THERE are an awful lot of very good places to lunch in Shaftesbury when it comes to hotels, bars, cafes and restaurants. The surrounding countryside of The Blackmore Vale and Cranborne Chase also has some seriously good pubs serving top class food.
The Crown Inn at Marnhull; The Ship at West Stour; Stapleton Arms at Buckhorn Weston; The White Lion at Bourton; The Bell & Crown at Zeals; The Coppleridge at Motcombe; The Benett Arms at Semley; The Beckford Arms at Fonthill Gifford and The Forester in Donhead St Andrew are some we can presently recommend.
But what we also have close to town is a number of eclectic places which offer an extraordinary lunch experience, from a light lunch in a motorbike collection to the garden of a Post Office; from an amazing farm shop to a walled garden cafe, and from a brush factory to an airfield cafe.
Now, where else could you say that?!
THE AIRFIELD The Cafe at Compton Abbas
MAY 2023 update: The airfield airfield and cafe re-opened after its takeover by film director Guy Ritchie, who lives nearby and also owns the Gritchie brewery. At this stage, the menu is basic (burger, baguette) – book online or to book a table for more than six people, please call 01747 811767 and press 1 for the Café.
2020: IT IS 11.45am and a ruddy-faced farmer calls in, with enough change in his pocket for a coffee. He passes the airfield every day, he says, but has never popped in to take a look, until now. Two couples wander in: one bemoans that he’s just missed breakfast (served until 11.30am) but is delighted to hear he can order a sausage baguette (£7).
It’s busy at the airfield cafe, as it is every day. Several of the tables are reserved for lunch, particularly those by the large plate windows, and fill up with customers keen to combine good food with plane-spotting: the terrace and grass airfield strip are outside, and there is a steady stream of light aircraft on the move. Such is the cafe’s popularity that only one group, of up to 12, can be booked in each day as they strive to make space for all.
Many older, wobbly customers are evident – their carers can drive up to the door, then it’s a flat surface into and through the cafe to the terrace. There are several young, enthusiastic staff eager to help. Cyclists and bikers are also regulars, the airfield being high on a hill in the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AoNB) overlooking Shaftesbury and Melbury Hill. You can even see King Alfred’s Tower 10 miles away at Stourhead: this is gorgeous touring country.
And many customers are there to eat and fly: the airfield offers several flight experiences , from a microlight (30 minutes for £91) or Piper Warrior (£101) through to vintage planes – take flight in a Chipmunk, Harvard Warbird or open cockpit bi-plane. Nb: Tiger Moth and Spitfire flights now also available.
Details: The Cafe at Compton Abbas Airfield, Ashmore, Dorset SP5 5AP. Open 9.30am-4.30pm Tuesday – Sunday.
THE BRUSH FACTORY Visit Hillbrush
WE are not surprised now to find a coffee shop/cafe in a department store or garden centre. But two years ago, it was a very brave move to open one in a brush factory.
Not any old brush factory, mind. Hillbrush has held a Royal Warrant to supply brushes and their bits to Royal households since 1981. It is a very superior brush factory and, as you might expect, so is the cafe.
Hillbrush moved to its present site on the A303 at Mere in 2016, and added the cafe in April, 2017, with a big sign on the main road inviting drivers to call by for breakfast, lunch or tea, open from 8am daily. It also offers electric car charging.
Being halfway between London and Cornwall, the novelty appealed to motorists, many of who now regularly stop to break up the long drive. But the cafe has also built up a big following in Mere and nearby – including myself.
There is a seriously long lunch menu: summer dishes have included veal saltimbocca (£15), homemade falafel burger with halloumi (£12.50) and smoked duck, mango and pistachio salad (£12). Two roasts and a veg option are on offer on Sundays, with the meat, bread, smoked fish and cakes all coming from suppliers within five miles. (The autumn menu includes fish pie, mushroom tagliatelle and hunter’s chicken).
Reservations are taken for lunch, then there is a big demand for cake and tea until 5pm, with a large terrace available to use. A grassed walk behind a landscaped mound is for dogs, and then there is the museum of brushes to potter around and a shop. Who knew Hillbrush makes all the bits for Henry hoovers?
Details: Visit Hillbrush, Norwood Park, Mere BA12 6FE. Open 8am – 6pm Mon-Sat (4pm Sun, Bank Holidays). Also open until 9pm every other Friday for themed menus: steak, Mexican etc.,
THE OLD BREWERY Cafe and Kitchen
Feb 2023: Another re-opening after an extensive makeover which has seen the cafe enlarged, with tables spread throughout the fabulous collection of bikes. Still a marvellously different place for a coffee and bite to eat.
2020: This is an upmarket motorbike shop in an old brewery/antique emporium which, perhaps surprisingly, has added a cafe. But on visiting, the reason becomes clear: the other dozen customers are all clad in leathers and are clearly spending some time here.
I guess if you are looking to spend £25,000 on a Hesketh V1000, or perhaps a Harley, Brough or Royal Enfield, then you may well have travelled to get to here and might want to take your time: have a coffee, perhaps an all-day breakfast.
The casual visitor will also enjoy the dazzling array of bikes in a fabulous building whose entrance signs boasts “Home of rare and exceptional motorcycles.” It could add expensive too: the dearest model on the day was a £65,000 MV Augusta.
The cafe is more modest: my ham, egg and chips cost £7.25. A cooked breakfast is the main choice, served until 3pm, otherwise there are two or three specials (scampi and chilli con carne were available on the day), or a toastie/panini/baguette/jacket potato. As you’d expect, there is lots of motorbike reading material scattered around the cafe.
The ponds in the garden are home to great crested newts. There is plenty of space to sit outside, and car parking. There are also plenty of staff and the service is good: 29 of 32 Tripadvisor reviews rate it excellent or very good.
As one review says: “And to think that once upon a time the ‘locals’ were afeared of the nasty, noisy, uncouth biker types that having a bike dealer here would encourage. If you could see us all, sipping our cappuccinos, dipping our biscotti, you’d be afraid too!”
It clearly works. Not only is the shop named Dealer of the Year 2019 by Motorcycle News, but the magazine has also named the cafe the second best biker cafe in the country. It was also voted the Best Independent Cafe in 2018 in The Taste of Dorset awards. This place is cooking.
Details: The Old Brewery Cafe & Kitchen, Wyke Road, Gillingham SP8 4NW. Tel: 01747 442164. Open 9am – 4.30, Monday – Saturday.
THE WALLED GARDEN Pythouse Kitchen Garden
The 18th century walled garden provides the fruit, vegetables and salads for the kitchen, housed in a former potting shed and conservatory which overlooks the gardens – you can walk through and around, and cut your own flowers or pick your own fruit in season.
Some meat and the milk comes from farms with three miles, and the menu changes regularly – but it’s not cheap: our burger cost £17.50, and the other five main lunch dishes averaged £15. The service that day was also slow: it took an hour to order and arrive.
But the food is undoubtedly fresh, and bound by the garden: the smoked beetroot, fennel puree and seeded spelt nearly won out, with starters including garden courgettes alongside smoked eel and truffle honey.
It’s a breakfast (10-11am), lunch (12-2.30) and afternoon tea venue (3-4pm), although dinner is available on Friday and Saturdays. As you’d expect, it is popular with weddings and events and has six bell tents for overnight stays, with a firepit. There is also a fire inside for cooler days.
Details: Pythouse Kitchen Garden, West Hatch, Tisbury, Wiltshire SP3 6PA. Tel: 01747 870444. Open daily, 10am – 4pm. Reservations essential.
THE VILLAGE SHOP Fontmell Magna
This village just south of Shaftesbury on the A350 has a great institution: the gardens at the Springhead Trust (where you can also stay).
There is another accommodation option nearby: bed & breakfast at the village shop, which also doubles as the Post Office – and, for good measure the cafe. I arrived at midday in off-season (there is a garden with tables out back) looking for lunch and made my way through the shop to take one of four tables. There were home-made cakes on display, with pottery and art from local artists. Perhaps one made the china sausage dog salt and pepper shakers on the table.
I’d noticed the shop/PO/B&B/cafe offers a daily two-course hot lunch for £11 – that day, I was offered sausage casserole with rice: both delicious and enormous. I declined pudding. Total bill: £7.99 + £2.15 for a generous pot of tea, served with cup and saucer. A bargain!
Lunch is served from 12-2pm, and breakfast all the way through from 9am-2pm, including cooked breakfast for £7/£8. Otherwise it is sandwiches, jacket potatoes or savouries (quiche, pasty, sausage roll). The set-up clearly appeals to many.
“Best breakfast experience we have had in the UK!,” wrote the Prices from Australia. “Lovely breakfast – see you same time next year,” added D & A. One couple were breaking a journey from Devon to Oxford, another was en route to Bristol. The A350 is a busy road.
Details: Fontmell Magna Village Shop, Church St, Fontmell Magna, Shaftesbury SP7 0NY. Open 8am-6pm weekdays, 9am-1pm Sat, 9-11am Sun.
THE FARM SHOP The Udder Farm Shop
Brian and Jane Down included a small cafe when they opened their farm shop in 2005. Back then, the shop was the main project, something to complement the couple’s dairy farm in East Stour, five miles west of Shaftesbury.
Brian’s father and grandfather had run dairy herds in the village since 1938 – but in 2005, as now, the volatility in how much he received for milk suggested a business where he set the prices might be better. Such as a cafe.
The dairy herd has gone. The shop sells beef and lamb from Brian’s farm in the village and pork comes from his uncle’s farm nearby. But while the shop does well (including a Cook frozen meal concession and local beers, cakes, bread etc.,), it is the cafe that has been a runaway success.
In 2005, it was in the shop and catered for 24. In 2008, a new extension was added for 48 covers. Today, 65 squeeze in for breakfast and lunch and, as Brian says: “We are turning so many people away.” Reservations essential.
And so he added a new restaurant for 120, with the cafe reverting to a coffee shop. It opened in December 2019 and is the biggest and best farm shop cafe/restaurant for miles, serving cooked breakfasts and lunch choices including homemade terrines, pies, curries and steaks. It also opens in the evenings at weekends.
Details: Manor Farm, East Stour, Gillingham, Dorset SP8 5LQ. Tel: 01747 838899. Cafe open 8.30am-5pm Mon-Thu; 8.30am-late Fri-Sat; 9am-4pm, Sun.
AND ONE CHOICE SPOT IN SHAFTESBURY… The Salt Cellar
A LOOK at the Facebook page of The Salt Cellar will quickly tell you why this is the outstanding location of Shaftesbury for breakfast, lunch of afternoon tea – perhaps warm Dorset Apple Cake with cream?
The cafe is underneath the Town Hall and is very much a favoured spot for locals to meet, and many visitors revisit time and again. First-timers have the best reaction on Tripadvisor: “This cafe is at the top of Gold Hill which old geezers will remember featured in the Hovis adverts of times gone past. Similar establishments would have rested on their laurels at the top of a world-famous hill and served average or below food. This place does not!” writes Andy from Dorchester.
The Cellar makes its own pies, while its generous sandwiches rate highly. Paninis and daily specials are also available in a fast-moving cafe, where reservations are recommended for lunch but the staff are pretty adept at finding a space to squeeze in. Dogs are welcome in the entrance shop with tables, and outside.
The trick is to book a table for lunch in a window seat, walk up and down Gold Hill to work up an appetite, and sit outside for your coffee. Then take a dozen steps to the Gold Hill Museum or pop next door for a drink at The Mitre, which also has views out to the Cranborne Chase.
Details: 2-4 Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, SP7 8LY. Tel: 01747 851838, Open Mon-Sat 9am-5pm. Closed Sun.