The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Shaftesbury: best thing since sliced bread

Becky Bye discusses the unique features of the beloved North Dorset market town, and asks locals why they enjoy living, working and visiting there

The view from the walks in front of the Abbey

Shaftesbury, a small Saxon hilltop town in North Dorset, is most famous for its iconic image of Gold Hill. Standing 700 feet above sea level, it was over these famous cobbles that a boy pushed his bicycle (with a loaf of Hovis in the front basket) in the iconic television advert of 1973.
Largely responsible for putting Shaftesbury on the tourist map, Gold Hill has been immortalised as the cover of countless calendars and chocolate boxes, with the view from the top having been dubbed ‘one of the most romantic sights in England.’
Shaftesbury was founded in around AD880 and has strong connections with King Alfred the Great, who established an Abbey here in 888. It was built for his daughter, Aethelgifu. This was the first religious house built solely for the purpose of women, and King Alfred appointed his daughter as the first Abbess.

Peter Holloway with King Alfred in the background

“The Abbey gardens in particular are peaceful and quiet. Once you are inside the Abbey grounds, you cannot hear any traffic noise at all, and it is the only place in the town where you can have this experience. There is always something going on in the Abbey gardens, from Shakespeare plays to concerts and rotating exhibitions.” (Peter Holloway, Director of Gardens at the Abbey)

Unfortunately, the Abbey (along with others throughout the country) came under attack in 1539; it was destroyed under Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, forcing 651 years of continuous worship to a dramatic end. Although nothing much remains of the once magnificent Abbey, visitors to Shaftesbury are encouraged to visit the ruins and absorb the tranquillity of the grounds and gardens.

“I lived in Dorset for a long time before I visited Shaftesbury but as soon as I did, I knew I liked it here. The town has the perfect mix of chain shops and independently owned ones – it’s not an average town high street. And I always come here for the street markets which are very well done and have really good atmosphere. I get the impression there’s a healthy creative community here which is rare – places like Swan Yard and the Arts Centre make it seem like there’s people here doing and making things, it makes you feel like doing something yourself!” (James Broomfield)

Despite its small and rural nature, Shaftesbury is home to a string of high-street shops, but much of the High Street is a colourful mixture of estate agents, cafés and unique gift shops. There is a strong reliance on tourism, and the famous cobbles of Gold Hill never fail to attract a string of visitors from both the UK and overseas every year.

“There’s never a problem finding a parking space in the ‘main’ car park at the hilltop town of Shaftesbury, and from there it’s just a few steps to the High Street. The choice then is whether to explore the variety of interesting little shops stretching down the street, venture down the famous Gold Hill, or to take the Abbey Walk. The views of Blackmore Vale, which form the backdrop to the picturesque cottages of Gold Hill, are just as good from the Abbey Walk, which leads down to St James. From there an interesting stroll along this street of old houses and cottages brings us back to the bottom of Gold Hill, and a chance to take in the view, during much-needed rests during the climb up the cobbles. Back at the top the temptation is to visit King Alfred’s Kitchen for refreshment before heading for the shops. Of course, if the time is right, at the other end of town is one of the best Indian restaurants in the area, the wonderful Chutneys.” (Pete & Linda Canning)

The handful of pubs in Shaftesbury, six in total, ensure that there are several choices for an evening’s entertainment, complete with reasonably priced traditional ales, and warm open fires. Once famous for its Dorset buttons, the town retains its traditional roots with market days on Thursdays, which gives rise to a string of stalls at the top end of the high street, where fresh fish, flowers and bric-à-brac are usually on offer.
The historic town hall is a regular site of antique fairs and flea markets by day, and a yoga class location by night. Tucked away underneath this magnificent building, you will find Shaftesbury’s most popular cafe The Salt Cellar, complete with the staggering view of Gold Hill. This spot is in fact so popular that you will usually need to book a table, even for a quick cream tea.
Leading away from the hustle and bustle of the high street, Park Walk is a beautiful setting to collect your thoughts. With spanning views out across the Blackmore Vale, it is easy to see the appeal of Shaftesbury as an idyllic place to live. The TV programme, Location, Location, Location, rated Shaftesbury as one of the best places to live in the UK.

The massive buttresses supporting the wall alongside iconic Gold Hill

Like most ancient towns, Shaftesbury has its own collection of old wives’ tales and stories that have been handed down over the years. For example, rumour has it that if you were to remove any one of the houses from the row on Gold Hill, the remaining dwellings would all fall over like dominoes.

“I lived in Gillingham for four years, and visited Shaftesbury regularly. There is a great sense of history in Shaftesbury. In the fast-paced modern world around us, it’s a refreshing step back in time. The gardens opposite the ruins of the Abbey are beautiful and great for picnics. The view over the Blackmore Vale is stunning at any time of the year and in the summer I love watching the hot air balloons float in front of the sunset. The quaint town has as much to offer as the scenery which surrounds it. Tea rooms, bookshops and village hall fêtes are the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. If I’m feeling adventurous, a walk up Gold Hill is rewarded with a cup of tea and a moment to take in the breathtaking view of this famous British landmark. The Mitre Inn, which sits next to Gold Hill, is a delicious British pub, with fantastic views from the decking while drinking your pint.” (Sally Welbourn)

Another story is that if you wander along Park Walk at night, you are sure to see the ghost of a monk who once worked at the Abbey. It is said that he is only visible from the waist upwards, as the ground level has risen since his time. The legend goes that when King Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries, the Mother Abbess entrusted all of the Abbey’s wealth and treasure to the monk, instructing him to bury it somewhere safe before the King’s soldiers arrived to destroy the monastery. Leading two blindfolded men away with him, the monk chose a secret location somewhere in Shaftesbury and buried the treasure. Unfortunately, on his way back to tell the Abbess the location of the treasure, he had a heart attack and died, taking the secret with him to the grave. It is said that he wanders the length of Park Walk still looking for the Abbess to unburden himself of his secret.

From left to right: Margaret Ellaway, Ivan Hayter and Anne Oliver

Food and the arts are something that regularly draws the community together, with Shaftesbury’s annual Food Festival having recently combined with the Arts and Music Festival. The festival programme for 2013 ran between 31 May and 2 June and enjoyed wonderful weather and attendance.

“Gusto is a brilliant place to come and just meet friends for a coffee. We meet here every morning for a hot drink and a natter. The staff are really friendly and it’s nice to get out and have some company.” (Anne Oliver, Ivan Hayter and Margaret Ellaway)

Shaftesbury is also famous for its Gold Hill Fair, so named because throughout history, it was tradition to line Gold Hill with stalls and markets. Unfortunately, due to health and safety, the fair’s celebrations are now restricted to the High Street itself, which is closed off to traffic, and colourful stalls decorate the street from one end to the other, complete with live music, dramatic displays and funfair games.

Wine merchant David Perry

Another highlight on Shaftesbury’s calendar is the French Christmas travelling market, which springs up every year on the last weekend before Christmas. The town becomes alive with the spirit of Christmas, the smell of roasting chestnuts and mulled wine filling the crisp winter air. This market, having travelled all the way from France, stopping at various other British towns en route, offers a wide range of fresh produce, from cheese to wine, breads and various sweet and savoury snacks to help you stock up for the festive season.

“Some people think of Shaftesbury as a failing town and in fact it is quite the opposite. Trade is flourishing and there is currently only one available empty shop unit in the town. 71% of the shops are independents, which is good as it is important to be different. A lot of the town’s survival is thanks to the wealthy catchment, who like independent shops.” (David Perry, Wine Merchant)

Dorset Directory