At a time when legend holds that Robin Hood ran free in Sherwood Forest, King John had a hunting seat at Tollard Royal in the region of Cranborne Chase some 200 miles south.
The Chase – now an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Dark Sky Reserve – lies across a chalk plateau with the cathedral city of Salisbury to the north-east and the hilltop town of Shaftesbury to the north-west.
Kept wild for centuries to accommodate hunting, Cranborne Chase is today sparsely populated with few roads and villages. At one time it was covered with 90 square miles of forest. Early in the 18th century, the hunting rights passed to the Pitt Rivers family and, after the rights ended in 1828, much of the forest was destroyed for management purposes. These days, it is a mostly chalk downland landscape of rolling hills and serene valleys, where fallow deer can still be seen.
Rising from the northern edge of the Chase is Win Green. At 277m, it’s the highest hill in the AONB and, on a clear day, you can see as far as Glastonbury Tor, the Isle of Wight and, some say, the spire of Salisbury Cathedral. The hill itself is noticeable from quite some distance thanks to a clump of beech trees at its summit. From afar, the cluster of trees appears to cower down like a hunkered animal bracing itself against the wind but, as you approach, the beeches gain a regal air, rising prominently above the surrounding landscape.
The meadow land at their base is an ideal place to see wildflowers in spring, including burnt-tip orchids and yellow rattle. Skylarks nest in the grass and kestrels, with their hovering flight, are a common sight overhead.
The surrounding area is peppered with byways and bridleways. The Ox Drove, which passes along Win Green’s northern edge and was once used to take local cattle to market in Salisbury, is now popular with mountain bikers. A less energetic option follows chalk trackways and footpaths south for three miles to the village of Tollard Royal and the King John Inn – a fine refreshment stop for a thirsty monarch.