NORTH Dorset was a huge inspiration to Thomas Hardy. The principal towns, Shaftesbury and Sherborne, both feature heavily in his novels, with Gillingham also playing a supporting role.
In the surrounding countryside, the Blackmore Vale was the backdrop to his most lyrical writing about nature, with the honey stone village of Marnhull home to Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Indeed, Tess, Jude the Obscure and The Woodlanders – his last three novels – were all largely based in North Dorset.
The extraordinary thing is that nobody appears to own the old Abbey Wall that borders Gold Hill. Not the county, district or town council, not English Heritage or another national conservation body. Not even The Abbey Museum.
But with Gold Hill being Shaftesbury’s biggest tourism asset, allowing Gold Hill to become Green Hill is not an option. So credit to Anne Giberson, chair of Shaftesbury and District Tourism Association (SDTA) for persevering in getting the clean up work done.
NORTH Dorset comes alive in the summer with a series of superb and well-established shows and festivals that reflect the region’s rich culture and agricultural history. Woodcraft, cheese, steam engines and heavy horses all have their own festivals, with celebrations of music, theatre and outdoors pursuits. Shaftesbury sits at the heart of these bucolic outbursts of pleasure, and is the natural place to base yourself to party.
We look forward to welcoming you to Shaftesbury this summer, The High Point of Dorset.
MAY 13 SHAFTESBURY FOOD & DRINK FESTIVAL
Watch grown men race up Gold Hill carrying 14” diameter truckles of cheese weighing 55lbs. Women and children race too, and a team relay event to boot.
The Cheese Races are the brainchild of Charlie Turnbull of the ubiquitous cheese deli in town – sadly, this is Turnbull’s last day in business, as Charlie seeks new adventures. So let’s make it cracker of a cheese day! Barnaby Cox won the men’s event for four consecutive years until 2017 – will he claim his crown back? Will the firemen take the team title?
The Cheese Races form part of a wider Food & Drink Festival: there will be 100 stalls the length of the town, featuring the Anonymous Travelling Market on Park Walk, as well as producers from The Dorset Farmers Market and Dorset Food and Drink in the High Street.
SHAFTESBURY residents and visitors have the choice of another fresh-from-the-farm milk supplier, with Madjeston Milk Station opening at Newhouse Farm outside Gillingham.
Madjeston Milk Station
It’s the latest dairy farm in the area to install a vending machine filled daily with milk from the herd and pasteurised on the farm itself. The service opened last month, and is now available 24 hours a day – just turn up, put £1 in the machine and fill your re-usable litre bottle. Or £2 for two litres.
With farmers earning an average 30p a litre from commercial customers, being able to sell directly to customers for £1 is a great benefit. And the customers get creamy unhomogenised milk while supporting farmers who, at Newhouse, have kept it in the family since 1927.
Reports from farms that have installed the machines suggest sales of 60-70 litres a day, the figures doubling at weekends. Let’s say 500 litres a week, so an improved income of £350 a week.
Take out (generous) running costs of £100, and the start-up costs of building a shed for the vending machines, security cameras and so on, and farmers could pay off the cost of a £15,000 vending machine within two years.
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 £16 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.
Three tours run on most days through to March 5. Booking is essential, and groups are usually up to 15 for each tour. Shaftesbury Tourism accompanied four members of the British Guild of Travel Writers last week, and this is what we found….
Stourhead is just 10 miles from Shaftesbury and the garden remains open year-round (the house remains closed on weekdays after Christmas until March 13, although open at weekends).
The landscaped garden was created more than 250 years ago. In winter, as the leaves have fallen, you can clearly see the design and how Capability Brown’s vision has turned into something spectacular.
The garden temples take pride of place during winter, offering viewpoints and shelters before you continue on the circular walk around the lake. The winter light, a result of the low sun, also creates wonderful shadows throughout the day allowing the garden to be seen in a new perspective. Sight isn’t the only sense that benefits from the winter season; sounds are amplified around the garden due to the lack of leaves.
The garden itself is quieter, with fewer visitors, and so you are more likely to see some of Britain’s native species of birds. And as a bonus, visitors are able to take their dogs on a lead between December-February all day, every day.
You can combine the walk with a Behind-Closed-Doors guided tour of the house, to learn about the conservation work at Stourhead. The tours are being held three times daily on 29 days in January and February, 2018. They are free, but normal admission charges apply to the venue.
WE STRONGLY support shopping in Shaftesbury and Gillingham for the Christmas tree and table. But if you have moved away from the area, and would like a seasonal reminder of the auld home, then shopping online is a perfect way to browse for gifts and treats.
Many of the area’s retailers have now built a shop online, 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 presence, and there is still plenty of time to place your orders for this Christmas and support your excellent Shaftesbury and Gillingham retailers.
If you are a producer in the vicinity 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. Thanks!
Planked is a small Dorset company making stuff out of wood! Setup by designer/maker Lucy Ball in 2010 with a passion for woodworking, it produces handmade contemporary British small furniture, sculptures and homewares. Everything is designed with both practicality and aesthetics in mind, to form very unique products from sustainable timber, sourced both locally and from afar.
CHRISTMAS MARKETS + CHRISTMAS LIGHTS + LATE NIGHT SHOPPING + STREET FAIRS + CAROL CONCERTS + MINCE PIES GALORE + DARK SKY STARGAZING + METEOR SHOWERS + FOOD AND DRINK CYCLING TOUR + NEW YEAR WALKS AT STOURHEAD (+ BEHIND THE SCENES TOUR OF THE HOUSE) + 90TH ANNIVERSARY OF HARDY’S DEATH + WASSAILING AND CIDER CELEBRATIONS + THE BIGGEST EVER SNOWDROP FESTIVAL + WALK A REVITALISED GOLD HILL WITHOUT THE CROWDS
REASON NUMBER ONE
The second-highest market town in England has the biggest Christmas Street Fair in Dorset (on December 17) 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.
1:Gillingham Christmas Parade and Lights Switch-on, 2-8.30pm. A Christmas Market will be held all day, with gift and food/drink stalls, rides and music before the procession starts from the Town Hall to Town Meadow at 6.30pm, including the ‘Santa Express.’ The Mayor will switch on the lights and there will be carols at the tree. 2: Shaftesbury Farmers’ Market, Town Hall, 9am-1pm 2: Victoriana Gillingham, 10am-4pm. Street fair, live music, old fairground organ, Hidden Pizza, choirs on Town Meadow. 4:Shaftesbury Christmas Spectacular and the turning on of the Christmas Lights. From 6pm. Massed choirs of 200 will sing before and after the ceremony. Father Christmas will be in the grotto in the Town Hall with street food, fairground rides and traction engines on the High Street. There will also be late night shopping until 9pm – with customers given a 10% discount voucher for use in 2018.
LORENZO Ferrari has been working Gold Hill for 25 years. Not continuously, you understand. But if anything needs doing on the hill, it’s a fair bet that Dorset County Council will call for Lorenzo.
He works for the DCC but is only called on to repair listed structures, mainly bridges. And Gold Hill has been in need of some love and attention for some time. “It’s gotten so weedy, people have been calling it Green Hill,” says one local shopowner.
The hill, which is 750 years old, is invaluable to Shaftesbury as a tourism magnet. Hundreds take pictures at the top of the hill every day in summer: it ranks second-only to Durdle Door as the most photographed site in Dorset on Instagram. (Have you noticed there are no cables or TV aerials on the hill? They are banned).
The visitors bring income to the town, supporting local businesses and by extension supporting local jobs. But Gold Hill hasn’t been cleaned up for seven years, and it showed. Then Shaftesbury got lucky.