Lie of the Land
PUBLISHED: 11:45 20 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:32 20 February 2013
In this, the sixth part of his occasional series looking at Dorset's Landscape Character Areas, Guy Corbett-Marshall turns his attention to... the Blackmore Vale
Blackmoor Vale and Vale of Wardour is one of nine Landscape Character Areas that are wholly, or partly, to be found in Dorset; a Landscape Character Area being defined by the Countryside Agency, now Natural England, as a location that carries a distinctive 'sense of place' and which is more than a single landscape.
Not that the Vale of Wardour resides in Dorset (it's to be found in Wiltshire), and not that the spelling 'Blackmoor' is the familiar form for what must be one of Dorset's (and Somerset's) most readily identifiable areas.
Perhaps it is because the Blackmore Vale can be so readily overlooked and defined from the many downs and other high ground that surrounds it, which allows its name to be used as an unambiguous geographic reference point. After all, why add Blackmore Vale to business names as diverse as a forge, an alpaca farm, a magazine or credit union, or indeed to amateur radio, National Trust and Ramblers clubs, if no one knew where the Vale was?
But apart from being the low ground between, for example, Cranborne Chase and Yeovil Scarplands, what defines the Blackmore Vale as a unique landscape?
In some ways the answer can be as simple as the 'difference between chalk and cheese': Cranborne Chase one of the sheep-grazed, steep, chalk downs that overlook the undulating, lush, clay, pasture fields of the Blackmore Vale that have played host to the area's dairy farms for centuries.
And whilst the dairy industry has a long tradition in the area, farming in the Vale is comparatively new compared to the management of the surrounding downlands with their ancient hillforts.
The taming of the wet woodlands of the Vale did not really begin until late-Saxon times, by which time medieval settlements such as Marnhull and Hinton St Mary had started to evolve. By the early-13th century, Gillingham could boast a royal forest, and King John had built a large, moated hunting lodge at King's Court, a site through which a footpath passes to this day.
Coinciding with the popularity of the royal forest, open fields were laid out and more settlements arrived which, like Hinton and Marnhull, tended to be on slightly higher ground. The field systems can be aged by their degree of regularity and their proximity to villages, the oldest pastures being the most irregular, clustered around farms with names such as 'wood' and 'hay'.
The enclosure of the Vale lasted from medieval times until the 19th century, by which time the fields had become larger and rectangular and almost none of the original Selwood Forest remained. What woodland exists today is scattered, ranging from low-lying conifer plantations near Middlemarsh to important mixed and deciduous woodlands such as Piddles Wood and two significant Woodland Trust properties - Fifehead Wood and the twin hills that form the notable landmark of Duncliffe Wood.
Whilst woods have largely vanished from the Blackmore Vale, mature trees are to be found associated with the many linear features of the area, oaks most commonly in the wide and numerous pasture hedgerows, with willows and alders beside the extensive network of ditches, streams and rivers that bisect the Vale, three of which congregate at Gillingham - Shreen Water and the Rivers Stour and Lodden.
The lush meadows beside the many watercourses largely lack floral diversity, but were ideal in producing a rich sward that fed the cattle, which in turn produced milk for the Sturminster Newton Creamery that was based in the town from 1913 to 2000. Two years earlier, the large cattle market closed in the town, but despite these setbacks 'Stur' retains its claim to be 'capital of the Blackmore Vale', with its mill undoubtedly one of the most famous and photographed buildings in the area.
In terms of age and style, Sturminster Newton, which was substantially rebuilt after a serious fire in 1729, sits in the middle of the three North Dorset towns to be found in the Blackmore Vale. The young pretender is the largely brick-built and now only town on the railway network, Gillingham, whilst the oldest settlement by far is Shaftesbury.
Whilst Shaftesbury's 9th-century nunnery was largely destroyed during the Dissolution (following a period in the 14th century when it was the richest Benedictine nunnery in Britain and Shaftesbury was the most populated town in Dorset), its upper greensand stone was used to create many of the town's most notable buildings in the 18th century.
This use of stone is, of course, not the only way to differentiate Shaftesbury from its town rivals; some 400 feet above 'Stur' and Gillingham, Shaftesbury does not sit in the Blackmore Vale, but does give some of the finest views of the Vale from Park Walk and Bimport.
Unlike the Wiltshire parts of the Blackmoor Vale and Vale of Wardour that contain large landscape parks such as Longleat, Stourhead and Wardour, Dorset's Blackmore Vale makes a modest contribution, one of the most notable examples being the intimate Stock Gaylard park between Sturminster Newton and Sherborne. Whilst Stock House is tucked away and has limited opening hours, its most obvious feature is the roaming herd of fallow deer that brighten up many a driver's day.
Close to Stock House is a collection of another Blackmore Vale feature - the common, with Lydlinch the most obvious example at the junction of the A357 and A3030. More tucked away, but more sizeable, is Deadmoor Common near Fifehead Neville, whilst Bagber Common has largely lost its definition, but does contain another Vale specialty, the green lane.
As the chalk droves served the downland shepherd, so the green lanes created an arterial route for the dairy farmer across the low-lying and wet clay of the Vale, these clear rights of way defined as so many features of this Landscape Character Area by thick and healthy hedges, peppered with mature trees.Set in an increasingly busy county and with its fair share of 'A' roads, it is perhaps surprising that the Blackmore Vale remains for the larger part a relatively untouched part of Dorset; a high-profile name with low-profile development pressures. Long may that anomaly remain!