Shaftesbury, a Saxon hill town in Dorset, is packed full of things to see and do. It is a historic market town with an ancient abbey. There are walks with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside, and the famous Gold Hill, with its cobbles and stone cottages. And, for literary buffs, there is the connection with Thomas Hardy…
A Saxon Hill Town
Shaftesbury was one of a number of fortified towns founded by King Alfred the Great to defend his kingdom of Wessex. In 888 CE he established a Benedictine abbey on the hill top site. This was the first such community solely for women, and Alfred’s daughter Aethelgifu was the first abbess. For a while in the 10th century, the Abbey housed the relics of St Edward the Martyr, and Shaftesbury became a pilgrimage destination.
Shaftesbury Abbey was dissolved in 1539, and fell into ruin. Today visitors can explore the Abbey Museum and the remains of the abbey buildings, and wander through the herb garden.
Close to the Abbey is St Peter’s Church. The oldest church in Shaftesbury, it was built in the 14th century to serve visiting pilgrims. Next door is the 19th century Town Hall and the Gold Hill Museum. The museum is housed in two historic buildings, and has displays of local interest and a traditional cottage garden.
The Shaftesbury Heritage Trail
A good way to explore the town is via the Shaftesbury Heritage Trail. This is a series of eight information boards showing different aspects of the town’s history. I have created a map so that you can follow the route for yourself. However, note that although I have marked the supposed location of Point B (Angel Square) I was unable to find this board. It has either been moved or is very well hidden!
The Trail will take you along old streets and past quaint cottages. It takes in the most important buildings and the main viewpoints. You will notice that many of the boards are on the sites of pubs that have now vanished. This is an indication of Shaftesbury’s former importance as a market town.
Gold Hill And That Hovis Advert
The best known sight in Shaftesbury is Gold Hill. This was the subject of a very famous 1973 advert for Hovis bread: a moody depiction of a boy pushing a bike up the hill to the accompaniment of Dvořák’s New World Symphony. But, even without the advert, Gold Hill would be popular with visitors. The steep cobbled hill is edged by the 14th century Abbey wall on one side, and by timeless cottages on the other. And at the bottom is an expansive view across the beautiful Blackmore Vale.
Note that the cobbles and the incline of Gold Hill may make it unsuitable for anyone with mobility issues. However, there is no particular need to walk down the hill: the best view is from the top.
Parks And Viewpoints
Probably the best view of the Blackmore Vale is from Park Walk. Formerly part of the Abbey grounds, this area was laid out as a formal promenade in the 18th century. At the far end of the walk is Pine Walk, a Victorian addition planted with Scots pines.
Elsewhere in the town footpaths will take you up and down the hill. And there is another viewpoint – to the north this time – at Castle Hill (Point F on the Heritage Trail). There are no signs of the former fortifications; the area is now a nature reserve.
Thomas Hardy And Shaston
You don’t have to be a fan of Thomas Hardy’s novels (I am not!) to appreciate his inextricable link with Dorset’s towns and countryside. Shaftesbury features in his novels as “Shaston”, a former name for the town.
The two novels most closely associated with Shaftesbury are Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Tess lives her whole life in the nearby Blackmore Vale, and her father visits the doctor in Shaston. And Ox House, close to Castle Hill, features in Jude the Obscure as Old Grove House, the home of the schoolmaster (a blue plaque marks the house).
Eating And Drinking In Shaftesbury
Some of the town’s pubs may have disappeared, but there are still several to choose from. I had lunch at The Mitre, which not only serves good food but has spectacular views from its back window. Elsewhere, King Alfred’s Kitchen, in a building dating back to the 17th century, has a tearoom and a tapas restaurant. Or try the Grosvenor Arms for a more formal meal.