Centuries ago, Cranborne Chase was a wild, remote and sparsely populated royal hunting ground teeming with deer and boar, enjoyed by kings including John, Henry VIII and James I.
Enter this 380 square mile Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) today however and you’ll encounter a very different kind of hunting – especially if you venture into this land of hidden valleys, villages, woods, streams and mellow chalk downland after sundown.
It was officially designated a Dark Sky Reserve last year, making it only the 14th in the world. That puts it right up there alongside central Idaho in the US, Australia’s River Murray and – closer to home – Exmoor National Park, Moore’s Reserve on the South Downs and the Brecon Beacons National Park.
A new breed of visitor is heading this way not with wildlife in its sights but crystal-clear views of distant stars, planets and constellations. Armed with telescopes, celestial maps, binoculars and warm clothing, they criss-cross this stunning area’s enchanting network of back roads by night, seeking out the finest viewing spots.
Where better to start a tour of this nocturnal hunting ground than historic Cranborne itself on the south eastern edge of the AONB, in east Dorset? Dating from Saxon times it boasts a fetching 15th century church, two pubs, a manor house and the ‘Ancient Technology Centre’ where, they say, visitors return to the Dark Ages to discover how their ancestors lived.
Setting off in a Range Rover Evoque D180 showcasing some of the automotive world’s very latest technology – including its Clearsight rear view mirror which ‘disappears’ tall rear-seat passengers and high loads by displaying images from a roof-mounted camera – we take to the B3078 heading south-west.
Switching to ‘Dynamic’ mode, sharpening the suspension, steering and gearing to make the most of this fun, winding route, we soon arrive at one of the area’s more enigmatic stargazing sites, the picturesque ruins of Knowlton Church, encircled by eerie Neolithic ritual henge earthworks. No wonder visitors report strange sensations when standing at the centre of these medieval ruins, once a major pagan ceremonial site. By day it attracts walkers, mystics and the curious, by night huddles of stargazers and a forest of telescopes.
Our route turns right by Horton Inn to pass Ass Hill and through Moor Crichel with its pretty thatched cottages and sublime tree-lined avenues before passing the appropriately named Dark Lane and Witchampton, then heading south through a chain of pretty villages to Hillbutts.
We head north-west on the swift B3082, dropping into the National Trust’s Kingston Lacy, aptly described by the heritage organisation as a “lavish family home reimagined as Venetian palace” and surrounded by 8,500 acres of unspoilt countryside.
Next along this circuitous route, lining Blandford Road as though forming a living tunnel, as the compass on one of the Evoque’s showy Touch Pro Duo screens points north, is a stunning avenue of beech trees. Planted in 1835 with 365 on one side and 366 on the other for a leap year, The Beech Avenue makes an appropriately magical entry to another of the area’s top 10 star-viewing points; atmospheric Bradbury Rings. It’s a vast, bewitching, Iron Age hillfort, 327 feet above sea level and offering breathtaking views over Cranborne Chase – day and night.
Pushing on northwards, we turn right towards Tarrant Rushton, tracing the line of the River Tarrant to our right and soaking up long, sweeping views of the valley it flows through, pushing on through Tarrant Gunville before heading cross-country to Ashmore.
It’s only when we meet the director of Cranborne Chase AONB, Linda Nunn, at the Rushmore Estate and head up a rough private track that there’s a chance to put the Evoque’s Auto Terrain Response to the test, the sophisticated four-wheel drive system making child’s play of the deep ruts and gravel. Engaging ‘Grass/Gravel/Snow’, we edge across grassland up to the 65ft Folly, adjacent to the Larmer Tree Gardens.
Nunn says that it took a decade’s work to tone down the lights in Cranborne Chase, with the assistance of residents, businesses and local authorities, before the area was awarded Dark Sky status. But still there is much to do, to further lower light pollution.
“People think of our beautiful landscapes as being on the ground but 50 per cent of our landscape is above our heads in the sky,” she says. “We want to get the clearest view of it that we can.”
Astronomer Steve Tonkin, the AONB’s Dark Sky advisor, hefts a giant 8-inch aperture telescope from his boot and we peer – in vain – for the stars. Astronomers like it dark but photographers like it light and on this occasion the need for pictures before night falls wins the day.
Consolation comes in the form of long views across the Solent to the Isle of Wight and further adventure as we divert northwards to The Beckford Arms, on the Fonthill Estate.
It’s our best chance yet for stargazing. Foregoing the Beckford’s welcoming Soho House vibe, cosy bar and log fire, we stride deep into the estate and as night falls, cloaking us in an intense and isolating darkness seldom experienced outside a Dark Sky Reserve, we are held spellbound by the dense blanket of stars.
Losing sense of time (as well as and feeling in our necks) as we crane skywards, picking out constellations, we finally arrive late for sumptuous treats in the warm embrace of Beckford Arms’ elegant restaurant, including mackerel ceviche with linseed crisp and sensational Brixham plaice. They really look after you here; online ‘Room Folders’ not only outline local walks but carry an amusing essay on the ‘perfect’ pub by George Orwell and a brilliantly-drawn local attractions map. Information on the area’s Top 10 stargazing sites will be added soon.
You can’t visit Cranborne Chase without tackling the famous (or perilous if you drive too fast, as pieces of car wreckage dotting the steep hillside attest) Zig Zag Hill, our first destination on day two of this 75-mile route, along the plunging B3081.
Nor should you miss the thrill of sitting in the hilltop cafe at nearby Compton Abbas airfield, as planes ancient and modern thunder along the grassy runway just feet away. Find it by following signs along Spread Eagle Hill, then depart by turning left out of the airfield gate and enjoying stunning forested valley views as you head east, find Donhead Hollow on your map then follow signs along the rough gravelled by-way to Win Green.
It’s the highest point in Cranborne Chase with Bournemouth, the Isle of Wight, Salisbury, Glastonbury Tor, the Mendips, the Quantocks – and probably the moons of Jupiter – all visible given the right conditions.
Round off your tour with a lazy meander through some of Cranborne Chase’s finest villages and hamlets, admiring a picture-perfect succession of thatched cottages, manor houses, farms, churches, pubs and pastoral views as you snake through Berwick St John, Misselfore, Broad Chalke, Fifield Bavant.
Away from main roads, as peaceful, nearly as remote – and almost as dark – as it was centuries ago, Cranborne Chase feels as timeless as the stars themselves, day or night.
More information on Cranborne Chase: www.cranbornechase.org.uk; The Beckford Arms: https://www.beckfordarms.com/
Range Rover Evoque D180 HSE R-Dynamic
Engine: 1,999cc, four-cylinder turbodiesel
Top speed: 127mph
Acceleration: 0-62mph: 9.3 seconds
Fuel economy: 41.5-38.2mpg (Combined)
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