Five people who love Shaftesbury reveal the places they recommend to friends and family visiting the town and surrounds. This is a guest blog contributed by Steve Keenan on behalf of Shaftesbury Tourism.
Johnnie and Tiggy Walker, DJ and producer
Image credit: Shaftesbury News
We consider ourselves very lucky to live in this beautiful part of the world and be part of this lovely little town. Here are the five things we would recommend:
No visit to Shaftesbury is complete without walking down here, looking down to St James and across to the Blackmore Vale, Melbury Hill and beyond. Get yourself a take out coffee and soak up the view from one of the many benches. Of course, pop in to see The Abbey Ruins.
This is such an important part of the town’s history. The Abbey was founded about 888 by Alfred The Great for his daughter, Aethelgifu who was the first Abbess. It lasted until 1539, when it was a victim of Henry VIII’s Reformation. So wealthy was it that was said that "if the Abbess of Shaftesbury and the Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey had been able to wed, their son would have been richer than the King of England”. Thomas Hardy wrote that when the Abbey stood it would have been ‘the chief glory of South Wessex’. Happily funds have just been raised to do a thorough archeological study of the plot. So in time this will be an even better place to visit.
For us, this is the best bar/coffee place in town. You can go there for all meals, including fresh oven baked pizzas. It’s just a good place to hang out and read the papers (with your dog). Or have a drink in the evening. Or supper, of course (without your dog in the restaurant).
St James's Street
We have always loved this street. It is full of charming cottages and always feels as if there should be a small harbour round the corner. The Pump Yard is particularly worth a look through the railings. This charming courtyard of thatched cottages with the old water pump at its centre is a gem of the town. A good route is to walk down Park Walk, down the steep Stoney Path, passing Laundry Lane and cutting through Tanyard Lane. Turn right on St James towards the church and then walk back on yourself, going past the park and then Gold Hill - treating yourself to a cuppa at The Salt Cellar when you reach the top. You will be greeted by one of the best views in the country.
Our favourite eatery in the area, it is set in the old walled garden of Pyt House. It is still a working garden that provides produce for the kitchen. It serves delicious healthy food in this beautiful setting. Really a fabulous little gem that makes us feel very happy to live down here. Open till 4pm everyday and does dinner on Fridays and Saturdays.
If you love art you must nip over to the outskirts of Tisbury to visit Messum’s Wiltshire housed beautifully in the largest thatched tithe barn in the country. See whatever fabulous art installation it currently houses. There are now two galleries, a shop with very stylish craft products and a café ‘The Mess’. So make a morning or afternoon of it.
Johnnie is a Radio 2 DJ and his wife Tiggy is a writer/producer. Both are patrons of Carers UK. The couple live in Shaftesbury.
Keri Jones, radio journalist
In some small towns, museums can be a cluttered collection of random 'stuff’ and lack a narrative. That's not the case with Gold Hill Museum, operated entirely by volunteers and depends on donations: it puts many well-funded and permanently staffed museums to shame. As you pass from room to room, you’ll glide through the ancient town's rich history. Watch footage of tanks rolling down Shaftesbury High Street on a Bakelite TV set, and look out for the Byzant, a ceremonial mace topped by a crown, once used in an annual event to thank Motcombe for allowing hilltop Shaftesbury access to its water.
Take a walk from St James Church along St James's Street to the foot of Gold Hill. The picture-perfect 18th- and 19th-century greensand stone cottages, some of which are thatched, are simply beautiful. Gorgeous cottages hem in a gated garden at Pump Court, which features a cast iron water pump as its centre-piece. You can peer in through the gate. It's private property, though, so resist the urge to stop and stare for too long.
I've taken many visitors for food and drink to the cafe at the top of the iconic Gold Hill. Savour the timeless view whilst enjoying a traditional Dorset cream tea, either inside or on picnic tables outside. In many prime tourism spots you would expect to have to sacrifice food quality for such a stunning location: not the case here. Every one of my guests has been hugely complimentary about the homemade scones...
As a bookworm, I can't resist calling into second-hand stores. The range of books on offer on the two floors of this shop surpasses the range found in this charity's outlets in bigger neighbours such as Dorchester, Bath and Salisbury. It's hugely affordable and the stock seems to turn over rapidly. If you're interested in books about Wessex, Hardy and the West Country in general, there's a bookshelf next to the front door.
There are many beautiful views within walking distance of Shaftesbury. Win Green is five miles away on Cranborne Chase, an Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Take a summer stroll through the chalk grassland banks - listen out for skylarks and look for orchids and wild herbs. From the car park, you'll be drawn to the dense clump of beech trees that stand, almost eerily, on top of the slope covering a Bronze Age burial site. A few hundred yards down the other side of this hill you'll meet the Middle Ages version of the A303, the Ox Drove. All that remains of this once important highway is a narrow, chalky track that farmers once used to take livestock to market. Take wellies if wet: the chalky puddles will stick to your footwear like Plaster of Paris. From this ridge way, your eye will be drawn down the hillside to impressive Ashcombe Hall, once home to photographer Cecil Beaton and Madonna, whose ex-husband Guy Ritchie still lives there.
Keri Jones is a resident of Shaftesbury. He produces and presents The Great Destinations Radio Show, which airs on 70 radio stations in the UK; has a number of recordings at Radio Shaftesbury and is I Love Shaftesbury on Facebook.
Jonathan Thomas, Anglotopia
Shaftesbury is my favourite place to visit in England. I've been at least a dozen times and naming just five things I love is a challenge…
To me Shaftesbury represents the perfect English town: it has history, views, welcoming people and a thriving high street. It's my adopted home in England and I can never wait to return. Obviously, no trip is complete without seeing the most famous street in Britain. I could sit for hours with a cup of tea in The Salt Cellar watching the sun track across the Blackmore Vale. There isn't a better view in Britain, in my opinion.
Image credit: Jonathan Thomas, Anglotopia
Gold Hill gets all the 'view' attention but most people don't realise that Shaftesbury is one of the highest points in England and has just as amazing views to the south. Castle Hill is what remains of a castle that long ago disappeared. Now it appears to be a hangout for youths (there were remnants of a bonfire last time I visited), you can soak in the ancient history and imagine the castle that used to be here. Then enjoy the incredible views - on a clear day you can see King Alfred's Tower on the Stourhead Estate.
This is the one walk in England where my soul lives. Walk straight down Gold Hill, turn left along St James and third right on to French Mill Lane - this will take you all the way to the village of Melbury Abbas. Follow the signs and climb Melbury Hill where you'll be presented with incredible 360-degree views across Dorset and Wiltshire. Bring a camera - you'll want to capture these scenes of quintessential England. The hill can be a bit of a climb, but once you get to the top - it's worth it.
This small airport outside of Shaftesbury is home to small aircraft (and a few historical ones). But it's best known for its award-winning cafe that offers the chance to plane spot while you eat your breakfast or lunch. The food is simply fantastic! Rumour has it that Guy Ritchie, who lives locally, flies his helicopter here.
The John Peel
If you're hungry and want a great meal - then you must go to the John Peel (named after a famous BBC DJ who died a few years ago). This American style diner serves typically English breakfast and lunch. The full English breakfast is divine and their fish & chips are exactly what you'd expect in a small English town not far from the sea.
Five more quick things:
- The Mitre: Great pub with good food.
- Knitting Well in Swan's Yard: the local knit shop.
- Abbey Museum and Gardens: So much history and explains the true age of Shaftesbury.
- The Retreat B&B - a fantastic place to stay.
- Oxfam Bookshop - great place to browse secondhand British books.
Jonathan Thomas is the publisher of Anglotopia - An American magazine and website for Anglophiles.
David Perry, Shaftesbury Wines
Castle Hill and Bury Litton
Most visitors enjoy the magnificent views south from Park Walk: few will accidentally stumble across the northern views from Castle Hill. You can see Alfred’s Tower on the horizon and on a clear day, Glastonbury Tor. Then carry on down the hill towards St James: on your right, after the first bend in the road, you'll see the entrance to Bury Litton, an ancient graveyard dominated by old yew trees and mentioned by Thomas Hardy as being closer to heaven than the spire of its church. A short distance further down the hill, on the left, is the entrance to Love Lane which leads to leafy Pine Walk and back to Park Walk.
The High Street
Shaftesbury is famous for its many independent shops so put time aside to browse. There are also 24 places to enjoy a coffee in town. Here’s a tip: beyond the Tesco car park, there is the cattle market where you can park for free (except on Monday and Thursday's livestock sales. If the lads are cleaning cars at the front, you can access from Christies Lane.
Although not a free house, the beer is not at all bad. What is really worth discovering is the terraced area at the back, a fabulous place to kick back, especially in summer. The views across to Melbury Hill are spectacular so you may want to grab a bite to eat and take it all in.
Snowdrop planting started as a legacy project with the first bulbs planted in 2012. Now there are 200,000 around the town. The main planting is in Trinity Churchyard and the heritage collection in the Abbey gardens. One of the oldest original patches is halfway up Shooter’s Hill, next to Cranborne’s at the bottom end of the High Street - not for the faint hearted as it is very steep. If you are feeling less energetic don’t miss the cute garden attached to Gold Hill Museum. During the season, late January to mid-March, there are lots of events, including a rare bulb sale.
Food, Festivals and the Fringe
Dorset is renowned for artisan food producers. There is now a market every 3rd Sunday in the High Street. There is also a Farmers’ Market every 1st Saturday in the Town Hall and a small Thursday market with organic meat and veg, fresh fish, local cheese and real fresh bread. The Food and Drink Festival in May fills the town, and the Christmas Market is one of the biggest street markets in the county. The biggest event in Town is Shaftesbury Fringe which co-incides with the famous Gold Hill Fair. The Fringe is one of the biggest outside Edinburgh (ps: the hottest ticket and the smallest venue is the courtyard behind my wine shop!).
David Perry is the owner of Shaftesbury Wines and Chairman of Shaftesbury and District Chamber of Commerce.