IF driving down the A303, go past Stonehenge and within 30 minutes you’ll be in Shaftesbury. And if taking your bike by train, jump off at Tisbury or Gillingham: both are within two hours of London.
From Tisbury, it is a beautiful, gently undulating ride past Old Wardour Castle and the sleepy hollow of Donhead St Andrew: you can then cycle south of the A30 in the lee of Win Hill and only emerge onto the main road a mile from Shaftesbury itself. It will take an hour.
The A30 from the east is the only ‘flat’ entrance into Shaftesbury. The town is built on a ridge – and all other roads, including that from Gillingham, rise steeply as you approach your destination. Which is why Shaftesbury and its hinterland is such a perfect base for a cycling holiday.
You can take the flat road east out of town into the Chalke Valley and Cranborne Chase, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AoNB). Or you can head west and south down into The Blackmore Vale, Hardy’s Vale of the Little Dairies. The views are stunning, as they are from Shaftesbury itself.
There are dozens of established routes to explore Dorset’s quiet lanes, plus the North Dorset Trailway (once a railway line) and Okeford mountain bike park with five downhill runs and lift service. Cycling for all ages and grades – and don’t forget Gold Hill….
SHAFTESBURY has a very good collection of hotels, cottages and B&Bs. But as the town sits on a hilltop, there isn’t a great deal of room to innovate with glamping options. Happily, there is a great deal of space in The Blackmore Vale and Cranborne Chase surrounding Shaftesbury – and there has been a considerable amount of innovation in recent years.
From a list of 12 options in summer 2017, we have now uncovered 19 locations close to Shaftesbury which include a converted double decker bus, eco pod, shepherd huts with hot pools and luxury safari tents.
Many have spectacular views and settings, in oak woodlands, deer parks, kitchen gardens, equestrian centres and working farms. And they all add to the wealth of accommodation choices in North Dorset, alongside a number of AirBnB options. Come and stay in north Dorset for a short break, or a full family holiday: we’re halfway between London and Cornwall, just off the A303, and within easy reach of Dorset’s world famous Jurassic Coast.
“THERE is a lot of lovely off-road biking around here around the back lanes,” says Will Norgan, owner of Hammoon Cycles in Shaftesbury.
He and his family like to cycle the countryside east of Shaftesbury and accessible via the only flat road into the town. It’s an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which recently received £2.5m of funds to spend on a series of projects – including improved cycle routes.
Here Will shares his favourite route out of Shaftesbury, a 26-mile ride “along beautiful lanes” with plenty of suggested stops. It’s a gently undulating route with some tree cover, easy for family cycling, and mostly on single track or quiet lanes. There is only one short climb going into East Knoyle, and a one-mile busy stretch of road on the return to Shaftesbury.
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.
Secret Stourhead – snowdrop season – wassail ceremonies – Hardy’s birthday – cycle North Dorset – Gold Hill to yourself
JANUARY and February are tough months without a little something to look forward to. A night away, with a good meal, fits the bill (we suggest Shaftesbury) – but it’s nice to have a good experience, something to make you smile until March nuzzles into view. How about a peek behind the scenes in Stourhead House and a walk through the deserted gardens with your dog? All possible, and only in January and February – read on.
Or perhaps you’d like to learn something about, say, galanthophiles (lovers of snowdrops)? You’ve come to the right place – Shaftesbury’s snowdrop season in February is the biggest event of its type in the country. Or you could learn what a wassail is in January, and congratulate yourself with a Dorset cider, or raise to glass to Thomas Hardy, visit his birthplace and read up on the author on the anniversary of his death (Jan 13).
Perhaps you’d like to get active with a 20-mile food and drink cycle ride of North Dorset (we’ve running options too), or simply enjoy Britain’s favourite view from Gold Hill and have it all to yourself…. We’ll see you soon.
REASON NUMBER ONE
THE SHAFTESBURY SNOWDROP FESTIVAL
Late January – mid-March
Shaftesbury Snowdrops is a project that aspired to create Britain’s first ‘Snowdrop Town’ – and it has succeeded. The project began in 2012, since when more than 200,000 snowdrops have been planted.
NOT many people know this. Every winter, when Stourhead House is closed to the public, the volunteers run special tours into the back passages of the house while it is being cleaned and the conservators move in to do their work.
The tours are free (although you have to pay the £17.50 admission to the house) and provide a fascinating insight into the colossal work that goes on just to keep the house going and its contents preserved.
Today is the first of 44 days when the Behind Closed Doors tours operate over the five floors of the house, including the servants’ quarters in the attic and the below ground storerooms.
Three tours run on most days through to March 8. Booking is essential by calling 01747 841152 and groups are usually up to 15 for each tour. Shaftesbury Tourism accompanied four members of the British Guild of Travel Writers on a visit last year, and this is what we found….
WE STRONGLY support shopping in Shaftesbury for the Christmas tree and table (Nb: Dec 16 – Shaftesbury Christmas Street Fair, 100 craft and food/drink stalls, 10am-4pm.)
But if you can’t get into town, or perhaps have moved away and would like a seasonal reminder of the auld home, then shopping online is the way to browse for North Dorset gifts and treats.
Many of the area’s retailers have now an online presence, and many more will follow – perfect for North Dorset ‘expats,’ and for those living here who’d like to send a gift to friends and family further afield.
All the retailers mentioned here have an online shop, so fill your boots with orders for this Christmas and support your excellent Shaftesbury and surrounding area retailers. Happy Christmas!
If you are a producer selling North Dorset-related Christmas gifts or food and drink, and have an online shop – do let us know! Leave a comment with a brief description of your product and the website.
Maxine exhibits her leaded glass artwork at the Cygnet Gallery in Shaftesbury – a great source for Christmas presents. She has 10 years’ experience working with glass, and produces all her work from her dedicated studio in Marnhull, including freestanding spectrum glass panels for the garden. Visit the gallery, and shop online for glass crazy birds and decorations, and a range of cards.
The Christmas glass collection includes an angel, candle, holly, robin and tree decorations: a great addition to your Christmas tree. It retails at £35.
The second-highest market town in England, has the biggest Christmas Street Fair in Dorset (on December 16) and is the epicentre of so many seasonal events. And sister town Gillingham – just down the hill and on the mainline train line between London and Exeter – is also laying on seasonal treats.
Base yourself in Shaftesbury for a night or three, soak in the atmosphere and sing your heart out at a carol service, followed by a mince pie and mulled wine, naturally. As a bonus, there is free car parking in Shaftesbury on Saturdays in December!
NOV 30:Gillingham Christmas Parade and Lights Switch-on, 5pm. A Christmas Market will be held, with gift and food/drink stalls, rides and music before the procession starts from the Town Hall to Town Meadow at 6pm. The Mayor will switch on the lights and there will be carols with the Gillingham Community Choir and Gillingham Imperial Silver Band at the tree.
DEC 1: Shaftesbury Farmers’ Market, Town Hall, 9am-1pm 3:Shaftesbury Christmas Spectacular and the turning on of the Christmas Lights. The evening starts at 6pm: there will be carol singing with Shaftesbury Town Band and a countdown to the lights. Father Christmas will be in the grotto in the Town Hall with free presents for every child street. An added attraction this year is a pantomime twist – a giant beanstalk on the Town Hall made up of leaves designed by schoolchildren. There will also be late night shopping until 8.30pm. 7: The Shaftesbury Christmas Art Fair, Town Hall 10am-4pm. At the monthly fair in November, some 345 visitors popped in. Come buy an original piece of art as a brilliant Christmas present. 7:Bell Street Christmas Special, Shaftesbury Arts Centre. Following last year’s success, the Bell Street Christmas Special is back for another year of yuletide fun! Come along for a night of songs, dances and comedy with a side of delicious nibbles. £8, 7.30pm 8-9: Craft Fair, The Mitre Inn. Inaugural small stall event on the pub decking – jewellery, Christmas prints, cards, tea cosies, glass painting, baubles, cushions, felt art, sweets cart, lamps. Plus Sants on Saturday at 2pm, hog roast, mulled wine and cider, 11am-5pm. 9:Christmas Craft Fair, Rivers Meet, Gillingham, with a German bar and food + Oompah band 16: Shaftesbury Christmas Street Fair, 100 craft and food/drink stalls – the biggest Christmas street market in Dorset. 10am-4pm. The Churches Together group will be performing their annual nativity play at 1pm.
THE Hovis loaf that has sat atop Gold Hill for 38 years has finally been returned with a fresh look, ready to butter up tourists looking for a photo opportunity on their visit to Shaftesbury’s iconic attraction.
The advert has been voted Britain’s favourite television advert, and has resulted in tens of thousands of visitors to the hilltop town. It was built as a donations box and information point, the idea being that money collected be used for the ongoing upkeep of Gold Hill.
But it has suffered badly from wear and tear, vandalism and attempted break-ins. Health and safety saw the stale loaf moved to a siding outside the Town Hall in case it slid down the hill (unconfirmed reports say ‘joyriders’ once rode it down the hill in the snow.)
It stood there until 15 months ago, with few realising it still welcomed donations. “There was hardly any money put in,” said Anne Giberson, chairman of Shaftesbury Tourism and owner of The Chalet B&B.
The Loaf was taken away for restoration but its sudden disappearance concerned many: “Hardly a week went by without somebody asking after the loaf,” said Elaine Barrett, chair of Gold Hill Museum.
The grant is from the North Dorset Local Action Group (NDLAG), which allocates funding to rural businesses and community groups to help them create jobs, grow and benefit the wider rural economy.
I’m on the NDLAG, and think this the most exciting of all the tourism-related projects we’ve supported. I spoke to Roger Goulding of the Cranborne Chase AoNB, to learn more about the thinking. Continue reading →