Photo of snowy Sussex woodland trail Photo of snowy Sussex woodland trail

Under Every Footstep

A guest blog by Catherine Speakman (Tess of the Vale)

The view looking east from the top of Shipton hillfort over The Marshwood Vale in West Dorset.
The path in the foreground lines up with the possible entrance to the hillfort, making this the same route walked by the Durotriges tribe.

History seeps into the soil with the fall of every leaf. All over the world the past is buried under life, slowly beginning to disappear, eventually leaving only traces in the ground. Alongside nature, the remnants of history and the creations of today have defined the landscape that we exist in now and evidence for it can be found in every footstep.

The UK is just a small island compared to the vast expanses of land that span the globe, yet its history is intense. Every inch of the earth has been touched, designed or altered by our ancestors. Every tree, every bump, every bend in the road has a story, a reason for being there and nowhere else. Outside of the cities the swathes of rural, raw countryside have experienced peaks and troughs of activity. Some of these elements have grown but many have been left to the advances of nature, forgotten over time, becoming hidden from the rest of the world.

Exploring the landscape in detail, for only a short distance, can be a time traveling experience. In the little county of Dorset, the footprints of the brachiosaurus can be seen in the coastal Portland Stone, as the monsters stood around a muddy lake to enjoy a drink of water. The earthworks and stones of Neolithic henges, Bronze Age barrows and Iron Age hillforts scatter the spiritually rich chalk hills, some sliced by large aggers of Roman roads that disappear into the horizon. These ancient settlements are connected by paths that developed into medieval trackways, keeping to the high chalk ridges avoiding the wild woods below. The routes were trodden so often they created holloways, deep within the roots of trees, the real place where truth and fantasy mix to create folklore. 

Looking over a stile towards the rise of Chalbury Hillfort near Weymouth.
An ancient holloway

Village patterns grew from Saxon origins placed at river crossings, slowly encroaching on the fading forest. Castles were built from timber and stone to then collapse, leaving lonely mottes and baileys neighbouring farms that were once the village they controlled. Crumbling bridges fall into streams, the tracks that led to them now little more than a hedge in a field. Token manor houses still stand strong, often constructed from local stone, accompanied with wealthy family tales of tragedy, inheritance and keeping up with the Jones’.

Masonry and stones scatter the West Burton stream suggesting an old river crossing. A track still exists traveling north, but to the south there is little more than a field boundary leading to the deserted medieval village remains of West Burton.

Yew trees, oak trees and beech trees, that date back centuries and even millennia, tower over surrounding fields and thatched cottages, their branches once used to hang criminals from the neck. It is possible to find evidence of devastating fires in both redesigned 18th century historical towns as well as today’s forest. A pirate bottle can be discovered embedded in a stone wall while coastal caves still house the timber structures that hid their loot. Industrial remains of quarrying, brickworks and ironmongery as well as the old railway routes lie hidden away from modern day traffic and many scars from the Second World War have turned into havens for wildlife.

Sunrise at Tilly Whim Caves, once an area of heavy quarrying it later became a Victorian travel destination thanks to a local business man who developed nearby Durlston County Park. The caves are now closed due to safety issues but have become a haven for wildlife.

Scenes painted by John Constable can be revisited and the real world of Thomas Hardy’s fictional characters has changed little since his day. Whereas modern day media have also taken advantage of Dorset, the landscape playing a heavy role in the background of a number of TV and Hollywood productions, giving the county a little extra kudos as well as another view to search for.           

Tess of the Vale map of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Vale of the Great Dairies’. The woodland and heathland of Wareham Forest (Hardy’s Egdon Heath) still dominates the landscape while restrictions of the river crossings over the River Frome and River Piddle helped to determine the settlement pattern. To the north are the earthworks of a Roman Road, cutting across the sparse chalk downland and passing the Iron Age hillforts of Woodbury, Woolsbarrow and Weatherby.


Many of these remnants are unexplained, a great deal unknown and plenty still to find. We may be able to interpret them better in the future or we may not, but the air of mystery only makes it even more inviting!

All this is a snapshot of today. Development will continue, nature will take its course. Some history will disappear, some may reappear and some will be made. Nevertheless, on only one small adventure, it is possible to travel through time, fall deep within the landscape, find visible and touchable evidence as well as experience the environment in which history occurred. As Tristan Gooley says ‘The act of looking brings wonder’. 

The snapshot can be recorded not only in memory and pictures but in map form too. The old medieval trackways can be seen cutting across the landscape to then turn into modern day roads, the old routes no longer required. The settlement pattern shows development along the river course, with the empty high chalk ridges marked with ancient earthworks before the population moved to the valley. The maps provide a view of what exists today and how today merges with yesterday. However, it may all change tomorrow. 

Catherine Speakman

(Tess of the Vale – exploring history, mystery and the landscape on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.)

A railway bridge built, by Lady Wimborne’s mother-in-law, to impress visitors making their way up the driveway to Canford House. The railway has since been removed and the house is now a private school, the bridge left to its own devices.

Thank you Catherine!


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