The Shire Rack – so much more than a line on a map

by Roland Hughes
10th May 2022

The Shire Rack winds its way along the Dorset/Wiltshire border and is one of many Ancient Ways that exist here in Cranborne Chase.

Roland and volunteers
Roland Hughes, Ranger for the Chase & Chalke Landscape Partnership Scheme

Here Roland Hughes, Ranger for the Chase & Chalke Landscape Partnership Scheme and the project manager for the Ancient Ways project, tells us more about it.

If you look at an Ordnance Survey map key or legend or whatever it is officially called (there is no main heading/title) there are several sub-headings such as Communications and Access. These show all the symbols for the different classes of roads, railways and importantly for us, Rights of Way. Under General Information is a category called BOUNDARIES (it is in capitals): National, County, Parish etc – interestingly National Parks get one but AONBs do not.

Mostly these boundaries are a sequence of dots and dashes like some repetitive morse code and only exist on the map. You may come across a Parish Boundary Stone grown in on the side of a path somewhere or a large sign saying ‘Dorset’ on the verge of a main road, but in general these boundaries are not a physical presence like a road or a fence or a hedge.

However, the Shire Rack (as it is labelled on the OS maps) is an exception to this. It is both a physical presence, certainly on the section at Garston Wood where we are focussing, as it exists as a hedge and bank; it is also a Right of Way; a footpath; and has been an important feature for many hundreds of years, defended by tribesmen, recorded by surveyors and enshrined in the archives of the records centre.

Photo show Butcher's Broom in a wood clearing
Characteristic clump of Butcher’s Broom, in a sea of bluebells and ramsons

The fact that the bank and probably the wood (Garston Wood means ‘clearing in the wood’) is ancient is witnessed by the flowering plant species found under the trees and on the bank. We have butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus), wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides), wood anenomes (Anemone nemorosa), Ramsons or wild garlic (Allium ursinum), and of course bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) to name but a few, in evidence within a few yards of the (small) car park and all along the length of the Shire Rack as we walk it.

“It is a useful rule of thumb that the older the habitat, the more species it will support. And the more species it supports, the greater, in general terms, will be the site’s importance for nature conservation.” Francis Rose (1999) Indicators of ancient woodland – the use of vascular plants in evaluating ancient woods for nature conservation.  British Wildlife: 10 (4) 241 – 251.

The RSPB own and manage Garston Wood for its woodland species. There are many plants, animals and birds that live in or use the wood for shelter or hunting including dormice and several species of bat – keep an eye open for strange, dark cylindrical objects hanging from the trees – these are concrete bat boxes to provide roosting sites. But take care to stick to the paths and keep dogs on leads please.

As you follow the Shire Rack westwards, you come to the Forestry Commission beech plantation of Stonedown Wood on your right – with a completely different feel to it. Further still, after dropping down the hill, the Rushmore Woods; Great Forlorn and Foxbury Lower Hedge shelter you as you head east towards Newtown.

There is more information about the Shire Rack that has been put together by the Dorset Boundary Group. You can find out more about them and the Shire Rack here The Dorset County Boundary Survey website (

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