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Local history

hambledon hill 2

rawlsbury camp 2

hambledon hill 1

The Wessex Ridgeway Trail forms part of the Great Ridgeway. This ancient highway was once thought to be an important trading route between the Devon and Norfolk coasts. The high, dry ground made travel easy and allowed traders to see any approaching attackers.

Evidence of the past is visible all along the route. Neolithic causewayed camps and long barrows along with Bronze Age barrows dot the hilltops and magnificent Iron Age hillforts such as Hambledon HillHod HillRawlsbury CampLewesdon Hill and Pilsdon Pen dominate the landscape.

Remnants of prehistoric field systems, Roman forts and Medieval settlements and strip lynchets straddling the slopes are visible along the trail. Many of the historical features along the trail have been designated as scheduled monuments, recognising their national importance and preserving them for the future.

Neolithic - early farmers

From 4300 to 3500 BC, the local people started to adopt more fixed styles of farming and moved away from the hunter-gatherer way of life. Neolithic man started to use stone to make tools and weapons and here in Dorset the local stone was flint. This was used to make arrowheads and tools such as knives and axes. The only surviving evidence along the trail from this time is causewayed camps and long barrows. These are burial mounds surrounded by a ditch and mound and are between 33 feet (30 metres) and 66 feet (60 metres) long. The best example is on Hambledon Hill.

Bronze Age - round barrows and field systems

Before the Iron Age, the main surviving evidence of prehistoric man came from their burials and how they farmed. Important people from this time were buried in round barrows placed high up on the hills. You can also see remnants of their prehistoric field systems.

Iron Age

The Iron Age people probably lived in large groups called tribes. The local tribe here in Dorset was known by the Romans as the Durotriges.

During the Iron Age, large hillforts constructed of deep ditches and large towering 'v' shaped banks called ramparts were built. These still look impressive today, even after 2000 years of erosion. The purpose of hillforts has long been debated between archaeologists. Suggestions include providing places of safety for people and livestock when under siege from neighbouring settlements or from wolves. The hillforts may have also been a symbol of power for a local chief or used to control important trade routes. There are 27 hillforts in Dorset and seven can be found along the trail.

Roman occupation

In 43 AD, the Roman Emperor Claudius invaded Britain so he could expand the Roman Empire. When the Second Legion Augusta led by Vespasian entered the Durotrigian territory, they advanced west building forts like the one on Hod Hill and Waddon Hill to keep the local people under control.

Saxons

After the collapse of the Roman occupation around 410 AD the local population went back to a more rural lifestyle similar to that of the Iron Age. Around 700 AD, the area was incorporated into the Saxon kingdom of Wessex and many settlements and villages were established that are still present today.

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, farming continued to be one of the most important livelihoods in Dorset. Traces of Medieval farming practices still exist today in the form of strip lynchets. These were artificial terraces created so the steep-sided slopes could be ploughed. The best examples are around the Dorsetshire Gap and Plush. Medieval drovers probably used the Wessex Ridgeway to move livestock such as geese, sheep and cattle from the West Country to the Home Counties to sell.

During this period many Medieval deer parks appeared across the country. Deer parks date broadly from the Medieval period and were areas of woodland and open grassland that were enclosed by a ditch and bank to keep deer in. This was very much a status symbol for the aristocracy. Although many are unused today, evidence of these deer parks is still visible all along the trail including Melcombe Park and Harbin's Park.

As well as deer parks royal hunting grounds were created. These were Medieval royal hunting grounds such as the Cranborne Chase which was subject to forest law and administered by the Lord of the Chase. By ancient custom all wild beasts within these areas belonged to the monarch. This ensured they could breed and feed undisturbed.

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