Jack Thurston’s Lost Lanes West cycling guide describes a 65-mile tour starting and finishing at the railway station in Gillingham, Dorset. This tour takes in Cranborne Chase, Blandford Forum, the Stour valley and Shaftesbury (including the iconic Gold Hill, of Hovis advert fame).
Witchampton, which is the furthest point on the tour from Gillingham, is only about eight miles from where I live, so I decided to be a little creative: I split the tour in two days, starting it and finishing it at home, and making Gillingham an overnight stop. In planning it this way, it turned out that each day would be – purely by coincidence – a very manageable 40 miles (i.e. with time for stopping, pottering, and brewing drinks on a new stove, which I was planning to ‘field test’).
This blog post focuses on the first day, outbound to Gillingham. The second day is covered here.
The road to Witchampton passes through Wimborne Minster, which is a fast-growing market town. If you didn’t turn off the main road, you would end up in Cranborne (which gives its name to the Chase).
From Witchampton, the route proceeds on quiet country roads towards Blandford Forum, with an entertaining diversion along a rough concrete single-track road, which skirts around Tarrant Rushton airfield (one of many playing their part in the Second World War). My descent from the airfield to the valley bottom was heralded by a cacophony of crows, which were nesting in a copse that straddled the road.
If you blinked you would miss Blandford Forum, since the route barely touches the centre of the town. Instead, you soon find yourself on the trailway linking the town with Sturminster Newton. This trailway follows the route of a railway line axed by Beeching (one of oh so many … not many minsters can have been so unfortunate as to have had their name irrevocably linked to such a national calamity).
This trailway was a revelation … I’ve lived in Dorset for more than twenty years, and driven along the Stour valley on numerous occasions, but I never knew that it existed! It is delightful, providing a welcome alternative to the busy road that snakes along the valley floor. I stopped at the twenty-mile mark for a brew, next to a bridge spanning the slow-moving River Stour. Time to test my new stove!
The route leaves the trailway just after Shillingstone (which has a beautifully maintained retired station, complete with a short section of line to nowhere, on which Little Eva the steam locomotive sits ready for work that will never materialise).
Next stop Shaftesbury, via Bedchester. The backroads remained quiet, with regular views across and along the valley, a couple of steep ascents punctuating progress (at which point it becomes a case of grinding the Brompton slowly up the inclines!)
Gold Hill was eerily quiet. I hummed Dvorak’s New World Symphony to myself as I pushed my bike up the cobbles to the top, enjoying the nostalgia trip … Sir Ridley Scott made the Hovis advert that was shot on location here. He has had a varied career … a bit like Salman Rushdie, with his naughty but nice cream cakes!
As Jack Sherston describes in his book, the run from Shaftesbury to Gillingham is mostly downhill. I would not be able to get into my AirBnB destination until later in the evening, so I headed straight for The Buffalo pub, on the west of Gillingham, which incorporates an Italian restaurant. Calamari and lasagna and a pint of beer hit the spot nicely. It was good food: generous portions and reasonably priced.
And so to my destination for the night. “The Purple Room” is a room in a house opposite The Dolphin pub, so named for the decor (the room, not the pub). I found it on Airbnb. The Dolphin wasn’t serving food this evening, otherwise I would have eaten there. I made do with another pint instead (it’s a hard life), read a little and wrote this!