Six brilliant reasons to visit Shaftesbury in winter

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.

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

Herald Print Page 4 2019-5Visitors 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. There is also a snowdrop exhibition at the Arts Centre from February 8-17, with entries in painting, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, photography and prints (you can enter your own exhibit on Feb 3.)

You can buy snowdrops, there is a gallery, pop-up shop and, on February 9, a snowdrop study day. The programme starts at 10am with a talk by Jane Kilpatrick and Jennifer Harmer, who in October 2018 published The Galanthophiles, a tribute to snowdrop devotees of 1854-2014. At 11am, Tom Mitchell talks about Extreme Snowdropping – “Adventures in search of wild snowdrops.

From noon, day guests gain VIP entry to the Snowdrop Sale which opens to the public at 1pm. The afternoon sessions are a Q&A session with experts, a guided tour of the town’s Heritage Snowdrops with Emma Thick, and a horticultural talk – The Winter Garden – from Andy McIndoe, the former MD of Hillier’s Gardens and an outstanding plantsman.

Andy’s lecture is available as part of the Snowdrop Study Day admission, or as a separate ticket. Tickets for the day cost £40 and are going fast.

Shaftesbury Snowdrops is a community project, which continues to grow and garner support. It attracts visitors from the continent and America, and several locations have joined in the fun. You can climb Trinity Tower on Feb 23 and, on the same day, take the kids to Bell St. Library to help build a dragon lantern out of Lego and make a snowdrop lantern, leading up to the Giant Snowdrop Lantern Parade that evening at 6.30pm.

Ps: Dorset Magazine includes Shaftesbury among its seven places to see the best snowdrops in Dorset feature in the January 2019 issue. It also includes Shaftesbury Abbey, which opens its doors to visitors especially for the week of February 9-17.

Stourhead

REASON NUMBER TWO
A WINTER’S WALK AT STOURHEAD

Stourhead is just 10 miles from Shaftesbury and the garden remains open year-round (the house remains closed until March 3, 2019, 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.

You can combine the walk with a Behind Closed Doors tour of all five floors at Stourhead, including the attics and cellars, while learning more about conservation work. The tours are held three times daily on 44 days until early March. They’re free, but normal admission charges (adults: £17.50) apply.

* 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 THREE
THE 91st 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, and will be open on Friday January 11. It is open Thursdays-Sundays throughout January and February (the cottage opens on a daily basis from February 28).

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). Read our full feature on Hardy in North Dorset here.

REASON NUMBER FOUR
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. Kevin Wood and 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 earlier this 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 Saturday January 19, 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. (Nb: this has been corrected from the original article, which incorrectly stated the wassail was on Jan 13. Apologies for the error).

OTHER WASSAILS in January

11: Stag’s Head Inn, Yarlington – the pub is reviving the ceremony, starting 5.30pm with a procession to the orchard armed with sticks, tins and drums. Yarlington’s wassail carol will be sung, among others, and cider drunk…
13: Avalon Orchard, Glastonbury Tor, 2-6pm – entry £3, park in the town and walk to the tor.
20: Liberty Fields, near Yeovil, 3.30-5.30pm – no charge, Wassail Hat competition (any hat will do, just cover it in greenery), Wassail Punch, Green Man face painting, Wassail song, a bonfire and the Wassail rocket!

More: Where to find the best drinks in Dorset

REASON NUMBER FIVE
GET REVITALISED GOLD HILL TO YOURSELF!

Did you know that 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 some 750 years old. But it had been seven years since the last clean-up, so you’ll be pleased to know that the hill – also known as Hovis Hill – has been spruced up ready for 2019..

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 will begin to return at Easter – so pop along bow 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.

Motcombe Community ShopREASON NUMBER SIX
GET ON YOUR (CHRISTMAS) BIKE: A 20-MILE FOOD AND DRINK TOUR

There’s a reason the Hovis boy was pushing his bike up Gold hill: it’s very steep, a punishing 16.2º angle, as cyclists find out every year in The Gold Hill Challenge. Dozens more make the climb throughout the year, even the really steep bit at the top.

There’s a more rewarding way to cycle the region: Dorset Food & Drink, a collective of the county’s finest products, has devised a series of Foodie Routes, one of which is a 20-mile circular loop of Shaftesbury and The Blackmore Vale. Dorset’s novelist son, Thomas Hardy, described it as The Vale of Little Dairies, in homage to the area’s milk and cheese heritage.

You can see the route here on a Google map. Heading out of Shaftesbury, it takes you through the village of Motcombe into open country. The hedges here are cut low, affording magnificent views to Duncliffe Wood and Shaftesbury on its ridge.

To Gillingham and a stop at the cycle shop for running repairs, or the coffee shop next door for a bacon bap and tea. Then south, turning towards Duncliffe and eventually back to Shaftesbury laden with charcuterie and cheese. Read the full report of the route here, and happy pedalling into 2019.

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