deep ditches and large towering 'v' shaped banks called ramparts were built. These still look impressive today, even after 2000 years of erosion. The purpose of hillforts has long been debated between archaeologists. Suggestions include providing places of safety for people and livestock when under siege from neighbouring settlements or from wolves. The hillforts may have also been a symbol of power for a local chief or used to control important trade routes. There are 27 hillforts in Dorset and seven can be found along the trail.
In 43 AD, the Roman Emperor Claudius invaded Britain so he could expand the Roman Empire. When the Second Legion Augusta led by Vespasian entered the Durotrigian territory, they advanced west building forts like the one on Hod Hill and Waddon Hill to keep the local people under control.
After the collapse of the Roman occupation around 410 AD the local population went back to a more rural lifestyle similar to that of the Iron Age. Around 700 AD, the area was incorporated into the Saxon kingdom of Wessex and many settlements and villages were established that are still present today.
During the Middle Ages, farming continued to be one of the most important livelihoods in Dorset. Traces of Medieval farming practices still exist today in the form of strip lynchets. These were artificial terraces created so the steep-sided slopes could be ploughed. The best examples are around the Dorsetshire Gap and Plush. Medieval drovers probably used the Wessex Ridgeway to move livestock such as geese, sheep and cattle from the West Country to the Home Counties to sell.
During this period many Medieval deer parks appeared across the country. Deer parks date broadly from the Medieval period and were areas of woodland and open grassland that were enclosed by a ditch and bank to keep deer in. This was very much a status symbol for the aristocracy. Although many are unused today, evidence of these deer parks is still visible all along the trail including Melcombe Park and Harbin's Park.
As well as deer parks royal hunting grounds were created. These were Medieval royal hunting grounds such as the Cranborne Chase which was subject to forest law and administered by the Lord of the Chase. By ancient custom all wild beasts within these areas belonged to the monarch. This ensured they could breed and feed undisturbed.
Harbin's Park was once a Medieval deer park covering 115 acres (47 hectares). It was more or less rectangular in shape and surrounded by a bank up to 16 feet (5 metres) wide and 5 feet (1.5 metres) high and a ditch over 15 feet (4.5 metres) wide.
Hod Hill was occupied during the Bronze Age but was abandoned until the Iron Age. Hod Hill is the largest hillfort in Dorset covering 54 acres (22 hectares). The earth works from both the Iron Age and Roman conquest are still visible. Hod Hill is unusual in Dorset as it has five entrances through the ramparts. Two were created in the Iron Age, two during the Roman conquest and one from Medieval times. During the Iron Age families lived in round thatched houses, in the southern corner of Hod Hill you can see the hollow circles in the grass that are thought to be the remains of these houses.
Around 44AD the northwest corner of the hillfort was reused as a military base by the conquering Roman army. The fort built here had three entrance gates each with a watchtower and a platform for artillery. Excavations of the barrack blocks reveal that a legionary of 600 men and a cavalry unit of 250 were garrisoned here. The fort also had a granary, storehouse, hospital, commander's house, toilets and a large water tank. Finds from excavations suggest the Romans occupied the fort for about 10 years
This mysterious junction of five tracks with its steep man-made cuttings lies at the edge of the Higher Melcombe estate. The Dorsetshire Gap has been an important road crossing since the Middle Ages right through to the 19th century. All around this site there is evidence from before this time; from hilltop cross dykes, burial mounds and traces of an unfinished Iron Age hillfort at Nettlecombe Tout to the remnants of a Medieval settlement in the valley below.
Just north of the trail lies Melcombe Park. This woodland is believed to be a deer park whose boundary follows the trail from Breach Wood to the Dorsetshire Gap. This deer park dates from around 1580 and was built by Sir John Horsey.
High above Plush beside the trail are surviving traces of small rectangular fields, which are part of a prehistoric (pre 43 AD) field system. These once covered large parts of southern England but are now only visible in places that survived ploughing during the Medieval period. There is also a square Celtic encampment visible near the edge of Watcombe Wood.
The lumps and bumps on this hill form part of a Roman fort, which is thought to have been a base for the Roman advance of the Second Legion. A Roman sword scabbard and coins were found here during quarrying between 1876 and 1878. Other artefacts found here include a bronze brooch now in Poole Museum, legionary equipment and 115 shards of glass, pottery, animal and fish bones.
Surrounded by woodland, Lewesdon Hill at 915 feet (279 metres) is the highest point in Dorset. It is owned by the National Trust and is the site of an Iron Age hillfort. These hillforts vary in size and are surrounded by large banks and ditches. Today parts of this original bank and ditch are still visible even though it has been disturbed by gravel digging and timber removal. In more recent times Lewesdon Hill was the site for one of the Armada Beacons in 1588 and was used to warn of an impending attack by Spain.
Pilsdon Pen has a long history of being occupied. Flint tools found dating from Neolithic times and the two Bronze Age burial mounds show the site was used long before the Iron Age hillfort still visible today.
In 1066 when the Normans invaded they brought with them the delicacy of eating rabbits. These were reared in fenced areas called warrens. Both Coney's Castle and Pilsdon Pen could have had rabbit warrens. In the early 17th century documentary evidence suggests a lodge on top of the fort was a local landmark. Earth mounds in the centre could have been constructed as rabbit warrens and the lodge used by the keeper. There is no sign of a lodge today but it was probably near the site of the concrete triangulation point. During 1803 Pilsdon Pen was listed as a Beacon site designed to provide advance warning of the arrival of Napoleon's fleet.
Today Pilsdon Pen is owned by The National Trust. You can explore the hillfort on foot and it is well worth a short detour off the trail. From the top there are magnificent views of Marshwood Vale, Golden Cap and the sea to the south, Hardy's Monument to the east, Exmoor and the Quantocks to the west and Polden and Mendip Hills to the north. You can also see several other hillforts including Lewesdon Hill, Lambert's Castle and Coney's Castle.
During the Iron Age the Marshwood Vale provided fertile land to grow crops, timber for houses and fuel for fires. It also provided animals to hunt and eat. The land was farmed and used to grow wheat, barley, peas, lentils and beans. The Iron Age people also reared sheep, pigs and cattle and kept horses for pulling carts or chariots in battle. Today the Marshwood Vale still provides fertile land for growing crops and rearing animals for food.
Like Pilsdon Pen this early Iron Age hillfort with a single ditch and bank (rampart) also has a rich and varied past. Between 1709 and 1947 an annual fair was held here on the Wednesday before the feast of St John the Baptist on June 24. You can still see the imprint of the fair house and the low banks marking the livestock pens or market stalls. During the 18th century there was also a horse-racing track built as part of the fair. This is still visible today to the southwest of the hillfort straddling the Wessex Ridgeway.
In 1806, in response to the threat of a Napoleonic invasion from France, an admiralty telegraph station was erected here at Lambert's Castle. It was part of a chain of signal posts from the main fleet stationed in Plymouth to the Admiralty in London. Messages were sent using a system of six shutters mounted on the roof of a signal building. In good conditions a message could be relayed from Plymouth to the Admiralty in 20 minutes. By the end of the Napoleonic war in 1816 this system was proved unreliable in strong winds and was replaced by the two-arm semaphore system and later, the electric telegraph.
This Iron Age hillfort is completely different in character to Lambert's Castle. Coney's is unusual in that its ramparts encircle two separate areas, one much larger than the other. This may have been a larger hillfort that has been reduced in size, a smaller hillfort extended or possibly it was part of the original design. The larger area may have been for important buildings, or had religious significance; alternatively it may have been one area for people and the other for livestock or crops.
Both Coney's and Lambert's Castles may have been built as border posts between the neighbouring tribes the Durotriges (eastwards) and the Dumnonii (southwest) or as status symbols for local chiefs. They could also have been used to control important trackways and trade routes as they are well situated to defend the coastline and Marshwood Vale where they farmed.
The name Coney's could come from 'Konung', the Anglo-Saxon word for king, but this is unlikely as the site is too small to be a castle for the king. The other meaning of Coney's, referring to an area full of rabbits, is more likely as Coney's Castle, along with Pilsdon Pen, was a site of a warren used for rearing rabbits for eating.
This Iron Age hillfort dominates the edge of the Blackmore Vale near Bulbarrow, the second highest hill in Dorset. This hill has been used for thousands of years, first as a hillfort then as a site for one of the Armada Beacons in 1588. These were used to warn of an impending attack by Spain. Later on, this site was used as part of a chain of hilltop telegraph stations running across Dorset during the Napoleonic Wars. Today this site is home to a rough cross that sits within the fort.
As well as an Iron Age hillfort, Hambledon Hill is scattered with evidence dating from Neolithic times. These include two causewayed camps, a long barrow and numerous cross dykes. It is thought that causewayed camps were the first 'enclosures' of land. They were settlements, ritual or burial sites encircled by ditches with causeways at regular intervals. It is suggested the two camps here served different purposes - one for rituals and feasts and the other potentially a settlement. Finds from the site include broken flint tools, pottery and animal bones along with three human skeletons.
There are also long barrows here, which are communal burials. It is thought that when people died they were moved to special locations where their bodies were exposed on platforms raised above the ground. Once the bodies were reduced to bones they were moved to an adjacent mortuary house. This continued until the mortuary house was full. Earth was then piled on top and a mound was created forming a long barrow. There are 250 to 300 surviving long barrows in England with the majority in Wessex.