A hidden trail to the silent valley

Emma Haughton finds a rare sense of tranquillity beyond the Dorset village of Powerstock
It's hard when describing a village like Powerstock in west Dorset not to fall back on the old picture-postcard cliches: its charming creamy stone cottages with thatched roofs nestling under the hills, its maze of deep lanes, its fine church and atmospheric inn with freshly cooked food.

However, don't let all that put you off - particularly at this time of year when the surrounding leafless landscape makes a bold contrast with such domestic sweetness. And besides, the village makes an excellent focal point for a walk through some of the most unspoilt and dramatic countryside in the county. And there's also, of course, the added bonus of a pub that offers hot meals at the end of - or even before - your bracing hike.

The walk is about four to five miles long, and passes through some fairly muddy, waterlogged patches - so it's advisable to wear wellies rather than stout walking boots. You start at the Three Horseshoes Inn and head off past the church, over the crossroads and walk straight across up the hill.

A little way along the lane you'll pass a farm on your right. Take the footpath through the farmyard (watch out for any wandering cows) and, once you've climbed over the stile, start walking up hill diagonally left. In a fierce wind this part of the walk can feel rather bleak and bitter, but, as if to compensate, the view soon becomes spectacular. As you pass into the next field, you'll want to stop to admire Eggardon Hill on your right - 827 feet topped by the grass-covered ramparts of an Iron Age fort.

Stick with the left diagonal through the next field until you meet the lane, which you follow until you get to a sharp right bend. On your right is a gate leading to a footpath which hugs the side of the field, then exits in the next field to your right into a grassy track.

Turn left towards the thatched house and farm, pass the paddock and then turn sharp right by the house. Bearing left, you'll come to a sudden, steep and sheep-ridden promontory. From here you head straight down, over the brook and through a pair of iron gates on to the road.

Here you go right up the hill, then left at the cottages at South Poorton. Follow the lane for a few hundred yards until you see the yellow footpath sign on your left pointing towards the bottom of the hill. You may feel rather uncertain here, as the footpath seems more of a river bed than track. And you might have to fight your way through - it's overhung with birch, ferns and ivy. However, take heart, for this is the beginning of one of the most spectacular few miles in England.

Follow the path as it curves round the hills and over the stile at the bottom of the field, and wallow in the rare peace here. As you penetrate further into this hidden and ancient valley, the silence deepens, all distant noise deadened by the steep surrounding hills until you can hear nothing but the accompanying trickle of the river below, and the occasional, echoey, flutter of wings.

The view, too, down the curve of the valley is captivating - even in winter this landscape is fabulous, the silvery skeletal outlines of the trees framed by the steep green-ridged slopes. Descriptions such as majestic and immutable come to mind, but hardly do it justice; settle, instead for formally identifying the terracing on the far side of the hill, the remains of cultivation known as strip lynchets.

As you approach the village of West Milton drop down towards the road, and take the left footpath back towards Powerstock. From now on you can stop navigating and just enjoy the ramble as the path follows the valley back towards the village. On your right you will see the river meandering below, and you will spot Eggardon once again as you climb upwards.

Suddenly you'll find yourself looking down on the rooftops of Powerstock; in late afternoon during the winter, the village looks quite magical with its soft lights and smoking chimneys. Soak in the atmosphere, then bear left up the hill, dropping down again behind the houses to the lane by Myrtle Cottage.

The church, which has a much-admired Norman chancel, and the pub are just round to the right. The Three Horseshoes Inn has a small en-suite restaurant offering some of the best food in the area, particularly seafood. Prices are around pounds 8.50-pounds 14.95 for a main course, with puddings from pounds 3.25.

Map: Ordnance Survey Landranger 194

For lunch or supper at the Three Horseshoes Inn (01308 485328) it is wise to book, especially at weekends