Last year I posted a short walk I did during my last trip to Oxford, and it got a good response, so I thought it would be fun to go back to the well and write about a walk we did a couple of years ago. Shaftesbury, in Dorset, is the closest place we have to a hometown in England when we visit. We’ve stayed there almost a dozen times over 15 years of travels so you get to know the place like you would to your own place back home. As with most small town in England, there is a local ‘castle.’ Shaftesbury has a local ruined castle and quite a few local stately homes, but two are the most famous of all: Old Wardour Castle and New Wardour Castle (which are actually in Wiltshire, not Dorset). Before a recent trip, I found a lovely walk that took in the old castle and then took you on a walk through the Dorset countryside to the new ‘castle’ (it’s a Stately Home, not a castle). It’s just over three miles, and it was great.
This is Old Wardour Castle. If it looks familiar to you, it’s because it was used in the film Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves (the one with Kevin Costner and a Robin Hood with an American Accent). It’s a hexagonal castle, modeled after a French style and is actually the only one in England. It’s been a ruin since just after the English Civil Wars. It was seized by Parliamentary forces and taken over, then taken over again by the Royalists. It never recovered. Neighboring New Wardour Castle was then built in the Palladian style (more on this later). The ruin was left as an ornamental part of the new estate’s gardens, and it remains such to this day. You can read much more about the history of the castle with pictures here.
The castle is currently owned and managed by English Heritage. The picture above is not actually from the day we took this walk. The castle was closed. It’s usually only open on the weekends in the winter so we could not have a look around (we’d had a look around back in 2012, it’s great, you should go). While the castle was closed, the car park was still open to people, and the estate walk on public footpaths was open as well.
So, the walk starts at the Old Castle car park, which is where we parked our rental car (we did not rent this, we rented the cheapest automatic, and they gave us this, which was a bit too much car for just two people!). I was a bit disappointed the castle was closed but as we’d seen it before we didn’t really miss out. I was really interested to see how it sat in the Wardour estate landscape.
You get but a peak of the castle from the walk as you begin. I love romantic old castle ruins. It’s a simple love. The castle was ruined during the English Civil Wars – you can read about the history of it here.
This is a Dorset Shepherd’s hut. They’re very much a part of the landscape in ‘Wessex.’ They used to be where the shepherd’s lived while they tended their flocks. There’s a very famous scene in Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy where Farmer Oak almost dies in his hut and is rescued by Bathsheba Everdene. They’ve fallen out of use as actual Shepherd’s huts but now it’s in vogue to have one on your property as a ‘man cave’ or office. David Cameron, former UK Prime Minister, famously put one in his back garden to write his memoirs (which I suspect few people actually would want to read). There are companies that specialize in building these new – I’d love to have one built and shipped to the USA to be placed in the 2 acres of woods on our property in Indiana. Must buy a lottery ticket!
As you proceed down a muddy lane, you’re given glimpses of New Wardour Castle. Just as we walked by, we were blessed with golden, low winter sunlight shining directly onto the house. This Palladian-style house sits triumphantly in the landscape. I could not stop gazing at it. Despite the distance, I took far too many pictures. We also realized at this point that this walk was perhaps a bit longer than we intended as the route would take us to that house and back.
As estates are reconfigured or changed through the ages, you’ll find out gates sitting orphaned in the English countryside. This one was particularly pretty, and the muddy path makes it seems like you’re stepping back in time. It’s easy to stand back and imagine a carriage running through the arch, on its way to call on a lady at a grand Stately Home.
The details that have survived the ravages of time and continuous Wiltshire winters is astounding. I would not be surprised of this structure is actually listed and protected.
There she is again – New Wardour Castle. I’m always amazed at how green the English countryside is in the dead of winter. Back home in Indiana, everything has a brown hue (or in our case right now, blinding white) to it. England stays gloriously green year round.
We were on a public footpath, but this ‘public’ path crossed private land. These old rights of way sometimes date back hundreds of years. One went right through a farmer’s field, and we had hundreds of sheep for company. They completely ignored us. We were very interested in them as Mrs. Anglotopia is an avid knitter. But the first rule of walking in the English countryside is: do not disturb livestock. They continued to amble the hill and eat grass, and we continued our walk.
Don’t let the layers fool you – it was actually pretty warm the day we did this walk. It was in the 40’s and 50’s (F) that day. One reason we love Dorset and Wiltshire so much is that its location relative to the coast keeps it warmer through the winters. Mrs. Anglotopia always looks her best ambling in the English countryside with me.
We are losing our sunlight. But that was expected. The clouds move so fast in the winter sometimes that you can have multiple moments of golden sun and gloom within the space of an hour. After this point, we walked through a beautiful ancient wood. For some reason, I didn’t take a picture of it, and I wish I’d had. As we walked through the forest, there was a roar of sound, which was odd in the countryside where it’s usually so quiet, and all you can hear is the birds (even in the winter). I suspected there was a road nearby, but even with my basic knowledge of the era, I knew there was not.
“What is that noise?” I asked somewhat rhetorically to Mrs. Anglotopia.
“Is the trees,” responded Mrs. Anglotopia.
I looked up, and she was right. The roar was not a nearby road – it was the winds blowing through the trees in this sheltered valley. We stopped and listened. It was a most marvelous sound. It sounded like England’s ancient history calling out to us. I imagined warriors hiking through this forest. Shepherd’s droving their flocks to the next field. Edwardian Lovers stealing a kiss away from the public eye.
At one point in the walk, I managed to get stuck in the mud and fall down at which point Mrs. Anglotopia made quite a bit of fun at my expense. Minutes later she took a tumble into the mud herself. The teasing ceased. We were now both covered in mud but having so much fun. Also, proves that Wellies are essential for any walk in the English countryside, especially in the winter. They take up a lot of room in your suitcase, but you need them in situations like this!
Because you will inevitably have to wade into muddy tracks like this! Easy to get stuck and fall. Proper foot attire is essential.
It’s so weird, the route we were on took us right through a farmer’s yard (houses, barns, equipment). It’s a public right of way, but it still feels so odd to walk right through the middle of someone’s property. Thankfully we didn’t encounter anyone, so there was no real awkwardness. Once we left the farmyard (I respectfully didn’t take pictures despite it being beautiful), we followed the path along a fence and were treated to more views of New Wardour Castle and celebrated the return of the sun.
As we walked along the fence towards our destination. A runner came up from behind us. He was happy to chat. He was doing the same route – he lived nearby and used the public right of way for his daily runs. We had questions about the route, and he knew exactly which way we needed to go. He ran off, and we watched him incredulously as he ran up the hills ahead of us, seemingly with no effort. We were at least in mile 2 of our walk by this point and were very sore and exhausted. We don’t get to walk much like this when we’re back home and are out of shape. The idea of running this route so effortlessly made us tremble with fear.
Finally, we arrived at New Wardour Castle. We’d never been this close to it before. The public footpath literally takes you through the back garden. This house is not open to the public, ever. It’s privately owned. But not by some rich Lord & Lady. The house was sold off years ago to a developer who turned the house into flats and townhouses (very expensive flats and townhouses, I should add). You can get the thrill of living in a stately home for a fraction of the price and upkeep. If you’re curious to see what these houses look like, check out this link for an idea.
The only bit of the house that’s open to the public, other than the footpath, is the Catholic Chapel inside, which is regularly open for Sunday Services. I would very much like to see this Chapel sometime. There is also a very famous rotunda staircase inside that’s very architecturally important, but not something you can see unless you’re a resident. There are ten apartments inside. The stable blocks were also turned into apartments. The presence of cars parked in the front made it difficult to photograph this beautiful house but at the end of the day, you have to realize that this is a small community of people – not a grand stately home open to the public.
I love the weather grey stonework. It gives the house a look of aristocratic decay that I quite like. I wonder why two windows are boarded/stoned up?
This is one of my most favorite pictures that I have ever taken of a stately home (even with the cars I can’t get rid of). If you took the cars out, this scene would love the same 100 or 200 years ago. The public footpath follows that muddy track and leads you back to Old Wardour Castle.
The landscape around the house has been sculpted for the pleasure of the original owners. The gardens went through several iterations – including one by the renowned landscape architect Capability Brown who undertook extensive earth moving and tree planting between 1775 and 1783. His work is largely what you see today.
Old Wardour Castle was kept as a landscape ornament as part of the new parklands around the house, and it’s at this point that you can start to see it again. Getting back to the old castle is a much shorter walk from New Wardour Castle than the long circuitous route we took through the countryside. But it was so very much worth it to see New Wardour Castle, sitting in the landscape designed by Capability Brown, occasionally bathed in golden, low winter sunlight.
If you would like to recreate this walk, simply download this map and follow the prompts. It’s a lovely walk. It’s just over three miles, and you can do the walk in a few hours. Wear very good boots and prepare for mud. As always – follow the countryside code and leave livestock alone and respect the properties along the public rights of way. And this is most important – if you have a dog with you – ALWAYS keep them on a lead when walking through farmlands.