At Easter 2023, whilst in Dorset, I went cycling everyday re-visiting old haunts. On Good Friday I cycled over to Moreton reliving a favourite route.
On Easter Sunday I went in search of the spirit of a place.
You can view the route on took on Komoot.
My ride took me to Abbotsbury west of Weymouth. It is the home of the sub-tropical gardens, the swannery and the remains of an old abbey. For me though, it represents one of my earliest bike rides of any distance. The vicar of the church I attended moved to Abbotsbury and on a few occasions me and my brothers with one or two more from his old parish would ride over to visit him and explore his new neighbourhood. The route would have been a twenty mile round trip which was quite a leap for someone who had only just graduated from riding to the end of his own road.
On this ride I was more interested in what I would come upon after I left my own memories of Abbotsbury behind.
I have always had a feel for the sense or spirit of place. I explored this a few times in London with the place where Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s steamship, the Great Eastern, was launched after much difficulty and tragedy; or where up to 100,000 people assembled in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs who had been prosecuted for trying to campaign for a decent wage. I always have a feeling that those momentous events somehow continue to resonate in some way at the places I had visited.
This Easter Sunday I went in search of places that were more deeply rooted in the past. Unlike the launch site of the Great Eastern or the place of the Tolpuddle Martyrs much less has changed at the three locations I went to visit.
The valley of the stones
The first place I wanted to visit came after a steep and brutal climb out of Abbotsbury. It is one of those climbs that you are think you nearly down with but then it provides another and sometimes harsher kick. However, getting to the top is worth it. From here you have extensive views across Dorset and as you ride along the top you come past the Valley of Stone.
This was described as “… a mysterious glen among the downs, on whose grassy slopes many huge stones are scattered” by Frederick Treves, the doctor who had looked after Joseph Merrick, the so-called “Elephant Man”. The stones have remained there since the retreat of the Ice Age, mostly scattered in a random fashion although a few have been half-heartedly dragged into stone circles.
Very often the spirit I am searching for is often of human endeavour or tragedy but, beyond centuries of farming there seems less sense of the human here. Instead there is something much deeper – the way the world itself changed to leave the stones stranded here.
After leaving the Valley of Stones I rode past Hardy’s Monument, the memorial to Admiral Hardy who fought at the Battle of Trafalgar and dropped down to the village of Martinstown (or Winterbourne St Martins – it answers to both names). I rode along the river valley until I turned off under the shadow of the next place I wanted to revisit.
These days the ramparts of Maiden Castle are left to sheep and ramblers but once this would have been the centre of the local population and not the nearby market town of Dorchester.
Maiden Castle was an Iron Age settlement occupied from around 800BC to 43AD. At it’s height it was a busy town with buildings laid out in lines along streets suggesting some degree of social order. It also included a number of industries such as textiles and metalworking and in its later days there was even international trade.
The local Durotrige people who lived here were some of the last to hold out against the Roman invasion of 43AD. There may have been a major clash with the invaders on the site as there is evidence of bodies buried with severe wounds.
After I left Maiden Castle I headed further east before climbing back over the ridge of hills that cuts Weymouth off from the rest of Dorset. Scattered along its top are a line of ancient burial mounds, the most prominent of which is the one known as Culliford Tree.
Like Maiden Castle, Culliford Tree had once been a busier place. Initially it was a grave used over many centuries for Neolithic and Bronze Age people. Then it became the meeting place for the local Hundred or council to debate and decide on the running of the villages hereabouts.
Nowadays it is a solitary spot standing at a lonely crossroads. Arriving here at the dead of night, in one direction you can make out the welcoming lights of Weymouth but elsewhere the roads drop away into darkness.
Culliford Tree is also know as Cullivers (or Gullivers) Tree or the Music Barrow.
All the pictures included in this blog were taken on earlier visits.