In October 2017 I decided I would try to do another year of RRtY having previously completed a year back in 2014. For the uninitiated this is an Audax challenge: Randonnée-Round-the-Year (RRtY).
It is regarded as one of the tougher challenges on offer from Audax. RRtY requires a ride of a minimum of a 200 km ride in successive calendar months at Randonneur pace. You can start in any month, but miss a month and you have to start all over again.
In a year of milestone family occasions which seemed to coincide with local Audax Calendar events, I have found myself devising a DIY 200 km most months. I have always been intrigued by the red fingerposts in Dorset so I created a 200 km ride to take in the Four Red Posts Of Dorset.
There are four red fingerposts in the county which are a source of much debate, without any consensus becoming apparent. Are they the locations of gibbets? Or are they the position of a hanging? Or maybe they are the place of an overnight stop for convicts on their way to the port before transportation to Australia? Whatever the case, these four are widely dispersed through the county, the best known one being on the main A31 at Anderson which allegedly signified to prison guards to turn here for Botany Bay Farm, where they could rest the prisoners overnight. The others are situated in quiet, less frequented lanes at Hewood, Poyntington and Benville. They all have white lettering on the red fingers.
While researching how to devise a sensible route taking in the four red posts it became apparent that the posts were not situated randomly. The prominent sign near the Botany Bay pub on the A31 is just under 14 miles from the site of the County Gaol in Dorchester. The red post at Benville is also about 14 miles from Dorchester. Hewood is due west of Benville and is just under fourteen miles away from Benville. The post at Poyntington is also 14 miles from Benville to the North East. This supports the theory that the posts were to guide transportation of prisoners.
To me these 14 miles distances did not seem random. 14 miles would be a reasonable distance for a group of shackled prisoners to march – Google reckons it’s a four and a half hour walk. Coming from the west (from who knows where) they would arrive at Hewood, then 14 miles to Benville , 14 miles to Poyntington . The jump to Anderson is 28 miles so I am going to say that there is a red post missing there – maybe somewhere around Sturminster Newton. From Anderson on the A31 it is 56 miles to Portsmouth where the prisoners would board a ship to Australia. 56miles – 4×14 – 4 days march.
It is quite likely that there were other posts that are no longer there. In the 1950’s there were 1285 fingerposts in Dorset with only 717 surviving today.
To me this does not look likely to be a random coincidence. Could it be that these red posts were on set routes for those moving on foot? Did they all mark resting places? If so for whom? Were they solely there to mark the route taken moving prisoners, or did others use them too?
Back to the bike ride: I started from my home in West Dorset at sea level and headed west to Hewood.
In order to make the route into a 200km I then went North to Chard Junction before heading East to the Red Post at Benville.
Unfortunately this sign has suffered some damage probably through vandalism.
I have a picture from August 2017 when the post wasn’t damaged.
Dorset AONB Partnership have a Fingerpost Project which repairs and safeguards these fingerpost. The County Council no longer have a remit to repair them so hopefully this initiative will restore this sign.
I had never visited the next red post at Poyntington which is North of Sherborne. On my route it was about 25km north and east from Benville. We were pleased to find this post intact and looking lovely.
Our onward journey was to Anderson to the most famous red post near the Botany Bay pub on the A31. I took a meandering 65km route South East to get there and managed to avoid riding on the very busy A31. The red finger post looked as if it had been newly restored and was in pristine condition.
Now with 134 km completed we just had to head for home in a westerly direction. The route we were riding was mandatory having been submitted in advance to AUDAX DIY SW area organiser. On completion I would submit the GPX file from the ride for verification.
It was a grand day out and If you fancy it the GPX file is here for you to use.