Earlier this week I visited Stour Park in Blandford in the company of my parents. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to return – alone. I don’t, of course, mean I didn’t relish their company: I mean that I wanted to do a ‘proper’ walk in the other direction. Turning left as opposed to backwards.
In this weasel, other equally welcoming signs will appear. The others will be more obvious in meaning than this one. By the way, the River Stour at this point is renowned for otters and kingfishers as well as the other types of fauna and flora one might expect. Having no idea what electric fishing is, I enquire of one of many folk on the bank clad, Robin Hood-like, in woodland green.
Here are a few members of the Environment Agency looking not unlike fisher folk on the sea of Galilee. They’ve set out with a view to stun a few fish, weigh and measure them, check their general health and chuck them back from whence they came. Good work chaps and ladies.
Round about here, I ask Laura, one of the merry men (and women), how easy it is to walk downstream. ‘Virtually impossible’, says she pleasantly, ‘although you could cut down Long Arm, cross at Short Wicket, run through Dead Leg’… I look suitably blank. Laura says she’s in a dreadful rush to help her colleagues and ferrets in her bag for a map. Very generous. You’d be better going upstream’, she advises as she legs it down to the next bench for a quick fag.
I study the map. It appears to be an entirely useless depiction of a blue wavy line with some red dots running alongside. Just then, I hear splashing below. Perhaps it’s an otter. No, it’s a very wet black Labrador which belongs to Barry. Barry is from the seventies. Or maybe the sixties. He has a blue denim shirt and two gold earrings. I ask if he’s seen any otters. ‘There aren’t any otters’, he says knowingly. ‘They’ve cleared off. And I’ve told that lot to clear off too’, he comments, nodding his brown head at the Environment Agency. ‘Disturbing the breeding woodpeckers’, he adds by way of explanation.
I make the mistake of asking Barry, who clearly hasn’t spoken to anyone else in eons, about the possibility of walking downstream. Yet again, I get the heads-up on Long Stretch, Dead Leg etc. etc. plus a confusing set of information about bridges and points that I might reach in the dim and distant future. ‘Of course’, he says, ‘when you climb the five bar gate and cross the field, it’s a bit overgrown’. I actually heed all these directions and, let me tell you, it’s only when I surmount the gate and am attacked by stinging nettles that I realise the truth of Dead Leg.
I turn tail and wander back past the electric fisher folk to the bridge that carries the road into Blandford. I am not to be beaten in my quest for a proper walk even though I’ve probably done a mile as a warm-up.
Here’s the view of the Stour from both sides of the bridge. Pretty, isn’t it?
And here’s the gateway to Bryanston School. I um and er a bit about going through as it says ‘private property’. However, there’s a suspicious looking type hanging around outside so I enter looking a bit confident. Inside, I meet a woman with the obligatory black Labrador who tells me I can turn right and follow the river. Thank-you.
Here are some pictures of the river. I want you to look at them carefully because it’s the last you’ll see of it for some time. Shortly after this, I lose it despite two people telling me I’ll be accompanying it to wherever it chooses to go.
Where I go is along this path. On and on and on. At one point, I hear a splashing noise which alerts me to the fact that the water couldn’t be too far away. Perhaps it’s an otter I think optimistically but, no, it’s another black Labrador. It’s owner informs me that I can easily walk to Durweston, cross the bridge, and take the trailway back along the other side of the river.
I walk for miles. Literally. Nothing to see except trees and more trees. No sign of the river.
At one point, I come across this unattractive church which, naturally, is shut. The sign tells me to enter through the west door. I’ve lost all sense of direction but it makes no difference. All doors are closed. There’s not a grave in sight which I take to mean the school dinners aren’t too bad.
Eventually, I come to Middle Lodge. The road is bloody endless. At one point, having passed the school buildings, I flag down a passing car and ask for directions for Durweston which I am politely given with the coda, ‘it’s quite a long way’.
Looking back, I discover that I’ve finally escaped the confines of Hogwarts. It’s only taken me an hour and a half to walk through their private grounds.
But look – I’ve emerged into the glorious North Dorset countryside. I feel as if I’ve escaped a terrible torture. But where’s the river? On and on I plod. A surprising amount of vehicles pass, all expecting me to hop onto the bank out of their way, and none bothering to stop to ask if an old lady needs help.
And finally, I end up in Durweston. Or Stourpaine. Or some random playing field where I sit on a handy bench and eat my picnic whilst watching very small people practising for sports day. It’s charming but you’ll have to take my word for it as, these days, you’re not allowed to take photos of other folk’s children. It’s also very, very hot. What a lovely summer we’re having I think, wondering where the hell I am. I ask the playschool leader for directions and she speaks to me as if I’m four years old, repeating everything she says three times. Playschool leader tells me how to find the trailway and what a lovely walk back along the river it will be.
And look, I’ve found the river again. But who lives in a house like this?
Not very nice people apparently. I told you there’d be more signs. Friendly, aren’t they.
Here’s the old railway bridge that used to carry the Somerset and Dorset Railway into the Stourpaine and Durweston Halt.
And here’s a sunbathing hare.
And, surprise, surprise, a small spotted pony. No sign of Monsieur Martin though.
And this is the view from the pony’s paddock. Again, look closely because it’s the last you’ll see of the river on this walk. After this, the trailway just drags on for three miles into Blandford. It’s the most soul-destroying route you could wish to take unless you happen to relish plodding on a gravel path alongside the A350. Not a river in sight. Nothing. Plod, plod.
I feel I should offer you something along the way so here are three lonely poppies and a glimpse of Bryanston. Eight desultory miles which do NOT comprise the Stour Valley Way.