Length: about five miles. Time: Two hours at a leisurely pace, with short rests. Terrain: Some short, steep uphill sections. Mostly dry underfoot
On a sunny March afternoon, this walk along the high spine of hills to the far west of our area can take you on a switchback from winter to spring and back again
We begin in the car park on the wintery north side of Lamberts Castle, (signed from the B3165 heading out of Marshwood towards Lyme Regis). It’s free to park here, but be warned, don’t leave anything valuable behind in your car while you walk in case it gets nicked.
From the car park, take the lesser path through the wood to the left of the main stile. This is easy walking among beech trees whose low, smooth branches are ideal for climbing if you have kids with you. There’s a den by the path that’s well worth exploring whatever your age.
Once past the den you go over a stile and keep straight ahead. You are now in one of the hill-fort ditches, which gives you a foretaste of the deeper, wooded ravines that lie ahead at Coney’s Castle.
Follow the ditch up and out of the wood on to a grassy plateau with wild apple trees scattering their pale petals over closely cropped turf. This is where the Lamberts Castle Fair used to be held every year on the Wednesday before old Midsummer Day, this being the feast of St John The Baptist on 23 June. Look closely and you can still see the outlines of some of the buildings, and of the primitive telegraph station assembled here in the Napoleonic Wars to give warning of a French invasion. Using a system of flags, a message could reach London in 20 minutes.
Cut across the sward and then turn right, leaving the ring ditch behind you, keeping to the eastern side of the hill. The wind usually drops here and you can feel the sun warming the ground.
To the left opens up a spectacular prospect over the Marshwood Vale bounded by the hill forts that define our area. Looking round in a clockwise direction you can see the jut of Pilsdon Pen, Lewesdon’s wooded crest, Eggardon’s long, dun flanks, the titchy cone of Colmer’s Hill and the high cliffs of Golden Cap and Stonebarrow.
On a clear day you can see all the way to the Isle of Portland lying like a leg of lamb on the polished blue tabletop of the sea.
A spectacular prospect opens up over the Marshwood Vale bounded by the hill forts that define our area
There are a series of handily placed benches along this stretch, sheltered by tall clumps of furze. Take a few moments to sit, have a snack and enjoy the view. You could see a buzzard riding the rising thermals from the Vale below, or an early queen bumble bee, newly emerged from hibernation to feed on the gorse flowers. If you are particularly lucky, you might hear a “cronk” as a raven passes overhead, or spot a fox playing in the bracken further down the slope.
After your rest, head on towards the sea. You’ll see it shimmering before you as if you are about to plunge off the end of a cliff. Walk on further and the land resolves before you. For a shorter walk of about 40 minutes you can choose to veer right and walk back to the carpark.
Those who want to carry on should go down the stony path that runs beside a line of stunted hollies. The path is littered with small lumps of whitish chert — a material which forms part of the rocky outcrop on the tops of Lamberts and Coney’s castles.
Go through the gate to emerge on to a tangle of small roads at Peter’s Gore. Ignore the roads right and left and walk downhill towards the pylon. Just before you pass under the power lines, a hidden road appears to the left. Turn here and walk past a cottage on the left. A few yards further on you’ll see a metal field gate and a bridleway sign. Go through the gate and follow the bridleway across the middle of the field. Be sure to keep dogs on a lead as there are usually sheep and cattle grazing.
This rather wild field of grass, bracken and gorse runs along the side of Coney’s Castle with the ramparts rising above, the trees and brush pointing upwards like a palisade. It’s one of the quietest, most remote sections of the walk and a place where you might hear only the wind blowing across the hill and sheep bleating.
Watch out for deep pools of mud after the second field gate and head for the cottage you can see by the old brick and flint barn. Go though the wooden gate and past the front of the cottage. Some barky dogs live here and are likely to shout out your presence loudly.
Remain undeterred and take the second gate into the next grass field, sticking close to the hedge. As the ground rises, the sea at Charmouth swells back into view. Go through the metal gate on to the road — notice the huge clump of foxgloves by the gatepost. Turn right up the hill. It’s a short but steep climb from here up to the top of Coney’s Castle.
Look out for the stile on your right, which is almost hidden by trees. Crossing this stile brings you into a magical world of mossy oaks draped with ferns and swollen beech trees contorted by long-ago coppicing. Follow the ring ditch with its deep carpet of fallen leaves that smell richly of mushroom mould. In April, the ditch becomes a river of bluebells.
As you walk, you can ponder the hill’s unusual name. Coney’s is probably so called from the rabbits that once lived here in profusion; “coney”, originally pronounced “cunny”, is an old name for rabbit. As with many old slang words, “coney” has various vulgar meanings. In Elizabethan times, the word also meant a foolish person who could be easily gulled. A “coney-catcher” was a trickster or con-man. Shakespeare uses the phrase several times: In The Taming of the Shrew, Curtis says to Grumio “Come, you are so full of conicatching”. Inevitably, “coney” also had a bawdy implication, which is possibly why it dropped out of general use in Victorian times.
Our path snakes round the ditch and pops out in Coney’s car park, where you rejoin the road and walk back towards Lamberts. Re-ascend the stony track at Peter’s Gore and then turn left along the western crest of Lamberts Castle. You’re now walking along part of the old racecourse that once ran around the top of the hill. Races were held here until 1947 and drew crowds as part of the annual fair. The event seems to have been a rough affair with horses getting “lost” in the mist halfway round the course, jockeys swapping mounts and a general amount of knavery.
We’re now back on the chilly side of the hill with the sun throwing long afternoon shadows across the grass. No doubt your legs will ache pleasantly and you may be feeling in need of refreshment. The Bottle Inn at Marshwood is open all day, and can be relied upon for a crackling open fire, varied selection of cask ales and a warm welcome for dogs and children. Unless you time your visit to coincide with the annual stinging nettle eating contest, there is generally no food served other than crisps, nuts, chocolate bars and the occasional pork pie.