Nine brilliant reasons to visit Shaftesbury in winter

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
IT’S CHRISTMAS!

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.


16: Bell Street Christmas Special, Shaftesbury Arts Centre. For one night only, 7.30-10.30pm, singing, dancing, comedy and festive snacks into the bargain.
17: Shaftesbury Christmas Street Fair, 100 craft and food/drink stalls – the biggest Christmas street market in Dorset. 10am-4pm. During the day Churches Together will be performing their annual nativity play.
19: Carols on the Meadow, Town Meadow, Gillingham, 6-7pm. Organised by The Churches of Gillingham. Carols, mince pies, hot drinks


REASON NUMBER TWO
IT’S ALSO CHRISTMAS NEARBY!

Sherborne, Dorset

Shaftesbury is surrounded by gorgeous rolling countryside, phenomenal walking routes and compelling places to visit like Mere, Sherborne, Sturminster Newton and Larmer Tree Gardens – all within 10 miles, and all with excellent pre-Christmas events.

1-3: Larmer Tree Christmas Fair, Tollard Royal (1: 6-9pm, 2/3: 10am-4pm). Carols on Friday evening, kids’ shows over the weekend, alpacas and hawks and lots of entertainment. £4 adults.
2: Sturminster Newton Christmas Producers’ Market, 10am-5pm. Food and craft stalls, carols and a grotto. Christmas Lights turned on at 5pm.
3: Sherborne Festive Shopping Day, 10am-4pm. The lights are on, the band is in town and the choir will belt out carols to shoppers. Cheap Street and Digby Street will be closed to traffic to make way for stalls, clog and Morris dancing and more.
7: Christmas Market, Mere. More than 20 stalls selling food/drink and crafts, Christmas Lights turned on at 6pm and carols from the Warminster Wives Military Choir.
9: Henstridge Airfield Christmas Fayre, 11am-3pm. £1 entry, stalls, raffle, mince pies
9: Tiz the Season, Tisbury High Street, 12noon-5pm, 40 stalls, carols, mince pie eating contest
16: Sherborne Town Band Christmas Sing-a-Long, Cheap Street Church,7.30pm. £7. Carol concert with Sherborne Town and Youth Band, with Sherborne Community Choir.

Handmade for Christmas, The Workhouse Chapel, Sturminster Newton. 10-30am-4pm daily. More than 60 craft stalls from the West Country
Christmas at Kingston Lacy – Christmas lights in the house and illuminated gardens. Open daily


REASON NUMBER THREE
DARK DECEMBER: TIME FOR STARGAZING

There is a bid underway to create Dorset’s first International Dark Sky Reserve, an area that restricts light pollution and promotes astronomy. The bid is being led by the Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) which lies to the southwest of Shaftesbury on the doorstep of the town.

There are several recommended places to stargaze within the the AONB but the nearest to Shaftesbury – and one of the most spectacular – is Fontmell Down Nature Reserve on Spread Eagle Hill, two miles away. By day, there are stunning views out to the Blackmore Vale: the landscape was bought to preserve the essence of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex.

Cranborne is pressing hard to obtain International Dark Sky Reserve status (you can follow its progress at www.chasingstars.org.uk). While several national parks in the UK have the mantle (Exmoor, Brecon Beacons, South Downs, Snowdonia), it would be the first AONB in the country to earn the accolade.

At 263m, the summit of the hill is one of the highest points in Dorset. An Armada beacon sited here in 1588 formed part of the chain of signal beacons stretching between London and Plymouth. What better place to witness the other navigational tools used by sea farers worldwide – the mystical constellations. This site offers superb panoramic views which, apart from Win Green, are unparalleled in the AONB.

DECEMBER STAR HIGHLIGHTS

3: A full moon, the so-called Snow Moon
9: Cranborne Chase AONB stargazing with Bob Wizon of the Wessex Astronomical Society, 7pm at the Woodcutts Scout HQ on the B3081 at Sixpenny Handley (SP5 5NW)
10: Stargazing with Cerne Valley Astronomers, 7-9pm at The New Inn, 14 Long Street
13-14: The Geminids meteor shower will be among the best of the year, with up to 100 meteors per hour
14: Meteor gazing at Durlston Country Park with the Wessex Astronomical Society, from 7.30pm. Call 01929 424443 on the day to confirm – weather dependent)
21: Winter Solstice: the shortest day of the year, from which sunrise points start climbing north meaning longer days


REASON NUMBER FOUR
GET ON YOUR (CHRISTMAS) BIKE! A 20-MILE FOOD AND DRINK TOUR

There’s a reason the Hovis boy was pushing his bike up Gold hill: it’s very steep, a punishing 16.2º angle, as cyclists find out every year in The Gold Hill Challenge. Dozens more make the climb throughout the year, even the really steep bit at the top.

Now, there’s a more rewarding way to cycle the region: Dorset Food & Drink, a collective of the county’s finest products, has devised a series of Foodie Routes, one of which is a 20-mile circular loop of Shaftesbury and The Blackmore Vale. Dorset’s novelist son, Thomas Hardy, described it as The Vale of Little Dairies, in homage to the area’s milk and cheese heritage.

You can see the route here on a Google map. Heading out of Shaftesbury, it takes you through the village of Motcombe into open country. The hedges here are cut low, affording magnificent views to Duncliffe Wood and Shaftesbury on its ridge.

Through Gillingham, and a stop at the cycle shop for running repairs – or the coffee shop next door for a bacon bap and tea – then south, turning towards Duncliffe and eventually back to Shaftesbury laden with charcuterie and cheese. Read the full report of the route here, and happy peddling into 2018.


REASON NUMBER FIVE
A NEW YEAR’S WALK AT STOURHEAD

Stourhead

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.

* Read more about the stupendous walking around Shaftesbury, including The Wessex Ridgeway, North Dorset Trailway, the White Hart Link and walks in Gillingham’s Royal Forest.


REASON NUMBER SIX
THE 90TH ANNIVERSARY OF THOMAS HARDY’S DEATH

Hardy’s statue in Dorchester

Thomas Hardy died at Max Gate, his home in Dorchester, on the evening of January 11, 1928. His long-held wish was to be buried with his first wife and great love Emma amongst the family graves at nearby Stinsford. However his executors decided his heart be cut from his body and buried at Stinsford whilst his mutilated remains were cremated at Woking and the ashes interred in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, beside the grave of Charles Dickens.

His birth, however, was not so traumatic. He was born on the morning of June 2, 1840, in the isolated thatched cottage built by his great-grandfather at Higher Bockhampton, a hamlet on the edge of Piddletown Heath three miles east of Dorchester. Hardy’s Cottage still stands, run by The National Trust, and will be open on January 11. It is open Thursdays-Sundays throughout January and February.

North Dorset was a huge inspiration to Hardy. The principal towns, Shaftesbury and Sherborne, both feature heavily in his novels, with Gillingham also playing a supporting role. In the surrounding countryside, the Blackmore Vale was the backdrop to his most lyrical writing about nature, with the honey stone village of Marnhull home to Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Tess, Jude the Obscure and The Woodlanders – his last three novels – were all largely based in North Dorset.

If following in his footsteps, it makes sense to base yourself in Shaftesbury, then walk, cycle or drive Hardy’s rolling landscapes and historic places. We’d also suggest dropping down to Dorchester to visit the County Museum, and it’s treasure trove of Hardy’s effects, then on to Hardy’s Cottage (open 10am-4pm in winter). Read our full feature on Hardy in North Dorset here.


REASON NUMBER SEVEN
IN PRAISE OF APPLES (and cider): WASSAILING IN JANUARY!

Wassailing is an ancient custom that involves drinking cider, singing to the trees in the hope of a good harvest and scaring away any evil spirits that might be lurking. Dorset has a flourishing cider scene – find out where where to find the best cider, ale, wine and (alcoholic) spirits in the county.

The exact ritual varies from area to area, but at the heart of the ceremony are usually a king and queen who lead a singing procession to the orchard, where the queen is lifted into the branches of a tree to offer cider-soaked toast to the good tree spirits.

A variation of this song is then sung:

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full, caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
Hurrah! Hurrah!

Chaos subsequently ensues as everyone bangs pots and pans to scare away evil spirits and a volley of guns is fired up through the branches. A healthy session of merry making ensues, lubricated by generous sampling of the latest batch of cider.

You can find wassailing celebrations across the region, including one at Donhead Apple Company. Kevin Wood and Gavin Tait have planted 800 trees in a field east of Shaftesbury in the past six years, and now produce a 6.5% bottled craft cider and an 8% sparkling cider, as well as a draught festival cider. The sparkling won a gold medal earlier this year in the International Cider Challenge.

As well Shaftesbury Wines in the town, they sell through a dozen local outlets such as farm and village shops, as well as the local pub, The Forester in Donhead St Andrew.

And on January 13, the orchard hosts a wassail which has become one of the largest village gatherings of the year. Said Gavin in a Telegraph interview: “We all gather in the village hall and walk through the orchard serenading the trees. According to West Country traditions, it secures a plentiful harvest – but for us it’s mainly an excuse to have fun.”

OTHER WASSAILS
6: The Rose and Crown, Longburton, Sherborne, Dorset DT9 5PD – followed by The Mangledwurzels
13: Avalon Orchard, Glastonbury Tor, 2-6pm – entry £8 to include parking, hot roll and pint of cider. Tours of the tor from 2pm.
17: North Wootton Wassail, Shepton Mallet, Somerset. Over the border in Somerset. After the bonfire and wassail ceremony there is entertainment in the Village Hall with traditional music, the Langport Mummers and the Beetle Crushers clog dancers. A ploughman’s supper is served and the cider is flowing. £7.50.

More: Where to find the best drinks in Dorset


REASON NUMBER EIGHT
SHAFTESBURY SNOWDROP FESTIVAL IN FEBRUARY!

FEBRUARY 10-19

Shaftesbury Snowdrops is a unique project to create Britain’s first ‘Snowdrop Town’. The project was created in 2012, since when more than 180,000 snowdrops have been planted. Last year, 25,000 were purchased, which were planted in the town, in pots for municipal display and in a nursery bed at Shaftesbury Home-Grown for future supplies.

A further 20,000 were bought to sell on, at cost, to Shepton Mallet’s new Snowdrop Festival, helping to build our links with neighbouring festivals. The unique community-owned Shaftesbury heritage collection has grown during the past year to more than 100 varieties.

Visitors can take a series of walks throughout the town featuring the snowdrops – an excellent 30-minute walk takes in the highlights of Shaftesbury’s slopes, views and history. There is also a snowdrop exhibition at the Arts Centre, with entries in painting, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, photography and prints.

You can buy snowdrops, and there is a snowdrop study day on February 10, with three talks, a gallery, pop-up shop and guided tour of the heritage snowdrops.

It’s a community project, which continues to grow and garner support. For example, last year Shaftesbury Arts Centre enjoyed another very successful art exhibition and sale of local artists work; The Abbey Museum & Garden generated a significant increase in income; Bell St. Library had lots of Dragon story sessions leading up to the Saturday lantern parade; Gold Hill Museum had a busy week, again selling out tickets for the popular children’s craft classes and benefiting from shop sales.


REASON NUMBER NINE
GET REVITALISED GOLD HILL TO YOURSELF!

Did you know that there are 58,000 cobbles on Gold Hill? And it’s no surprise that a few work loose every now and then, particularly as the hill is some 750 years old. But it’s been seven years since the last clean-up, so the hill – also known as Hovis Hill – has been getting a spruce up this autumn.

The first stage of work has now been finished, with missing cobbles replaced, others lifted and re-laid and the cobbled gutters being recovered from under a blanket of dirt. The areas around the benches at the top and down the hill have been cleaned up, grass and dirt scraped from the hill sides and some overhanging flora cleared off the retaining old Abbey wall.

Plus, more work will be carried out next spring to de-green the hill further, and to polish up the wooden posts and handrail down the slope, all thanks to a grant from Tesco. Read all about it here.

The thousands of visitors who travel to Shaftesbury to take a snap at the top of the hill will return from next Easter. Meanwhile, you can have the hill to yourself! Take a coffee at The Salt Cellar at the top of the hill, wander past eight cottages on the cobbles (and put an offer on Updown Cottage – the white cottage in the middle, above – which is currently for sale) – and toast success at Ye Olde Two Brewers pub at the bottom.