When I awoke the downs stood out sharp against a whitening sky swept clear of stars. For a few moments I clung to sleep, dimly aware of the warmth of the sleeping bag and the cold morning air. Then I rolled over and sat up.
Far below the valley was still in darkness; but up there on the ridge the mist was flushed with the dawn. Slowly the red sun rose above the eastern hills. It was going to be a fine day.
As soon as I had packed I made my way through the wet grass to the road, where I met up once more with the Wessex Ridgeway. There was no one about as I passed through the Giant's Head campsite. A dog in one of the tents gave a faint questioning wuffle, then relapsed into silence.
After the campsite there are several miles of broken downland. The trail edges north until it reaches the edge of the Blackmore Vale. There it turns east, following the ridge to Nettlecombe Tout and Bulbarrrow, and on to Shillingstone.
I doubt if many people would ever be met with in that forgotten corner of Dorset; but at six in the morning it seemed as though I was the last person left on earth. Not even a rider or dog walker, the usual companions of the lone walker in remote areas. I wandered on, over the dip and swell of the chalk, as the sun rose higher and the breeze died.
Near Nettlecombe Tout I dropped down into a long chalk valley where a minor road cuts through the hills. Beyond it the path climbs in earnest, winding up through hazel woods onto a spur of chalk. With natural defences on three sides this was an obvious place for a hillfort. The path crossed the ridge, along the line of the bank, before descending to the Dorsetshire Gap.
With a name like that you could be forgiven for thinking that the Gap lies on the county boundary. In fact the land on all sides is in Dorset. Geographically, however, it makes sense. A number of tracks meet there, passing from the southern uplands out into the Blackmore Vale. I breakfasted at the Gap, sprawling on the turf in the warm sunshine, amid nodding cowslips. After a night out and an early start it was difficult to keep awake.
As I gazed southward I could make out the line of the track I had followed previously, on the way down to Dorchester. I saw the ghost of myself back through the years, toiling over the fields. So much had happened since then.
From the Gap the Ridgeway slopes down to a shallow valley. Beyond it, two miles away, the sharp profile of Rawlsbury Camp rises, with the bulk of Bulbarrow beyond. The valley is crossed on a network of farm tracks and footpaths; pleasant enough, but not particularly memorable after the high downs. The climb to Rawlsbury is a killer, if you are tired and have not eaten much, but the airy promentory is a great place to while away an hour. The views from the summit are outstanding.
I rested on the grass near the entrance, just for a moment. An hour later I was awakened by an affectionate retriever licking my face. The owner hurried up, full of apologies, which were quite unnecessary as if it had not been for the dog I would have slept away the whole morning. We chatted for a few minutes, and only after she had gone did I realize that this was the first person I had spoken to all day!
From the camp there are a few miles of road walking, around the rim of chalk to Bulbarrow and beyond. The road follows the ridge, through a wide country of wandering wind and the skylarks' song. After a mile it begins to descend, to the fields far below, and there a track branches off, bending away from the edge of the escarpment, over sunny uplands to the valley of the Stour. Near Shillingstone it enters a dense forest, and in the descent to the village the view over the river is lost.
There's a midday bus from Shillingstone to Blandford which does NOT connect with the Salisbury bus, resulting in a long wait if you are travelling in that direction. There are worse places than Blandford to be stranded, though; and a few hours in the gardens down by the river, or in a cool pub, are no hardship. I remember passing the time quite pleasantly!