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.
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, #TheHighPointofDorset.
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.
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.
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.
THERE ARE two types of tourists that come to Shaftesbury, says David Perry. The first category he knows as those who jump off a coach for a rest stop and will buy one bottle of Dorset beer or cider as a souvenir. Then there are those who will come by car, buy a bottle of Dorset gin, or a case of good quality wine to be put in the boot or taken to the holiday cottage.
All are valued visitors and David welcomes them to his home town. He has had a long and varied career in the wine trade in different places but eventually returned to Shaftesbury in 2008 (he had been a pupil at the old Shaftesbury Grammar School in the 1970s). He missed his two passions, he says: Dorset and wine.
He took over Shaftesbury Wines, which began life two decades ago, and now runs the High Street shop with his daughter, Alice. He has a strong desire to combine the best of wines and spirits worldwide with a strong stable of Dorset produce, be it wine, sparkling, cider, ale or spirits.
So when it came to compiling this feature about the best drinks in Dorset, with a particular emphasis on North Dorset, I knew just the man to speak to…
The White Hart Link is the new long-distance route which links the five towns of North Dorset: Gillingham, Stalbridge, Sturminster Newton, Blandford and Shaftesbury.
It’s so named as the Blackmore Vale was once known as the Vale of the White Hart, a “creature whose rarity and beauty have attracted, in legend, a wealth of mystical and royal associations,” says a report in The Guardian.
It was also described by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. “The Vale was known in former times as the Forest of White Hart, from a curious legend of King Henry III’s reign, in which the killing by a certain Thomas de la Lynd of a beautiful white hart which the king had run down and spared, was made the occasion of a heavy fine.”
CRUMBS! The loaf that has sat atop Gold Hill for decades has disappeared.
The town has been agog since The Hovis Loaf, a slice of Shaftesbury life, vanished overnight. “We had a lot of people asking where it is. One guest said he heard people talking about loaf theft,” said Anne Giberson, chairman of Shaftesbury Tourism and owner of The Chalet B&B.
But Anne revealed the loaf is far from being toast: it’s simply being refreshed and repackaged, having gone a bit stale in recent years after a distinguished history.
The gliders that landed at Pegasus Bridge on D-Day took off from RAF Tarrant Rushton, while the Americans took over RAF Warmwell for their fighter planes. Henstridge was a Fleet Air Arm training airfield: Seafires, Spitfires and Masters flew from 1943 until 1945.
Today, only one of the five runways remains. But the airport is busy, with the Dorset & Somerset Air Ambulance based here – as are the Yakovlevs, an aerobatics team often seen (and heard) training over the Blackmore Vale.