Shire Rack gives up its secrets
MEMBERS of the public joined the County Boundary Research Group on Wednesday to learn more about the Shire Rack, a section of the ancient and current boundary between Wiltshire and Dorset and one of few lengths followed today by a public footpath.
On a balmy day, during the walk organised by the Cranborne Chase and Chalke Valley Landscape Partnership scheme, attendees learned that the first mention of the ‘shires’ (‘counties’ to the Normans) is found in the law code of King Ine of the later 7th Century. No one knows how old the shire/county boundaries are, with some lengths probably dating back to Roman times, while others are from those changes made during the 19th century.
The length of boundary walked was recorded in two Anglo-Saxon charters for the manors of Chalke (to the north) dated AD 955 and [Sixpenny] Handley (dated AD 956) to the south. In the days before scale mapping, these estates were legally defined by a recorded recital of boundary features along their respective lengths.
“Today we find the southern boundary of Chalke and the northern boundary of Handley recorded in these charters which both ‘run’ with the county boundary across this distinctive tract of countryside,” explained Katherine Barker, of the County Boundary Research Group who is an historical geographer.
The completion point of the morning walk and start point for the afternoon walk was Shermal Gate, a clearing where several roads or tracks once met. The name ‘shermel’ is the ‘scir mael’ , the ‘mael’ or wayside cross which once formed something of a landmark at this ‘gateway’ between two counties. A toll may also have been levied here.
“The designation ‘shire rack’ implies a made length of the boundary which could be used as a route way. The word ‘rack’ is from the Old English racu ‘hollow path’. ‘Reach’ is a word we sometimes still use for a narrow waterway or river,” said Katherine. “ And the word ‘shire’ is from the Old English word ‘to cut’ (our garden ‘shears’ of today) which has connotations of a formally defined district or province.”
The Shire Rack is of historical significance and presents manmade features which invite investigation — not least ‘Mistleberry Camp’ which the walkers visited and which the County Boundary Group believes to have been a defended settlement. The 7m high banks above the deep ditch are still visible today. Several ancient veteran tree stools and rows of formerly coppiced hazels were also viewed. Boundaries were once carefully managed as linear woodland — elements of defence, control, building and fencing material and grazing.
“We have been walking in the steps of 10th Century land surveyors,” continued Katherine. “They were clearly recording a border ‘reach’ which was already well-established. The legal survey conducted on behalf of Chalke was to prompt another by Handley just one year later.”