A startling, hidden treasure: Exploring the holloways of Dorset, England
A sunken path, overgrown with greenery, between the villages of Symondsbury and North Chideock, in Dorset, England, on July 18, 2015. (Jerry Harmer / AP)
Jerry Harmer, The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, September 15, 2015 10:35AM EDT
SYMONDSBURY, England -- Dorset is one of England's often overlooked gems: rolling countryside, ancient thatched-roof villages, the birthplace of 19th century novelist Thomas Hardy and a sea that breaks on a World Heritage Site coastline.
But if you ask me, the county's most startling treasure is its least-known: holloways.
Holloways are paths sunk deep below ground level by centuries, perhaps millennia, of passing feet, cartwheels and livestock. Dorset conceals many within its bucolic folds. Long since abandoned as thoroughfares, and overgrown with brambles and bushes, they are often unknown to all but the very local. When I asked the tourist office in the market town of Bridport how to find one, no one there knew what I was talking about.
But I kept looking and asking. Finally, one recent sunny Saturday afternoon, after getting directions from a bearded countryman who pointed up a lane with a stick, my family and I strode northwest out of the village of Symondsbury.
For some way our path was just an ordinary country lane but then the greenery thickened, the path twisted and everything changed.
Parallel walls of soft brown rock suddenly climbed above us forming a narrow gorge 6 metres high in places. It was if a giant finger had gouged the earth then left it to settle back as it may. Trees clung to the sides at astonishing angles as if frozen in the act of falling, their roots exposed like giant snakes, their branches intertwined high above to form a roof that filtered the sunlight.
We stood stupefied in a green underworld. It was like being in a mythical landscape, utterly detached from reality. It was awe-inspiring and incredibly serene. I was sure the spell would break but nothing moved and no one else came. The only sounds were birdsong and the occasional whoop of delight from my 6 year-old son.
But there was also an ambivalence. As we explored we noticed faces and giant eyes expertly carved into the rock. For all its tranquility in daylight it is probably an unnerving walk at dusk or later. It was then I remembered the name my guide had used for the path: Hell Lane. I kept that information to myself.
Later I looked for the holloway on a satellite map. All that's there is a line of greenery like any other, among a patch-work of fields; an astonishing slice of England hiding in plain sight.