Six brilliant reasons to visit Shaftesbury this winter

  • December: Shaftesbury Christmas Lights and Fair
  • January-March: Shaftesbury Snowdrop Season
  • January-March: Go behind closed doors at Stourhead
  • January: The 92nd anniversary of his death this month (and June 2020 marks the 180th anniversary of his birth)
  • January: Celebrate cider with a wassail in January!
  • February: Dark sky stargazing on Cranborne Chase
  • Bonus event: Have Gold Hill to yourself!!

 

REASON NUMBER ONE

CHRISTMAS IS COMING!

(Parking will be free in Shaftesbury on all Saturdays during December).

Nov 23 – Dec 22: A handmade Christmas at Stourhead, 11am – 5.30pm.
The house is decorated with handcrafted flowers, lights and trees which continue across the property. You can also take a walk in the garden and spot the 12 days of Christmas handcrafted in wicker. Entrance free.

Dec 2: Christmas late night spectacular, Shaftesbury, 5pm-9pm.
The High Street is closed from 4pm, and at 6pm the Shaftesbury Town Silver Band begins to play. Shaftesbury choirs will sing carols and the Christmas lights go on at 6.30pm, with Santa taking up residence in his Town Hall grotto. The town’s many independent shops will be open late.

Dec 15: Shaftesbury Christmas Fair, 10am-4pm.
Around 100 stalls will fill the High Street, one of the biggest Christmas fairs in Dorset, while the independent shops will also be open this Sunday. Churches Together will also perform the nativity play outside the Town Hall at 1pm.

Shaftesbury snowdrop season 2020
Shaftesbury Snowdrops’ poster for 2020 is artwork from the artist Amy Yates in a setting created by Liz Martin.

REASON NUMBER TWO

THE SHAFTESBURY SNOWDROP SEASON
Late January – mid-March

Are you perhaps a galanthophile (a lover of snowdrops)? You’ve come to the right place – Shaftesbury’s snowdrop season is the biggest event of its type in the country.

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. A further 20,000 were bought to sell on, at cost, to help build links with neighbouring festivals. The unique community-owned Shaftesbury heritage collection has also grown during the past year to more than 100 varieties.

The study day at Shaftesbury Arts Centre (alongside the Gallery’s snowdrop art exhibition and a pop-up shop) will be held on February 8 and comprises lectures, lunch, Q&A with an expert panel and horticultural talks. Tickets cost between £35-£40: you can book here.

The day starts at 10am with Dr Aaaron Davis, Senior Research Leader of Plant Resources, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who will speak on ”Discovering and understanding snowdrop species, past and present.

At 11am, Matt Bishop, gardener, snowdrop grower and seller, will speak on “Future Trending: Mixed Mutant Phenotypes”. Matt’s narrative will describe how genetic mutations produce many more stunning snowdrops varieties. A soup and cake lunch at noon is followed, until 1pm, by VIP entry to ‘The Best in the West Snowdrop Sale’ in The Town Hall on Shaftesbury High Street (the sale is open to the public after 1pm).

From 2pm, a self-guided garden visit to The Old Rectory, East Orchard, Shaftesbury, and at 2.45pm, at talk from Dr John Grimshaw, Director of the Yorkshire Arboretum. John has written and edited several books, including “The Gardeners’ Atlas”, a book on the origins of the world’s most popular plants; co-author of “Snowdrops: A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus” and “New Trees, Recent Introductions to Cultivation”.

Visitors to Shaftesbury can take a series of walks throughout the town featuring the snowdrops – an excellent 30-minute walk takes in the highlights of Shaftesbury’s slopes, views and history. 

The festival attracts visitors from the continent and America, and several locations also join in the fun. Trinity Tower opens its climb to the roof, events are held at Bell Street Library and there is a Giant Snowdrop Lantern Parade. Shaftesbury Abbey also opens its doors to visitors for the week of February 8-15. Follow the Snowdrop Facebook page for more details. The festival is run by a volunteer team and will be in the office on Thursdays (01747 300174) or email: info@shaftesburysnowdrops.org

Ps: Dorset Magazine included Shaftesbury among its seven places to see the best snowdrops in Dorset feature in the January 2019 issue.

Behind the scenes at Stourhead
Behind the scenes at Stourhead: In the cellars, where the wine and beer was stored

REASON NUMBER THREE

GO BEHIND CLOSED DOORS AT STOURHEAD

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.

Stourhead is just 10 miles from Shaftesbury, and makes for an excellent day out. 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.

The Closed Doors tour will run on 45 days, beginning on January 6, 2020 and running through to March 6. It operates over the four floors of the house, including the servants’ quarters in the attic and the below ground storerooms.

Read the full report of a Behind Closed Doors tour from January 2019

The famous Stourhead gardens remain open year-round (the house remains closed from January 1 until March, apart from the entrance hall 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 welcome to walk dogs on a lead all day, every day in January and February.

  • Stourhead is running a New Year’s Day walk on January 1 from 11am-1pm with head ranger Kim and Garden & Estate Manager Alan for a walk through the ancient woods and parkland. Discover how they look after this historic estate. Tickets cost £10 – more details here
  • Read more about the stupendous walking around Shaftesbury, including The Wessex Ridgeway, North Dorset Trailway, the White Hart Link and walks in Gillingham’s Royal Forest.

REASON NUMBER FOUR

THE 92nd ANNIVERSARY OF THOMAS HARDY’S DEATH

Thomas Hardy died at Max Gate, his home in Dorchester, on the evening of January 11, 1928. His long-held wish was to be buried with his first wife and great love Emma amongst the family graves at nearby Stinsford.

However, his executors decided his heart be cut from his body and buried at Stinsford whilst his mutilated remains were cremated at Woking and the ashes interred in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, beside the grave of Charles Dickens.

His birth, however, was not so traumatic. He was born on the morning of June 2, 1840, in the isolated thatched cottage built by his great-grandfather at Higher Bockhampton, a hamlet on the edge of Piddletown Heath three miles east of Dorchester.

Hardy’s Cottage (photo, above) is run by The National Trust. The cottage is closed in January, but re-opens on the weekend of Feb 1-2. Thereafter, it is open Thursday-Sunday during February, and open daily from March 4.

North Dorset was a huge inspiration to 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. Tess, Jude the Obscure and The Woodlanders – his last three novels – were all largely based in North Dorset.

If following in his footsteps, it makes sense to base yourself in Shaftesbury, then walk, cycle or drive Hardy’s rolling landscapes and historic places. We’d also suggest dropping down to Dorchester to visit the County Museum, and its treasure trove of Hardy’s effects, then on to Hardy’s Cottage (open 11am-4pm in winter).

REASON NUMBER FIVE

IN PRAISE OF APPLES AND CIDER: WASSAILING IN JANUARY!

Wassailing is an ancient custom that involves drinking cider, singing to the trees in the hope of a good harvest and scaring away any evil spirits that might be lurking. Dorset has a flourishing cider scene – find out where where to find the best cider, ale, wine and (alcoholic) spirits in the county.

The exact ritual varies from area to area, but at the heart of the ceremony are usually a king and queen who lead a singing procession to the orchard, where the queen is lifted into the branches of a tree to offer cider-soaked toast to the good tree spirits.

A variation of this song is then sung:

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
Hurrah! Hurrah!

Chaos subsequently ensues as everyone bangs pots and pans to scare away evil spirits and a volley of guns is fired up through the branches. A healthy session of merry making ensues, lubricated by generous sampling of the latest batch of cider.

You can find wassailing celebrations across the region, including one at Donhead Apple Company. Gavin Tait planted 800 trees in a field east of Shaftesbury over the past seven years, and now produce a 6.5% bottled craft cider and an 8% sparkling cider, as well as a draught festival cider. The sparkling won a gold medal last year in the International Cider Challenge.

As well Shaftesbury Wines in the town, they sell through a dozen local outlets such as farm and village shops, as well as the local pub, The Forester in Donhead St Andrew.

And on a Saturday in late January (exact date to be confirmed), the orchard hosts a wassail which has become one of the largest village gatherings of the year. Said Gavin in a Daily Telegraph interview: “We all gather in the village hall and walk through the orchard serenading the trees. According to West Country traditions, it secures a plentiful harvest – but for us it’s mainly an excuse to have fun.” The Wassail starts at 4pm with everyone meeting at the Donhead St Mary village hall. 

OTHER WASSAILS in January 2020

15: North Wootton Village Orchard – this Somerset village, 25 miles from Shaftesbury, is in the heart of Somerset cider country. There’s a bonfire at 6.30pm, with the wassail ceremony, followed by an evening in the village hall, with traditional music, the Langport Mummers and the Beetle Crusher Clog Dancers. A ploughman’s supper is served and plenty of traditional cider available.
18: Avalon Orchard, Glastonbury Tor, 2-6pm. The druids of Glastonbury, town crier and National Trust storytellers bring the ceremony to life. Also performers throughout the afternoon.  We hope as many families and groups from the local area will come out in support of the event.

More: Where to find the best drinks in Dorset

Cranborne Chase Dark Skies
Cranborne Chase Dark Skies

REASON NUMBER FIVE

THE BEST TIME TO GO STARGAZING

Autumn, winter and spring are the best times to go stargazing. Many astronomers also refer to an ‘observing season,’ the time from when clocks go back in October (when nights become one hour longer) to the time they go forward in March.

And one of the best places to see the stars is the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which borders Shaftesbury. The AoNB has just been recognised as an International Dark Sky Reserve, an area that restricts light pollution and promotes astronomy.

In fact, Cranborne AoNB has the largest central area of darkness of any International Dark Sky Reserve in the UK. It is also the first AoNB in the country to receive the recognition, and only the 14th reserve across the globe to join an exclusive club of International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Protected Areas to gain international recognition for our dark skies.

“Some people are lucky enough to recognise ‘the Plough’, but for others, seeing stars and their constellations is often impossible because of light pollution. Here in Cranborne Chase we can see the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy, if the clouds allow!” said Linda Nunn, Director of Cranborne Chase AONB.

The AoNB has produced a map of the best stargazing locations within the Chase, including Fontmell Down Nature Reserve on Spread Eagle Hill, just two miles away from Shaftesbury.

The AoNB has also organised four stargazing events across the Chase, including one at Sixpenny Handley, about 10 miles from Shaftesbury. The full details are:

Wednesday 19 February 2020, 7pm: Stargazing evening, Church Farm Caravan and Camping Park, High Street, Sixpenny Handley SP5 5ND

BONUS REASON

GET REVITALISED GOLD HILL TO YOURSELF!

Did you know there are 58,000 cobbles on Gold Hill? And it’s no surprise that a few work loose every now and then, particularly as the hill is 750 years old. It had been eight years since the last clean-up but the hill – also known as Hovis Hill – was spruced up two years ago.

The first stage of work, in 2017, saw missing cobbles replaced, others lifted and re-laid and the cobbled gutters recovered from under a blanket of silt. The areas around the benches at the top and down the hill were cleaned up, grass and dirt scraped from the hill sides and some overhanging flora cleared off the retaining old Abbey wall.

Then in spring 2018, there was work to de-green the hill and take off the rest of the wall vegetation, followed by an autumn polish up of the 23 oak posts and handrail down the slope, all thanks to a grant from Tesco. Finally, the restored Hovis Loaf was returned in October. 

The thousands of visitors who travel to Shaftesbury to take a snap at the top of the hill begin to return at Easter – so pop along now and you can have the hill to yourself. Take a coffee at The Salt Cellar at the top of the hill, wander past eight cottages on the cobbles (and put an offer on Updown Cottage – the white cottage in the middle, above – which is currently for sale) – and toast success at Ye Olde Two Brewers pub at the bottom, under new management.

Run and walk North Dorset: Catch up on the parkrun and races you can enjoy in the area