We walked from Dorchester to Abbotsbury, first heading out to see Maiden Castle and then down to meet the South Dorset Ridgeway.
It was, to be honest, a very long walk.
Seems in Hardy’s time Maiden Castle was still known as Mai Dun, or big hill. Or perhaps he was just showing off.
Two miles out, a quarter of a mile from the highway, was the prehistoric fort called Mai Dun, of huge dimensions and many ramparts, within or upon whose enclosures a human being as seen from the road, was but an insignificant speck. Hitherward Henchard often resorted, glass in hand, and scanned the hedgeless Via—for it was the original track laid out by the legions of the Empire—to a distance of two or three miles…
—Mayor of Casterbridge
It was big, extraordinary, everything promised by English Heritage and one of the few hill forts still in use when the Romans arrived here and conquered it in 43 BC.
Maiden Castle in Dorset is one of the largest and most complex Iron Age hillforts in Europe – the size of 50 football pitches. Its huge multiple ramparts, mostly built in the 1st century BC, once protected hundreds of residents. When it was first built, the gleaming white chalk ramparts would have towered over the surrounding landscape.
Excavations here have revealed much about Maiden Castle’s history, such as a Neolithic enclosure from about 3500 BC and a Roman temple built in the 4th century AD. The archaeologists also found evidence of a late Iron Age cemetery, where many of those buried had suffered horrific injuries.
We continued on to the South Dorset Ridgeway. The photographs show the beauty of it, but hardly do justice to the weight and feeling of both Mai Dun and the many barrows that cluster here as you stand and look out across the landscape. In the camera views, they are barely visible. Even Mai Dun, which circles the whole of the hill in the first few pictures hardly seems there, far less so the mounds of earth and chalk weathered now, and covered with grass and wildflowers.
Yet many barrows sit along the ridgeway. It is thought that perhaps this liminal space of the journey grew in its importance to the Bronze age people who lived here, connected as it may have been to the movement from life to death and resulting in the many barrows that line this ancient track as they do that around Avebury. But barrows are everywhere, along the tops of many hills, and down in the middle of fields… it is a sacred landscape that is hard to capture through a lens.
An incredible place to walk however. Mai Dun remains visible on the horizon for a long time, and the many barrows appear and then fall away with more always ahead.
We even found a handy barrow guide at the Hardy monument–not built for the author but for Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, Flag Captain of HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.
I’m not sure how many times Mark said ‘kiss me Hardy’.
I was only there for the barrows. For the Hell Stone (a completely misguided Victorian creation using ancient stones, but still, ancient stones) and the Hampton stone circle (so overgrown you can barely see any of the stones, and that we would have missed without the OS map).
But I do know Abbotsbury never looked so beautiful, and not just due to hunger and sore feet. Coming down from the Ridgeway it is stunning, settled as it is at the base of the hill with Chesil Beach and the sea behind it.