Gold Hill: A day in the life
Shaftesbury’s Gold Hill is not merely an internationally famous and iconic setting, it’s also a tourist attraction of no mean repute. Joël Lacey spent a few hours wandering up and down it chatting to locals, visitors and residents.
Published in November ’15
In the entrance hall to the Gold Hill Museum, there’s a black and white still photograph taken during the filming of John Schlesinger’s 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd. It shows a mounted troop of horses led by an officer looking not terribly confident about walking down Gold Hill’s cobbles.
What you can’t see in the picture is the little boy hiding behind the Abbey wall’s buttress on the left. His father had apparently just sold out of Wellington boots owing to the rain that day and he wanted to see the horses trying to get down the hill.
This vignette reveals two truisms about Gold Hill: it’s an intimidatingly steep hill that can be lethal when wet, and there is something of the film set about it. Anyone who has walked down it can attest to the former and anyone who lives on it can attest to the latter.
Mike Pope, who lives towards the bottom of Gold Hill says: ‘My next door neighbour has had people just wandering into her garden taking pictures because they thought the whole hill was a TV set – like the Coronation Street tour – and we’ve put up silvered widows so we can sit in our kitchen without people outside peering in and looking at us all the time… although they now just take pictures of themselves in the mirrored windows.
Whilst the residents might think that the hill is busy with tourists, some visitors come for a seemingly opposite reason. Francis Moore, who is a regular visitor from the Chalke valley, says: ‘It’s an iconic place because of the advert, but it’s also a tranquil peaceful place to come and collect one’s thoughts. Shaftesbury’s a living, breathing community, but it’s lovely to be able to step off the high street and step into a quiet area where people will come to for what it is. We couldn’t be luckier to have it.’
Most people do visit Gold Hill by doing exactly what Francis Moore suggests – stepping off the high street – but there is a different way to approach it, and one which gives an altogether different view to that normally associated with Gold Hill: a steep uphill walk. For those who park by Shaftesbury’s main Post Office and the Italian restaurant, then walk down Shooters Lane, turn right onto Layton Lane and then approach Gold Hill from the bottom to get a wholly different view, the good news is that there is a defibrillator at the café at the top of the hill.
On the day of our visit to Gold Hill, the groom’s part of a wedding party – eight identically dressed young men – were considering the relative merits of parking at the bottom of Gold Hill for accessing the wedding ceremony at the Church of St Peter at the top. One young man thought it might be worth checking to see how long it took to walk up the hill; he was raucously invited so to do by his confrères. Young Englishmen being famous the world over for their punctilious planning, they were considering leaving ‘at least three minutes’ to achieve the journey from bottom to top and to get into their pews.
One element of that journey which perhaps the young did not need to consider quite so much as irregular older visitors is the recovery time required once one has achieved the ascent. A beneficiary of this is the Gold Hill Gallery, which, as its name suggests, was once solely a repository for images of the iconic view. Now it is a place where the oxygen deprived come to gulp in lungsful of air whilst deciding on gift cards, antique curios, works of art and ceramics.
Maggie Thompson, who has been at the gallery for nine years is clearly quite sanguine about the steepness of the walk saying: ‘Sometimes you get to the bottom of the hill and realise you’ve left something in the shop and you just have to pop back up.’ Clearly working and walking up here everyday puts Nordic walking in the shade from a cardio-pulmonary workout perspective, given the insouciance of her tone.
Working at the Gallery has other benefits too: ‘It’s really nice; every day is different but you always meet people from all over, and they’re always in a good mood,’ says Maggie, perhaps not considering that, just as I was after my third return top-to-bottom-and-back trip in 20 minutes, perhaps they are just glad to still be alive.
Although the scene seems essentially unchanged, the hill has changed over the years, as Maggie reveals: ‘When I first came here, most of the people who lived on Gold Hill had lived there all their lives; many had been born here and never left. Now there’s a lot more holiday cottages and Bed & Breakfasts.’
There is still a big community spirit on the hill though. In the space of half an hour I spoke to one lady who’d foiled a robbery from the poor box at St Peter’s church just days before and another who weeded the whole hill from bottom to top on her hands and knees as none of the publicly elected bodies seems to wish to take responsibility for keeping the weeds down.
Travelling up and down the hill – or more accurately travelling down and up the hill – there is a clearly determined effort and reward order established. People will not stop for a coffee until they have at least paid lip service to walking down the hill. This may often only be far enough for them to be isolated in front of the iconic scene so a companion can grab a picture of them on Gold Hill.
Some though, walk as far as the kink to the right so that they can see what’s ‘at the bottom’. Without wishing to spoil the surprise, it’s a T-junction with St James Street and the aforementioned Layton Lane. Once they’ve seen that this is what they’ve been missing, surprisingly few visitors walk down to it; most either metaphorically or literally shrug their shoulders, turn around and, pointing their chins uphill, begin the slow ascent to the top.
According to Hannah Hunter McILveen and Linda Swiss – two volunteers at the Gold Hill Museum – the huge majority of their visitors pop in after ‘doing’ the hill. Like the Gold Hill Gallery, it’s a gentle place to catch one’s breath and also to breath in the history of the hill and the town. Janet steers me by the arm and takes me to the centre of the hill: ‘The view is always, always changing,’ she says, adding ‘most people don’t realise that what they’re looking at is partly Hambledon Hill,’ tracing the outline of the hump of the Iron Age hillfort as she speaks.
Back in the museum, we talk again of visitors from Commonwealth countries and people coming to Shaftesbury specifically to see the hill. Whilst once, perhaps, the Hovis advert was conflated with the short-lived predecessor filmed in the Lancashire mill town of Colne, that mill town location’s hilly industrial backdrop has been redeveloped so there is really nothing to see.
It is not simply that Gold Hill is still here, nor even that it is still almost exactly the same as when a young Carl Barlow pushed his bike up and freewheeled his way down the sepia-toned hill to the sound of Dvorák’s New World Symphony Number 9, as indeed it was when Ronnie Barker walked up Gold Hill in a spoof of the ad years later.
No, the thing that makes Gold Hill special is that so many little things make it special: it is an iconic image of childhood and of a collective warm memory of an idealised world which perhaps never existed, and all with a spectacular view that changes throughout the day and the seasons, but with a sense of community that has remained unaltered despite the shifting economic times. ◗