Until my recent visit to Dorset, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a Saxon walled town. I discovered Wareham by chance, my attention caught by a road sign proclaiming its ancient walls. What I found on visiting Wareham was some impressive earthworks, a peaceful walk, and a chance to learn about the town’s long history.
A Saxon Walled Town
Although Roman activity has been detected in the area, nothing remains of the town in Roman times. However, by Saxon times Wareham had become the most important town in Dorset. The current town (and its walls) were built in the 9th century by the Saxon king Alfred the Great. Alfred was constantly at war with the Vikings, and he had a policy of building fortified towns to defend his kingdom (another example is the north Dorset town of Shaftesbury).
William the Conqueror built a large castle here, and Wareham became a prosperous market town. However it was gradually overshadowed by the nearby port of Poole, and its influence declined. The castle was abandoned in the 14th century, and nothing remains of it today. A massive fire destroyed much of the town in 1762, and many of the buildings that you now see are Georgian, built after the fire.
The present-day road layout is much the same as it would have been in Saxon times. It is based on a grid pattern, with a wide central road on the path of an ancient (pre-Roman) droveway.
The Wareham Town Walls Walk
The walls surrounded three sides of the town (the fourth side being bounded by the river). It consisted of massive earthworks topped by a stone wall. The stone has since disappeared, but the earthworks remain, and now form the Wareham Town Walls Walk.
The walk is well waymarked and is approximately a mile long. It starts near to the site of the medieval town pound, at the junction of Pound Lane and West Street. The walk is easy to follow and there are seven information boards. These give information about the walls and the history of the town, as well as about the natural environment.
The Walls Walk is a pleasant and peaceful stroll, with areas of woodland and scrub where you can enjoy the birdsong and watch the scampering squirrels. Elsewhere there are views over the surrounding countryside. The area is managed to encourage plants and wildlife.
A Fairground And A Saxon Church
On the north-east corner of the Walls Walk you come to a large open area known as the Bowling Green. It is not known whether this was ever actually used for bowling, but it has certainly been a recreational area since the Middle Ages. Markets and fairs were regularly held here.
Elsewhere on the walk you come to the church of St Martin’s-on-the-Walls, said to be the most complete Saxon church in Dorset. It was originally built in the 7th century, but the current building is from the early 11th century. And at Bell’s Orchard you can see one of the original entrances to the town. This is where the ancient pathway to Poole Harbour intersected with the fortifications.
What Else Can You See And Do In Wareham?
You can visit the Wareham Town Museum to learn about the town’s history and its connection with the soldier and scholar T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). Elsewhere, the Church of Lady St Mary is of Saxon origin, dating goes back to around 700. However, it was rebuilt in the Middle Ages and again in Victorian times.
Wareham Quay is a riverside area with pubs and restaurants. A market takes place here on Saturdays. It is possible to take a river cruise from the Quay.. A commentary describes the history of the Saxon town, and the trip is an opportunity to spot river wildlife, including otters.
Across the water from the Quay is Priory Meadow, an area of water meadow that has been developed as a wildlife habitat. Other walks from the town include two circular Two Rivers Walks, and the longer Wareham Forest Way.