Lie of the Land - Yeovil Scarplands

PUBLISHED: 09:57 20 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:45 20 February 2013

The village of Poyntington, nestling in the valley

The village of Poyntington, nestling in the valley

In this, the seventh and penultimate part of his occasional series looking at Dorset's Landscape Character Areas, Guy Corbett-Marshall turns his attention to... Yeovil Scarplands

In this, the seventh and penultimate part of his occasional series looking at Dorset's Landscape Character Areas, Guy Corbett-Marshall turns his attention to... Yeovil Scarplands

Yeovil Scarplands 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.

This series' exploration of Dorset's Landscape Character Areas has, to date, featured fairly well-known parts of the county: Cranborne Chase, Blackmore and Marshwood Vales, Dorset Heaths, South Purbeck and Isle of Portland, all reasonably easy to guess where they are on a map.

But what of Yeovil Scarplands? Well, it's safe to assume that this Landscape Character Area might be centred on the town of Yeovil and that as a result it might be found mainly in Somerset, but which parts of Dorset might it contain? The answer is that its shape (akin to a figure of eight) means that it divides into two portions, roughly centred on Sutton Bingham Reservoir, the southern end of which is in Dorset. The north-eastern half contains what is often considered to be Dorset's most beautiful town, Sherborne, whilst the south-western half includes smaller but equally lovely settlements such as Broadwindsor and Melbury Osmond, all places united by the visual quality of their stone buildings.

The Jurassic limestone used to construct the towns and villages of the Yeovil Scarplands was quarried from a variety of sites, although perhaps most famously just over the border in Somerset from Hamdon Hill, which yields its own yellow, shelly limestone called Ham Hill Stone. (Scarp means, simplistically, steep (in this case, limestone) slope.)

The single most impressive building constructed of the local limestone within Dorset's part of Yeovil Scarplands is the church of St Mary in Sherborne: Sherborne Abbey. The complex architecture, which includes an elaborate, fan-vaulted ceiling, illustrates that the stone can be carved readily, yet it is also remarkably durable, most of the Abbey dates back to the 15th century.

In a town built so predominantly of the local stone and which has been managed so sensitively for so many centuries, it is perhaps a little unfair to choose other buildings to praise. But of a similar vintage to the Abbey is the adjacent Almshouse of St John and the Conduit, the small market house at the base of Cheap Street, which was built initially as a washing place within the cloister of the Abbey.

The Abbey can be enjoyed today as it was spared during the Reformation by the town declaring it its parish church. Less fortunate, however, is the long-ruined 'Old Castle', which was an inevitable consequence of Sherborne siding with the Royalists. Thankfully, the 'New Castle', which was started by Sir Walter Raleigh 50 years before the 'Old Castle' was finally over-run by Roundheads, survives to this day, set at the western end of a fine parkland at the heart of which is a sizeable lake.

When the new Castle is not open, it is possible to gain good views of Sherborne Park from an elevated footpath to its south, even getting the chance to venture into its eastern fringe by another right of way. But a larger and even more impressive parkland can be accessed far more readily elsewhere in the Yeovil Scarplands.

Starting from Melbury Osmond, the village where Thomas Hardy's parents married 170 years ago this year, and which was his 'Little Hintock' in the novel The Woodlanders, an estate road heads south across a broad sweep of parkland towards one of the county's finest houses, Melbury Sampford. Beyond the house there is less formality and uniformity as equine needs are left behind. Instead, the journey continues south towards Evershot through a delicious, undulating landscape that is the perfect setting in which to enjoy the park's fallow deer.

Some of the larger blocks of forestry within the Yeovil Scarplands can be found adjacent to, or in close proximity to, Sherborne and Melbury Parks and orchards are still surviving in small quantities predominantly on the edge of the village of Halstock.

With much of Yeovil Scarplands occupying wide valleys, gentle slopes or open ridge tops, both arable and pasture farming have offered better commercial returns than woodland management, so this Landscape Character Area's smaller, native woods tend to hug the steep limestone slopes.

In terms of linear features, there is an interesting selection of A-roads of varying size and usage fed by a network of country lanes, some of the latter being set deep within the area's combes. The sunken nature of these 'holloways', bordered by some of the Scarplands' most interesting hedges, can create very intimate landscapes.

More open, but still linear, are the valleys of two of the South West's better-known rivers: the Yeo and the Axe. The infant Yeo is most obvious as it flows through the heart of Sherborne, although it is wider by the time it leaves Dorset near the village of Bradford Abbas. The Axe can be enjoyed most as it flows past the hamlet of Seaborough and the glorious Seaborough Court, just before it too leaves Dorset, completing a journey that began on Beaminster Down, also just within Yeovil Scarplands.

An ideal way to take in perhaps all of Yeovil Scarplands' key characteristics - its hills, wide valley bottoms, ridge tops and combes - is to walk the length of Poyntingon Hill and Poyntington Down. Climbing out of Oborne, the bridleway heads north with its finest views left (west) over the Dorset part of this Landscape Character Area. As the walk progresses, so it becomes clear that Natural England's description is right and that this is a varied, remote and rural area, with arable and pasture fields and steep, wooded slopes. Nestling in the valley below is the lovely stone village of Poyntington, complete with two other important elements of a typical Scarplands settlement, a small manor house and a church with a tall tower. Absolute perfection!

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