Walk - Abbotsbury Castle
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2020. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
- From the Buller's Way car park entrance turn left to walk to the shingle bank (the back of Chesil Beach), turning left again to follow the South West Coast Path behind it, in the direction signed to Abbotsbury. After a short stretch over the shingle, it curves to the left and heads inland along a grassy track.
- Turn right on the footpath signed to the Swannery, staying on the Coast Path alongside the right-hand hedge and then carrying on across the next field to come out to the right of the trees in Chapel Coppice.
The Swannery was established in the eleventh century by the monks of St Peter's Abbey, who farmed the birds for their lavish banquets. The only place in the world where you can walk through a colony of nesting Mute Swans, it is popular with filmmakers and was featured in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
- Follow the Coast Path as it heads due north, away from the sea, and then when it doubles back on itself towards the Swannery, leave it, to carry on northwards, into Abbotsbury village.
There was thought to be a wooden church on the site of St Peter's Abbey from around 410 AD, dedicated to St Peter. This church was destroyed by Saxon raiders the same century, and the area became a settlement for Saxon pirates. After them, some 500 years later, the Vikings raided and took control. Early in the eleventh century King Canute's steward, Orc, founded a Benedictine monastery at St Peter's Abbey, on the site of the old church, and Edward the Confessor granted him ownership of the seashore bordering the abbey grounds, and the rights to all ships wrecked off the coast. On their deaths, Orc and his wife Thola left their estate to the church, establishing Abbotsbury as a prosperous settlement.
Raids from the sea continued, and the Black Death in the fourteenth century hit Abbotsbury hard; but good fortune struck again shortly afterwards when Nichola de Montshore was granted the estate 'by service of counting the King's chessmen and putting them in a box when he had finished playing with them'. With the upturn in prosperity, a lot of building took place, including the tithe barn and St Catherine's Chapel.
The abbey fell foul of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in 1538. Overseeing the decommissioning of the abbey was Sir Giles Strangways, whose family had moved here from Yorkshire during the previous century. Four years later Sir Giles bought the abbey himself for £1906/10s, on condition that the building was demolished. The tithe barn was left intact because of its usefulness, and St Catherine's Chapel on the hill above was kept because it was a good landmark for seafarers. Sir Giles built himself a house from what remained of the abbey, and five hundred years later the family still owns the land.
During the English Civil War Abbotsbury was a Royalist stronghold. After a mammoth battle, it fell to the Roundheads, who tossed burning faggots through the windows to drive out the garrison and then entered the house themselves, despite warnings that barrels of gunpowder were stored inside. When the house blew up, 60 Parliamentarians went up with it.
Overall their support for the Crown cost the Strangways family £35,000 (the equivalent of about £20 million today).
- Turn right along the main road in Abbotsbury and cross the road to take the next left, up Back Street. Turn left onto Blind Lane, signed to the Hillfort and the Hardy Monument, and follow the footpath uphill to the gate at the top.
Blind Lane is an old "hollow way", or sunken lane, worn hollow by the passage of feet and hooves over thousands of years.
- Fork left and take the right-hand path, climbing steeply uphill past a small cliff, and then bear left onto the inland alternative route of the South West Coast Path, running along the South Dorset Ridgeway.
The ridge of high ground running from Weymouth to Dorchester, with its vantage points over Chesil Beach to the English Channel beyond, has been an important thoroughfare since Neolithic (Late Stone Age) times, between 4000-6000 years ago, and there are over 1000 ancient monuments along its 17-mile length.
- Ignoring the paths dropping to left and right as the path approaches the road, carry on ahead, crossing the minor road to ascend the ramparts of the Iron Age hillfort of Abbotsbury Castle.
There are many layers of history within the Iron Age ramparts of Abbotsbury Castle, including Bronze Age burial mounds which pre-date the massive earthworks still visible today.
It was occupied by the Durotriges tribe, Celtic settlers who lived by farming and did some trading across the English Channel, using the first primitive coins. The castle's position high above the Channel made it a first-line defence against invasion, although when the Romans invaded in AD 43, Abbotsbury was quickly taken. It is thought that the Romans may have used it as a signal station, but there is no evidence of their having settled here themselves. It was used as a signal station again in medieval times, and there is evidence that much of the hillside around it was cultivated at the time.
In the twentieth century, the Ridgeway's prominent position over the part of the English coastline earmarked by Hitler for his invasion plans led to extensive defensive outposts being put in place along its length and along the hillside below.
- Cross the main road and continue along the Coast Path a short distance, turning left on the path dropping directly downhill to Labour in Vain Farm (named because of the amount of work required on the soil here for very little yield).
- Here the path turns left to travel behind East Bexington Farm, crossing the drive to carry on along the left-hand hedge downhill and then dropping straight down to the Coast Path on Burton Road.
- Turn left on Burton Road to return to the car park.
The path signed to Buller's Cliff, just before the car park, leads to all that remains of the summer residence built around 1765 by Elizabeth Strangways Horner, the first Countess of Ilchester. In 1808, Henry Stephen Fox-Strangways and his half-brother William enclosed the grounds and established an extensive collection of subtropical and Mediterranean plants. The gardens were expanded during the 1860s, and again in the 1890s, and further work throughout the twentieth century culminated in the Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens, now 20 acres of rare and exotic plants from all over the world and open to the public. Take advantage of the excellent tearooms at the Subtropical Gardens.
Café in car park (seasonal); tearooms, pubs and shops in Abbotsbury.