A walk for December: French Mill circular
Updated: Jan 16
Distance: 2.9 miles
Difficulty: easy (apart from one short but steep ascent at the end)
One of the many things we love about Shaftesbury is how quickly it gives way to the countryside, along lanes, footpaths and holloways, opening up wide views of the Blackmore Vale and providing a different perspective on the town, perched high upon its promontory.
If you live in Shaftesbury, the chances are you will know this route already. It is a favourite for Sunday perambulations, sunset wanders and ambles with friends. It entails no serious gradient, other than the slight sting in the tail of Gold Hill itself, and is definitely towards the gentler end of our repertoire of routes. It is perfect for a pre- or post-Christmas dinner walk, when an easy leg-stretch is about the sum total of our walking ambitions. Note that you will want to wear your wellies if doing this walk in winter.
To simplify things for those who are less familiar with the town, the route begins and ends at the town hall, an easy landmark to find on the High Street.
French Mill Circular Walk
WIth the town hall in front of you, look to your right and head down the alleyway between Costa Coffee and Oxfam Books to Park Walk. Running alongside the abbey ruins, this wide promenade was created and given to the town in 1753 by lord of the manor Robert Dyneley. The views over the Blackmore Vale are about as good as they get and particularly dramatic in the low winter sun.
At the end of Park Walk, take the lower route signposted Stoney Path and head down the steep cobbled path, enjoying views over the rooftops of St James with Melbury Beacon providing the backdrop. This is the hill that features in FOLDE’s beautiful engraving by Dorset printmaker, Robin Mackenzie.
At the bottom of Stoney Path turn right onto Laundry Lane and then take the first left onto Tanyard Lane. As the names suggest, this area was once the working part of Shaftesbury, although these days it is one of its most desirable, the appeal of the thatched and stone cottages to modern buyers’ tastes affecting prices in a way that would no doubt have confounded their original inhabitants.
At the bottom of Tanyard Lane, passing the former Fox & Hounds Inn on the left, turn left onto St James Street, a joyous confection of stone cottages, some thatched, some not. Look out for Pump Yard a little way along the street on the left, a charming quadrangle of former workers’ cottages with a water pump at their centre.
Passing the bottom of Gold Hill, St James Street then turns into Layton Lane and veers round to the right. Keep going as the road starts to climb and turns into Hawksdene Lane. As you reach the brow of the hill, look out for the kissing gate on the right, which leads you into a long strip of pasture and woodland known as Wilderness. It’s not as wild as the name implies but the views over the Blackmore Vale and St James are impressive nonetheless.
Continue straight ahead along the grassy footpath, which is likely to be rather muddy at this time of year, and eventually you will reach a stile leading into a field with a picture-perfect view of Melbury Beacon. Pause for a moment to take it in, then turn right along the field edge and cross the stile in the corner.
Turn left onto the narrow French Mill Lane and head downhill with steep banks on either side. We love this lane: periodically, you will catch glimpses of the far-reaching views over a gate or two on the right-hand side. Look out too for the zingy green colour pop of the common feather-moss which carpets the wall alongside Spur House.
The lane eventually reaches a T-junction with Three Ways Cottage on the left. This is a good place to stock up on plants and cuttings for your garden; there are almost always small pots for sale outside the house at any time of the year. Turn sharp right here and head back towards Shaftesbury along Gascoigne’s Lane, enjoying the views to the left towards Duncliffe Hill. There are some fine trees punctuating the hedgerows along this lane, including one easy-to-miss old timer of an oak much loved by a professional tree hugger that we know well. You will also pass a smallholding of assorted animals, including peacocks, guinea fowl and two rather charming mother-and-son donkeys who go by the names of Queenie and Edward.
At Holyrood Farm, which looks for all the world like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel (check out those gates), peel off from the lane and take the narrow footpath that runs in front of the farmyard. It is almost certain to be muddy during winter but there’s something quite enjoyable about squelching your way along the track. You will eventually come to a threeway junction of sorts: ignoring the holloway that climbs sharply up to your right, take the path that heads off and up to the left. It soon turns to tarmac, which heralds the start of Kingsman Lane.
The lane climbs steadily upwards between houses of various ages (check out the super stylish and appropriately named Stealth House on your left) and then joins up with St James Street, which should now be familiar to you. Turn right (or left if you want to visit the Two Brewers for a swift half) and walk along until you reach the foot of Gold Hill once again.
This is the only truly thigh-burning section of the whole walk, so steel yourself and head on up those famous cobbles. If you’re anything like us, you’ll use the view behind you as a good excuse to pause and take a few photos while you catch your breath. The town hall is at the very top; pass round it to the left or right, as you fancy, to reach your starting point once again.