Things To See and Do in Shaftesbury and Gillingham

Wondering where to go and what to do in Shaftesbury and Gillingham? There’s plenty of great things to see and do and much to discover in this beautiful part of north Dorset. 

Set high on a hilltop 700 foot above the Blackmore Vale, the historic town of Shaftesbury offers stunning views over the glorious countryside below.  Its unique location ‘on top of the world’ inspired Kings to settle here over 1100 years ago.

Follow in Thomas Hardy’s footsteps and explore one of England’s highest, ancient hill-top towns or visit the town which inspired one of Constable’s paintings – now hanging in London’s Tate Gallery.

Shaftesbury Abbey

Shaftesbury’s Saxon Benedictine Abbey was founded by King Alfred in 888AD for his daughter Aethelgifu.  At its peak, the Abbey was the largest women’s religious community in England.  The foundations of the Grade I listed walls remain and a visit to Shaftesbury Abbey Museum will reveal what life would have been like all those years ago.

The Museum is decorated in medieval colours and tells the story of the Abbey’s early beginnings through to its abrupt end in 1539, when it was destroyed on the orders of King Henry VIII. Today, you can retrace history with an interactive virtual tour and touch relics on display, before wandering outside through the foundations of the Abbey Church and sampling the unique aromas of the Anglo-Saxon herb collection in the peaceful walled garden.

What is thought to be the bones of Edward the Martyr were found in the Abbey’s North Transept in 1931. Edward was King of England for just 3 years from 975 until he was murdered at Corfe Castle on the orders of his step-mother. He was only 15 or 16 when he died. Why not take a visit to Corfe Castle and find out more about the connections to the Abbey?

You may be lucky to visit when there is open air theatre in the abbey gardens. And you’ll be even luckier to see the ghostly monk which supposedly haunts the ruins.

The massive ramparts you will see at Gold Hill are all that remains of the precinct wall which separated the town from the Abbey.

Gold Hill

If you’re old enough, you’ll recognise Shaftesbury’s most famous landmark, Gold Hill. A steep, cottage crammed lane which made its claim-to-fame when it was featured in the 1973 Hovis Bread advert directed by Ridley Scott – the one with the boy pushing his bike up the impossibly steep cobbled lane.

You can walk up the hill and admire the views of the Blackmore Vale from the café at the top. Or if you want to take the easy route, you’ll find an alleyway either side of the Town Hall on the High Street leads to the top.

Gold Hill Museum at the top of this most famous hill, is housed in a quaint little cottage. The building used to be a former doss house providing accommodation for the drovers, jugglers and traders who came to the town’s markets and fairs.

The Museum has an amazing collection of artefacts and curiosities.  Meet the mummified cat and discover what the ‘Byzant’ is. See Dorset’s oldest hand-drawn fire engine or watch a film clip on a 1950’s Bakelite TV of US tanks rolling along the High Street.

The award-winning Museum garden enjoys views over the Blackmore Vale and is a lovely place to sit a while and relax.

Picturesque views

Being the highest town in Dorset, the views from Shaftesbury are a must see during your visit. The most famous being from the top of Gold Hill for that iconic view of the Blackmore Vale.

If you follow the Shaftesbury Heritage Trail, you will pass two amazing viewpoints on the route. At Castle Hill gaze north towards Gillingham with Somerset and Wiltshire in the distance. Sit a while on one of the benches or enjoy a picnic on the grass. From Park Walk, which has been a promenade since the 1760’s, enjoy the breathtaking vista south of the Blackmore Vale and Blandford Forum beyond.

Compton Abbas Airfield is just a short drive from Shaftesbury, and is in a superb location with amazing views. Absorb the excitement over a drink or meal at their café.

Gillingham Museum and the connection with Constable

Gillingham’s old town bridge over the River Shreen and several mills in the area were caught on canvas by famous landscape artist John Constable. Constable stayed with his friend, the Reverend John Fisher and his family at Gillingham Vicarage in the 1820s.

Constable’s painting of the bridge done during his stay, is now on display at the Tate Gallery in London. His other paintings of Gillingham hang in collections in Cambridge and Connecticut, U.S.A.

Visitors to the town museum can learn more about these paintings and the sites that inspired them.

Shaftesbury Heritage Trail

For a fantastic (and free) way to get to know Shaftesbury, follow the Heritage Trail.

There are 8 information boards placed around the town and you can join the Trail at any of them. Why not start the day with a wonderful view at the Castle Hill board, found off Bimport? Each board is different and will tell you more about your location.

Along the way you will also see Blue Plaques attached to historical or important buildings, such as Edwardstow – the oldest house in Shaftesbury or Ox House – featured as ‘Old Grove Place’ in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.

Leave the car behind

To appreciate rural Dorset as its best, hire a bike or get out on foot to enjoy the many footpaths and cycle trails. Discover peace and tranquillity on a cycle ride or walk. There are miles of footpaths and bridleways to explore, plus numerous circular and long distance routes too.

The Great Wessex Way is a long distance walking trail passing through both of Dorset’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It starts in the cathedral city of Salisbury heading through north Dorset via Shaftesbury then south to the coast, before heading west to Lyme Regis.

The North Dorset cycleway is 73 miles long and takes you on quiet country lanes via Gillingham,  Shaftesbury and Sturminster Newton. The route also passes through part of Thomas Hardy’s favourite and somewhat flatter Blackmore Vale, through which the River Stour meanders. Strong, experienced cyclists complete the route in a day, but for those who wish to enjoy the route in full, we suggest you spend longer over the trip. For beginners, there are also lots of shorter cycling routes too.

The Hardy Way is a long distance walking route linking the locations mentioned in Thomas Hardy’s novels and poems. It is mostly within Dorset, with a small section in Wiltshire. The route passes through Shaftesbury, heading south to Sturminster Newton and east to Cranborne.

The Gillingham Walking Trail brings visitors into contact with hidden gems and unique features of the town. 

The Stour Valley Way, an acclaimed walking route passes through Gillingham from Stourhead in Wiltshire, heading southwards to Christchurch on the coast.

Passing through Shaftesbury and Gillingham, the White Hart Link is a 50 mile, circular walking route taking in the five market towns of North Dorset and the villages between. Using existing public rights of way and quiet lanes, it passes through some of the iconic countryside of the Blackmore Vale.

Be adventurous

Make it a holiday to remember and try something new. Explore from above on a hot air balloon ride or test your accuracy at clay pigeon shooting or axe throwing! All fantastic fun ways of exploring the great outdoors and something to boast about on social media.

Take a hot air balloon flight with Aerosaurus Balloons at dawn or dusk, whilst sipping champagne as you drift peacefully over Dorset’s green pastures.

AA Shooting School at nearby Sturminster Newton gives the chance to have a go at clay shooting for individuals or groups. All equipment is provided and your experienced instructor will be at your side to help guide you.

At Dorset Adventures you are spoilt for choice with their huge range of activities - Mountain Biking, Kayaking, Stand-Up Paddle boarding, Rock Climbing, Coasteering, Archery, Axe & Knife Throwing! They have a fleet of quality Mountain Bikes which are available for hire from their base near Shaftesbury.  

Visit the Shaftesbury Tourism website for more information on what there is to see and do in and around Shaftesbury and Gillingham or call into the Tourist Information Office for guides, maps and advice.

Explore further afield

Positioned on the edge of the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Blackmore Vale, with Wiltshire and Somerset close by, Shaftesbury and Gillingham make an ideal base for a short break or holiday.

The picturesque Stourhead House and Gardens are only a few miles away and at Bush Farm Bison Centre you can see bison roam free and sample local produce at their farm shop.

Explore the Mill at nearby Sturminster Newton or take a guided walk of historic Sherborne – both under a 30 minute drive away.

Old Wardour Castle is found just a short distance north of Shaftesbury over the border in Wiltshire. The Castle was built in the 14th century as a luxury residence for comfortable living and lavish entertainment. Explore the castle ruins and grotto, then climb the circular stairs to the top where you can see for miles across the lake and surrounding countryside.

If you want to visit some of the other iconic landmarks found in the south of England, the city of Bath can be reached by train from Gillingham or is a 1 hour drive. The Cathedral City of Salisbury in bordering Wiltshire is a 40 minute drive through the beautiful Cranborne Chase. And Stonehenge is just a 35 minute drive away.