2019: The 21 best festivals in North Dorset

Music, food, arts, crafts, theatre, cycling and walking, agricultural, steam and oak fairs…. CLICK ON THE MAP FOR LOCATIONS

SHAFTESBURY is the epicentre for dozens of festivals and events that bring the town and surrounding area alive for much of the year. After the end of the snowdrop season in March, things start to warm up at Easter through to October, with music, food, cycling, theatre, crafts and walking festivals among the many reasons to visit and stay in Shaftesbury this summer. All the events listed here are less than a 30-minute drive from town, so pick your event and we’ll see you here.

The cheese races at the Shaftesbury Festival of Food and Drink on May 12. Photo: James Thrift

MAY

3-5: Teddyrocks

The festival takes place at Charisworth Farm, near Blandford, and has raised £250,000 for children’s cancer charity Teddy 20. The event started as a small gig in 2011, changing venue several times as it continued to grow, and has attracted some huge names, including 2018 headliners Feeder and Ash. This year it is The Darkness and The Zutons on the Bank Holiday Weekend. The festival is named after Ted Newton, who died aged just 10 from rare bone cancer Ewing’s Sarcoma. It is still organised by his family, who set up the charity to help others going through similar situations. Shuttle buses available from Blandford and camping on site.

3-7: Sherborne Abbey Music Festival

This will be the 20th season of the festival, which goes from strength to strength. It was deemed the best event/festival in the 2017 Dorset Tourism Awards and this year stages 28 events over the five days. As well as the Abbey, six venues host performances including Sherborne Girls’ new concert hall. Headline acts in the Abbey include violinist Nicola Benedetti, Alexander Armstrong band and the 140-strong Sherborne Festival Chorus. A group from the Dorset Opera Festival will be there and, for children, a screening of Fantasia set to classical music or a guitar workshop.

6: Blandford Georgian Fayre, 10am-5pm 

It’s been held in the town for 25 years on Bank Holiday Monday and, while there is the odd stallholder dressed in a smock or shawl, a Georgian element is largely confined to the town’s architecture rather than nature of the fair. True, there are aspects of old-time entertainment, with a carousel, dog show, rural crafts and a farmers market – and it gets packed, with the town centre clear of traffic for the day. If the weather is fair, cider, hog roasts and live music play a larger part in the proceedings, which is long supported by town brewers Hall & Woodhouse: look out for the barrel race, with 18 gallons of ale to the winning team.

9-12: Run a marathon in North Dorset

North Dorset is made for running: rural and lumpy, which means quiet country lanes, lots of off-road running, glorious views and challenging terrain. Shaftesbury is the gateway to four marathons, three of which are operated by White Star Running, a Dorset-based outfit which has created a brilliant series of running events in the county attracting thousands of visitors. It’s never just a marathon, but also a mix of distances, short runs, night runs, 50-milers usually over two days and involving a lot of fun, with love stations on the route, treasured medals, big barbecues and a serious love of getting outdoors and running – sometimes with your kids or dogs. The Rushmoor Ox Races event from May 10-12 involves five distances over three days: as ever, camping onsite. And on May 5, there is a locally organised North Dorset Marathon, which takes in 10 villages in the Blackmore Vale, one of the prettiest routes in the country. WSR also stages events at Larmer Tree in March, and at the home of Cranborne Chase Cider on July 27-28.
* Read more about running in North Dorset in our special feature

12: Shaftesbury Festival of Food and Drink

The highlights are the cheese races up Gold Hill: the men, women, kids and team events which doff a cap to the tradition of cheese making in the Blackmore Vale. The men carry truckles of cheese measuring 35cm in diameter, each of which takes 500 pints of milk to make – that’s a lot of effort from the cows and the competitors (BV Dairy are the suitable main sponsors). Stallholders include members of Dorset Food and Drink and Dorset Farmers’ Market, with live cookery demonstrations on the High Street. Live music, dancing in the Shaftesbury Abbey grounds and music/craft stalls at Swan’s Yard.

The North Dorset Cycle Ride on May 19 finishes on Gold Hill. Photo: James Thrift

19: The North Dorset Cycle Ride

This is a brilliant event that really showcases how glorious the cycling is in North Dorset. It’s organised by Shaftesbury Rotary Club, and is split into three categories: a 12, 25 and 50-mile ride. The shortest is for beginners and/or families, with the longer routes designed to show off the stunning Blackmore Vale countryside around the town. All start on Park Walk (you can leave your car nearby on Castle Hill), and the routes are signposted and marshalled. The finish is up Gold Hill (can you ride it?!) with hot food and music on Park Walk to finish. Everyone gets a medal, with cycle clothing for raising money for Prostate Cancer UK. Registration is open (£20 for adults, £10 juniors, under-10s free with adult).

JUNE

May 29-June 1: The Royal Bath & West Show

Agriculture is at the heart of this massive four-day show, with more than 4,500 exhibits of sheep shearing, livestock and machinery. To add to the diversity, there’s show jumping, British Cider Championships and British Cheese Awards – the show has 125 food producers to choose from. The Wurzels are back after eight years, the Dorset Axe Men are sharpening their tools and The Sheep Show is always a winner. The showground is at Shepton Mallet, just 20 miles from Shaftesbury. Adult prices from £20, with children under 15 free. 

6-9: Wimborne Minster Folk Festival

The town has hugely built on its festival since it was first staged in 1982 – last year it attracted 70,000 people to Wimborne to watch 500 events staged in 35 venues. There are also 50 children’s events, 60 dance teams and a micro-brewery area. Impressive, huh? Events on Thursday and Friday cost £15 and £20 respectively, with day or weekend passes available as well as individual prices. Camping is also available from £10 a day. It’s a “much-loved mix of dance displays, family activities, workshops and stalls” says one festival review site, which strongly recommends booking your campsite in advance. 

15: Sturminster Newton Literary Festival

A new event for 2019, it has been put together by a group of townsfolk and in part inspired by local author Terry Townsend. The gang have decided that the town needs to better remember commemorate and celebrate its literary heritage within a wider context of literary endeavour, past present and future. A number of Victorian authors were either born, lived or resided in and around the town. They are of course Thomas Hardy, the star of the show, William Barnes also known as the Dorset poet, and the less well known but highly influential Robert Young.
* Sherborne’s Literary Festival has expanded to include events throughout the year. Full details can be found here

21-22: Dorset Midsummer Music Festival, Bulbarrow

It’s a small, start-up family friendly music festival in its second year on a working farm 13 miles from Shaftesbury and in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – perfect for a first family outing to a festival. The event begins on Friday with music before the main event on Saturday. Lionstar, Badger Boys, Red River Hogs and Ellie Timlin are confirmed acts. There’s a kids and holistic zone. Throughout the weekend there is a selection of food, music, stalls and entertainment. Camping is also available on site for those who want to make the most of the weekend. Day tickets from £10-£16 adults, reduced prices for children.

The massed Shaftesbury, Salisbury and Wimborne ukulele band: Shaftesbury Fringe, July 5-7

JULY

5-7: The Shaftesbury Fringe

It’s the fourth year of The Fringe and it has rapidly established itself as a major event in Shaftesbury, pulling in thousands of visitors in 2018. Now regarded as England’s third largest open-access performing arts festival (after Manchester and Brighton), its growing reputation is attracting more acts and registrations this year have started strongly. An app is being developed for 2019, and new venues include the lawn of a dental surgery and the 158-seat theatre at Shaftesbury Arts Centre. Read and hear an interview with Fringe committee member Rob Neely, and another with Shaftesbury’s Belle Street, a trio of singers who took last year’s Fringe by storm. A Fringe Video Highlights from 2018 is also worth a look.

7: Gold Hill Fair

Timed to co-incide with the last day of The Fringe, this fundraising day run by Rotary features free music in Shaftesbury Abbey, dance, community choir, market stalls and children’s entertainment. It turns the High Street and Park Walk into a street party, with a Van Pull competition and donkey rides also part of the day which last year raised £4,500 for community causes. It’s hoped Trinity Church Tower will again be open – visitors get the best view of town and surrounding countryside.

The UK Boogie Woogie Festival at Sturminster Newton July 5-7

5-7: UK Boogie Woogie Festival, Sturminster Newton

This will be the 15th year of the festival. Last year was the biggest yet with many international players crossing continents to play, sing, dance, teach and entertain. It doesn’t matter if you prefer a big stage, something more intimate, or even al fresco, Sturminster has it covered with open sessions, workshops, and masterclasses all over town. There is also a separate Swing Dance event and tuition. Events are held in 10 venues from mill to tavern to teahouse to church to outside cafes and it’s growing bigger and better each year, bringing joy to thousands of fans, many of which have been coming since the first festival in 2004.

13: The Royal Navy International Air Day

It takes place at the Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Yeovilton, just over the border in Somerset. Yeovilton is the spiritual home of the RN’s Fleet Air Arm, and will open its gates to an expected 40,000 visitors to watch a magnificent five hour flying display. The Royal Jordanian Falcons Display Team has confirmed attendance, along with the Lithuanian Air Force, classic and Cold War era jets. There will also be a huge array of educational ground attractions from interactive Service displays to engineering fairs and state-of-the-art defence technology exhibitions. Families will also be able to enjoy trade stalls, arena displays, helicopter pleasure flights, simulators and fairground rides. Adult tickets cost £28 in advance, with child prices at £5. Enjoy this fabulous video from the 2018 show.

18-21: Larmer Tree Festival

For the last 29 years, the festival has created the summer party of music, comedy and theatre, set in the most beautiful festival site in the land just five miles from Shaftesbury. Larmer has remained small by choice and offer a community vibe for all ages for three days and four nights in these Victorian pleasure gardens on the Cranborne Chase. It’s won UK Festival Awards for Best Family Festival and, happily, Best Toilets by festival-goers for the coolest, cleanest loos. It was also named the ‘Small Festival of the Year 2015’ by NOEA (National Outdoor Events Association). This year the Carnival returns and a cinema is introduced – acts to follow soon. Adult prices are £180 to include basic camping – options for yurts, Airstreams, gypsy caravans and wigwams extra….

The Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival on July 19-21. Pic: Swanley Labour Party

19-21: Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival

This annual festival commemorates the six leaders of a trade union formed in Dorset in 1834. They were protesting against pay cuts and had fought back by attacking new harvest machinery: unions were lawful but the six were arrested and sentenced to seven years’ transportation in Australia for taking an oath of secrecy. To commemorate martyrs’ struggle against poverty and authority, the festival features music and speakers including stand up comedy, poetry and family entertainment – last year Billy Bragg and Jeremy Corbyn were on stage. The events are held outside the Martyrs’ Museum, with main speeches and performances on a small stage in front of Tolpuddle cottages and museum. The adjacent field has camping space, a marquee, a Workers Beer Company bar and merchandise stalls. 

AUGUST

14: Gillingham and Shaftesbury Agricultural Show

An annual migration of 25,000 people to Motcombe’s Turnpike Showground outside Shaftesbury takes place on a Wednesday in August: it’s the pulling power of North Dorset’s premier agricultural show. The Show is the one the farming community takes the day off for, with highly competitive sections for cattle, sheep, horses, dogs, poultry, rabbits, handicrafts, art and a huge range of classes for younger exhibitors. In the Harts of Stur Food Hall are 60 food and drink producers; there are 500 trade stands with anything from schools to trucks and handicrafts, and there are 100 stands with tractors, machinery and farm suppliers. Take in displays in three rings: one has a full day of horse showing and show jumping classes, while in the Turnpike Ring, countryside sports include ferret and terrier racing, birds of prey, sheep dogs and the dog & duck display. A great day out: Adult tickets, £13.

On a (steam) roll at The Great Dorset Steam Fair, Aug 22-26

22-26: Great Dorset Steam Fair

Last year the show marked its 50th anniversary, a stunning triumph not only in terms of longevity but in the enduring – and growing – appeal of steam. It’s already billed the world’s biggest steam event: now the organisers bill it as the world’s largest heritage event, “showcasing Great Britain’s rich industrial, agriculture and leisure history.” There are steam threshers, cars, rollers and lorries. There is a steam-driven funfair with carousels, ghost trains and dodgems. It’s a celebration of an era, with fairground organs, 1920s dancing girls, illusionists, heavy horses, plough competitions and classic tractors. There’s more: 100 vintage cars, a six-stage music festival, craft marquee, food and real ale tents. And it runs for five days from 8am until midnight on a massive 600-acre site at Tarrant Hinton, 10 miles south of Shaftesbury. The numbers are impressive: 200,000 visitors, 2,000 exhibitors and 200 tonnes of coal used – and the steam theme this year is engines from the City of Lincoln. The organisers have also listened to rumbles from 2018 and brought back the 2017 traffic management company and the contractors who look after the 700 portable loos! Book your accommodation asap – tickets go on sale soon. 

24-25: Stock Gaylard Oak Fair

It’s an 1,800 acre country estate, of which 300 are oak woodland: there is also 80 acres of deer park with a small lake. Over the last two centuries, the estate has been used for country sports, and hedgerows and woodlands preserved for that purpose. It also offers glamping holidays in yurts, the yurts made locally and, once a year, there is the Oak Fair for anyone who is interested in woodcraft, timber, conservation and the countryside. The fair celebrates the trees with a series of workshops, log splitting, logging and carving. There are 180 timber-related stalls; the British Heavy Horse Logger’s team complete a number of challenges; Mere Down Falconry puts on displays and there is Have-A-Go Archery. The fair also has The Great Big Tree Climbing Company, providing tree climbing and zip wires, while Avalon Axes demonstrates axe throwing – as well as letting visitors have a go. Market Square will be stocked with local food and drink producers, and there is a Childrens’ Area with a range of workshops.

SEPTEMBER

August 29-Sep 1: End of the Road Festival, Larmer Tree

For the last three years, EotR has won an award for Best Small Festival in the NME Awards. It’s restricted to 16,000 in the Larmer Tree Gardens, with four stages in use over four nights, as well as a piano in the woods. A film tent, library and games room adds to the mix. It has run since 2006 and has sold out every year from 2008. This year Jarvis Cocker returns, with other headliners including Beirut, Metronomy and Spiritualised. Says The Guardian of 2018’s festival: “End of the Road is the sophisticated family camp-out where herds of Pitchfolk singer-songwriters roam wild and inventive alt-rockers scare the peacocks.” Tickets currently selling for £170.

It takes 12 linking arms to encircle The Wyndham Oak: Gillingham Walking Festival, Sep 4-8

4-8: Gillingham Walking Festival

It will be the sixth year of the festival, that has grown from small acorns and has ambitions to be an oak. Perhaps not as grand as The Wyndham Oak (above), one of the UK’s most magnificent ancient trees named after Judge Sir Hugh Wyndam, who bought Silton Manor in 1641. You can visit the oak on a 6.5 mile round walk from Gillingham. It is one of eight different walks listed on the Gillingham: Walkers are Welcome website, which include one on the trail of King John’s lodge in his medieval hunting forest, and another in the footsteps of Constable, the painter who regularly visited Gillingham. Last year’s walking theme was Rivers and Hills, and the programme started with a six-mile walk to the Judge’s oak. There were 19 walks in all, from 1-10 miles, including a circular walk of Motcombe that includes part of the White Hart Link, a waymarked 50-mile circuit planned to link all North Dorset towns by 2020. Other highlights included a seven-mile walk from Stour Row through Duncliffe Woods, and an eight-miler from Stourhead back to Gillingham – transport is provided for both from Gillingham to the start of the walks. The 2019 programme will follow later. 

14-15: Sturminster Newton Cheese Festival

Thomas Hardy referred to the Blackmore Vale as ‘The Vale of the Dairies,’ and its heart is Sturminster Newton where, just two decades ago, 80,000 litres of milk a day was used in cheese production. Then the cattle market closed after 700 years, quickly followed by the creamery in 2000. Still, the town’s dairy heritage continues with the cheese fair, run by volunteers, and voted best food event at the Dorset Food, Drink and Farming awards in 2016. The fact that the festival’s website is cheesefestival.co.uk shows just how pre-eminent this festival is to cheese! There is, as you’d expect, a mountain of cheese and food on show (80+ producers booked so far), with fountains of beer and cider, food demonstrations, music and crafts. More than 10,000 people packed into the tents last year – expect the same in 2019. Adults: £6, children under 14 are free.

21 festivals and events in Shaftesbury and surrounds 2019