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.
But what we also have close to town is a number of eclectic places which offer an extraordinary lunch experience, from a baguette in a prison cafe, light lunch in a motorbike dealership or village shop, food on the farm to amazing spreads in a brush factory, walled garden and airfield cafe.
IN June, 2018, the Shaftesbury Tree Group published a walking map taking in the best examples of old and important trees in the centre of our hilltop town (see link below). Now the group has created a second walk, based on a circular amble around the town’s perimeter. Both maps are brilliantly illustrated by landscape artist Gary Cook, who lives just outside Shaftesbury.
This walk may take one and a half to two hours: it depends on how many gates you lean upon and muse. It begins and ends with steep hills and in part follows roads, some without pavements. We circuit the base of the greensand spur on which Shaftesbury’s medieval centre stands, more than 100ft/30m above.
Even at the bottom of the hill there are long views outwards to Melbury Hill, Duncliffe Woods and across the hedged fields to the rim of chalk hills that contain the Blackmore Vale. Glimpses up the slopes reveal steep woodland cover, some planted – the pines and beech, some spontaneous growth – birch, ash, sycamore, field maple and more.
THE festival will be held this year from September 4-8 with a theme of Exploring Local Food & Drink. There are 12 organised walks of varying lengths, from a one-mile potter to a 9.5 mile circular walk from Templecombe to Gillingham.
One walk starts at Melbury Vale winery, followed by a climb up to Shaftesbury, through Motcombe and back to Gillingham – fortunately, the organisers will collect any wine purchases for you! Other walks take in Mere Fish Farm, a beekeeper and a community orchard.
A particularly interesting walk is a visit to a County Farm visit in West Stour, five miles west of Shaftesbury. County Farms are farms owned by Local Authorities and let out to young and first-time farmers, sometimes at below-market rents. They’re a vital ‘first rung on the farming ladder’ for newcomers to a sector.
There are 46 ‘starter’ farms in Dorset – the first was acquired in 1911 in the parish of Marnhull. The estate is managed by Coast and Countryside, who provide advice on agricultural and estate management issues to local councils. The five-mile walk to the farm, home to 350 dairy cattle, from Gillingham is partly along The Stour Way.
On the Friday night (Sep 6), there will also be a Walking Festival Supper Quiz at The Olive Bowl in Gillingham. Tickets cost £10 from Sheila (01747 821269).
The Festival comes a week after the final leg of the 50-mile White Hart Link is walked, the 6.5 mile stretch from Fontmell Magna to Shaftesbury. The trail links the five market towns of North Dorset and villages in between via existing footpaths: many stiles and bridges have been restored to make access easier.
Kate Ashbrook will be joining the walk: Kate is General Secretary of the Open Spaces Society, and Vice-President and Chair of the Ramblers Association, Patron of the Walkers are Welcome Towns network, and a tireless campaigner for many causes. All are welcome to join the walk, leaving Fontmell Magna Village Hall on Monday August 26 at 10.30am. More details here.
THE annual migration of 24,000 people to the Motcombe Turnpike Showground takes place on Wednesday August 14 this year, such is the pulling power of Dorset’s premier agricultural show.
The Gillingham and Shaftesbury Agricultural Show is the one that the farming community takes the day off for, with highly competitive sections for cattle, sheep, horses, dogs, poultry, rabbits, homecrafts, handicrafts, art and a huge range of classes for younger exhibitors, all need to be entered in advance.
The Education Area, introduced in 2018, is back: it’s called Farm, Food & Fun, which aims to show how milk, meat and grain are produced on local farms and how it eventually reaches the table, with lots of hands-on activities.
“The 2019 Show looks all set to be one of the best events ever, with a record number of trade exhibitors, a great range of attractions for all the family and entries for the competitive classes being received at a record rate,” says show secretary Sam Braddick.
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….