NOT many people know this. Every winter, when Stourhead House is closed to the public, the volunteers run special tours into the back passages of the house while it is being cleaned and the conservators move in to do their work.
The tours are free (although you have to pay the £16 admission to the house) and provide a fascinating insight into the colossal work that goes on just to keep the house going and its contents preserved.
Three tours run on most days through to March 5. Booking is essential, and groups are usually up to 15 for each tour. Shaftesbury Tourism accompanied four members of the British Guild of Travel Writers last week, and this is what we found….
Stourhead is just 10 miles from Shaftesbury and the garden remains open year-round (the house remains closed on weekdays after Christmas until March 13, although open at weekends).
The landscaped garden was created more than 250 years ago. In winter, as the leaves have fallen, you can clearly see the design and how Capability Brown’s vision has turned into something spectacular.
The garden temples take pride of place during winter, offering viewpoints and shelters before you continue on the circular walk around the lake. The winter light, a result of the low sun, also creates wonderful shadows throughout the day allowing the garden to be seen in a new perspective. Sight isn’t the only sense that benefits from the winter season; sounds are amplified around the garden due to the lack of leaves.
The garden itself is quieter, with fewer visitors, and so you are more likely to see some of Britain’s native species of birds. And as a bonus, visitors are able to take their dogs on a lead between December-February all day, every day.
You can combine the walk with a Behind-Closed-Doors guided tour of the house, to learn about the conservation work at Stourhead. The tours are being held three times daily on 29 days in January and February, 2018. They are free, but normal admission charges apply to the venue.
WE STRONGLY support shopping in Shaftesbury and Gillingham for the Christmas tree and table. But if you have moved away from the area, and would like a seasonal reminder of the auld home, then shopping online is a perfect way to browse for gifts and treats.
Many of the area’s retailers have now built a shop online, and many more will follow – perfect for North Dorset ‘expats,’ and for those living here who’d like to send a gift to friends and family further afield.
All the retailers mentioned here have an online presence, and there is still plenty of time to place your orders for this Christmas and support your excellent Shaftesbury and Gillingham retailers.
If you are a producer in the vicinity selling North Dorset-related Christmas gifts or food and drink, and have an online shop – do let us know! Leave a comment with a brief description of your product and the website. Thanks!
Planked is a small Dorset company making stuff out of wood! Setup by designer/maker Lucy Ball in 2010 with a passion for woodworking, it produces handmade contemporary British small furniture, sculptures and homewares. Everything is designed with both practicality and aesthetics in mind, to form very unique products from sustainable timber, sourced both locally and from afar.
CHRISTMAS MARKETS + CHRISTMAS LIGHTS + LATE NIGHT SHOPPING + STREET FAIRS + CAROL CONCERTS + MINCE PIES GALORE + DARK SKY STARGAZING + METEOR SHOWERS + FOOD AND DRINK CYCLING TOUR + NEW YEAR WALKS AT STOURHEAD (+ BEHIND THE SCENES TOUR OF THE HOUSE) + 90TH ANNIVERSARY OF HARDY’S DEATH + WASSAILING AND CIDER CELEBRATIONS + THE BIGGEST EVER SNOWDROP FESTIVAL + WALK A REVITALISED GOLD HILL WITHOUT THE CROWDS
REASON NUMBER ONE
The second-highest market town in England has the biggest Christmas Street Fair in Dorset (on December 17) and is the epicentre of so many seasonal events. And sister town Gillingham – just down the hill and on the mainline train line between London and Exeter – is also laying on seasonal treats. Base yourself in Shaftesbury for a night or three, soak in the atmosphere and sing your heart out at a carol service, followed by a mince pie and mulled wine, naturally.
1:Gillingham Christmas Parade and Lights Switch-on, 2-8.30pm. A Christmas Market will be held all day, with gift and food/drink stalls, rides and music before the procession starts from the Town Hall to Town Meadow at 6.30pm, including the ‘Santa Express.’ The Mayor will switch on the lights and there will be carols at the tree. 2: Shaftesbury Farmers’ Market, Town Hall, 9am-1pm 2: Victoriana Gillingham, 10am-4pm. Street fair, live music, old fairground organ, Hidden Pizza, choirs on Town Meadow. 4:Shaftesbury Christmas Spectacular and the turning on of the Christmas Lights. From 6pm. Massed choirs of 200 will sing before and after the ceremony. Father Christmas will be in the grotto in the Town Hall with street food, fairground rides and traction engines on the High Street. There will also be late night shopping until 9pm – with customers given a 10% discount voucher for use in 2018.
LORENZO Ferrari has been working Gold Hill for 25 years. Not continuously, you understand. But if anything needs doing on the hill, it’s a fair bet that Dorset County Council will call for Lorenzo.
He works for the DCC but is only called on to repair listed structures, mainly bridges. And Gold Hill has been in need of some love and attention for some time. “It’s gotten so weedy, people have been calling it Green Hill,” says one local shopowner.
The hill, which is 750 years old, is invaluable to Shaftesbury as a tourism magnet. Hundreds take pictures at the top of the hill every day in summer: it ranks second-only to Durdle Door as the most photographed site in Dorset on Instagram. (Have you noticed there are no cables or TV aerials on the hill? They are banned).
The visitors bring income to the town, supporting local businesses and by extension supporting local jobs. But Gold Hill hasn’t been cleaned up for seven years, and it showed. Then Shaftesbury got lucky.
THERE ARE two types of tourists that come to Shaftesbury, says David Perry. The first category he knows as those who jump off a coach for a rest stop and will buy one bottle of Dorset beer or cider as a souvenir. Then there are those who will come by car, buy a bottle of Dorset gin, or a case of good quality wine to be put in the boot or taken to the holiday cottage.
All are valued visitors and David welcomes them to his home town. He has had a long and varied career in the wine trade in different places but eventually returned to Shaftesbury in 2008 (he had been a pupil at the old Shaftesbury Grammar School in the 1970s). He missed his two passions, he says: Dorset and wine.
He took over Shaftesbury Wines, which began life two decades ago, and now runs the High Street shop with his daughter, Alice. He has a strong desire to combine the best of wines and spirits worldwide with a strong stable of Dorset produce, be it wine, sparkling, cider, ale or spirits.
So when it came to compiling this feature about the best drinks in Dorset, with a particular emphasis on North Dorset, I knew just the man to speak to…
The White Hart Link is the new long-distance route which links the five towns of North Dorset: Gillingham, Stalbridge, Sturminster Newton, Blandford and Shaftesbury.
It’s so named as the Blackmore Vale was once known as the Vale of the White Hart, a “creature whose rarity and beauty have attracted, in legend, a wealth of mystical and royal associations,” says a report in The Guardian.
It was also described by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. “The Vale was known in former times as the Forest of White Hart, from a curious legend of King Henry III’s reign, in which the killing by a certain Thomas de la Lynd of a beautiful white hart which the king had run down and spared, was made the occasion of a heavy fine.”
SHAFTESBURY has a very good collection of hotels, cottages and B&Bs. But as the town sits on a hilltop, there isn’t a great deal of room to innovate with glamping options. Happily, there is a great deal of space in the vales and woodlands surrounding Shaftesbury, with no shortage of innovation in recent years. New options for 2017 include a converted double decker bus, shepherd huts with hot pools and luxury safari tents.
There are now a dozen glamping sites within a few miles of Shaftesbury, many with spectacular views and settings – in oak woodlands, kitchen gardens, equestrian centres and working farms. They all add to the wealth of accommodation choices in North Dorset, alongside a number of AirBnB options. Come and stay in north Dorset for a short break, or a full family holiday: we’re halfway between London and Cornwall, just off the A303, and within easy reach of Dorset’s world famous Jurassic Coast.
CRUMBS! The loaf that has sat atop Gold Hill for decades has disappeared.
The town has been agog since The Hovis Loaf, a slice of Shaftesbury life, vanished overnight. “We had a lot of people asking where it is. One guest said he heard people talking about loaf theft,” said Anne Giberson, chairman of Shaftesbury Tourism and owner of The Chalet B&B.
But Anne revealed the loaf is far from being toast: it’s simply being refreshed and repackaged, having gone a bit stale in recent years after a distinguished history.