There may not be a prettier sight in England than the cottages and cobblestones of Gold Hill against the rambling North Dorset countryside.
This view was immortalised by Ridley Scott in his Hovis ad of 1973. Shaftesbury and the Blackmore Vale is also Thomas Hardy country, appearing in novels like Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). The venerable stone wall along Gold Hill belongs to the Shaftesbury Abbey, established by King Alfred the Great in 888 and a much trafficked pilgrimage site in Anglo-Saxon England.
Walkers are well catered for in Shaftesbury, climbing to scenic overlooks above the Blackmore Vale, and into the chalk downs of Cranborne Chase, an expansive Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty just east of the town.
1. Gold Hill
One of the most charming sights in England is yours to enjoy from this famous cobblestone street, winding down from Shaftesbury’s high street.
On the right side is the 14th-century wall of Shaftesbury Abbey, and on the other is a terrace of stone-built cottages mostly from the 18th century, while the North Dorset countryside rolls out behind.
Gold Hill has always been treasured but shot to nationwide fame in 1973 when it was chosen as the location for Ridley Scott’s commercial for Hovis Bread, accompanied by Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9.
2. Gold Hill Museum
At the top of the slope, the Gold Hill Museum is in two historic buildings, one a priest’s dwelling and the other that provided lodgings for traders at the market.
In eight galleries you can trace the history of Shaftesbury and the wider district, browsing an appealing jumble of objects.
Most riveting is the Byzant, a ceremonial object made by a local craftsmen and carried during celebrations to mark the discovery of Shaftesbury’s water supply.
You can also check out the oldest fire engine in Dorset, dating to 1744, and antique examples of local lacework, buttons and costume.
The priest’s house retains a “squint through” gap to the St Peter’s Church, behind on the High Street.
The museum also has its own little garden with views of Blackmore Vale that you can stare at all day.
3. Shaftesbury Abbey Museum and Garden
Founded by Alfred the Great in 888, Shaftesbury Abbey the most important Benedictine nunnery in Anglo-Saxon England.
The relics of St Edward the Martyr, a teenage king murdered in 978, were brought here in 981, turning the abbey into a pilgrimage site.
By the 11th century the town had three mints thanks to the abbey and was the place of King Canute’s death in 1035. The Shaftesbury Abbey Museum is at the abbey’s excavated foundations recounts the abbey’s Anglo-Saxon days, as well as its progress through the Middle Ages until it was dissolved by Henry VIII.
The museum is decorated in vivid colours, recalling the interiors of the abbey church, and in display cases you can pore over remarkable Saxon stonework, Medieval floor tiles and masses of other artefacts recovered in digs.
The abbey is wrapped in those 14th-century grounds, and you can take a meditative walk in the Medieval orchard and herb garden.
4. Shaftesbury Heritage Trail
Plotted in the 2000s with Heritage Lottery funding, the Shaftesbury Heritage Trail is an easy introduction to the town via 12 important buildings and sites given blue plaques.
There are information boards at each stop, beginning with the Gothic Revival Town Hall (1827) and the 15th-century Church of St Peter, leading to the abbey grounds and of course Gold Hill.
At the old cattle market on Bell Street you can see rings in the wall to tether livestock, while the town hall still holds the charter for this market, dating back to 1260. For a detour Castle Hill is a nature reserve on the western edge of the town, supporting more than 40 bird species and with views north to King Alfred’s Tower on the Longleat Estate.
5. Cranborne Chase
The sixth largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the country begins just east of Shaftesbury.
In 379 square miles, Cranborne Chase is a chalk plateau belonging to the Southern England Chalk Formation.
Shaftesbury is beside the steeper scarp slope, and there’s a row of downs affording magnificent vistas west of across the Blackmore Vale.
As we’ll see there are lots of great vantage points in Cranborne Chase, as well as sweeps of chalk grassland carpeted with wildflowers, along with Iron Age hill forts, Medieval churches and adorable villages frozen in time.
Walkers and cyclists can plot epic journeys on public rights of way through this landscape, pausing for refreshment in a sunny pub garden.
6. Fontmell Down
In store at Fontmell Down on the eastern cusp of Cranborne Chase is an expanse of ancient chalk grassland, increasingly rare in England.
Never farmed, Fontmell Down supports 35 butterfly species and an exquisite array of wildflowers, including nine orchid varieties and the extremely rare early gentian.
Many of the wildflowers grow on the south-facing slope of the main down, which is kept purposely short, while the longer grass and scrub woodland on the lower slopes are a haven for unusual insects and small mammals.
All the while you can marvel at the far-reaching views over Blackmore Vale.
7. Melbury Beacon
This 263-metre chalk down, rising above the Blackmore Vale and Cranborne Chase was one of a chain of beacons linking London to Plymouth in 1588 to warn of the approach of the Spanish Armada.
Melbury Beacon was bought in Thomas Hardy’s memory to preserve a piece of the Blackmore Vale countryside, the setting for many of his works.
Walking Melbury Beacon in midsummer there’s an exquisite display of wildflowers and butterflies, while to the north you can mull over Shaftesbury’s townscape couched in the pastoral countryside.
8. Duncliffe Wood
You could also go west into the Blackmore Vale, to walk in this tract of ancient woodland at the double summit of the 210-metre Duncliffe Hill.
This is one of the largest areas of ancient woodland in the region, covering more than 220 acres and noted in the Domesday Book in 1086. For five centuries, Duncliffe Wood was the property of King’s College, Cambridge and is now managed by the Woodland Trust.
The lime trees growing here are estimated to be as old as 1,000 years.
Some of the paths can be tricky as the woodland is partly on a steep scarp slope, but in spring the heart-lifting display of bluebells will take your mind off the climbs.
9. Win Green
The highest point of Cranborne Chase is only five miles from the centre of Shaftesbury.
At 277 metres, Win Green is defined as a Marilyn for its prominence in the landscape, and is in the care of the National Trust.
Try to pick clear weather for an ascent as the panoramas are staggering, stretching back to Shaftesbury, north-west to Glastonbury Tor and the Quantock Hills, and south as far as the Isle of Wight’s Needles more than 30 miles away.
Skylarks, a mainstay of the English countryside can be heard on the hill all year, but especially in spring and summer, while chalkhill, Adonis blue and dark green fritillary are some of the many butterfly species on Win Green in the warmer seasons.
10. Old Wardour Castle
When it was built in the 14th century, Old Wardour Castle was ahead of the curve, as an extravagant residence on a hexagonal plan.
William Wynford (1360-1405), one of the most successful master masons in Medieval England, was employed in its construction.
The founding Lovell family lost possession in the 15th century for supporting the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses, and the Arundells, loyal to Charles I, were embroiled in the English Civil War in the 17th century.
Old Wardour Castle has been a ruin, albeit a very substantial one, since Henry 3rd Lord Arundell laid siege to his own residence blowing some of it up in the process.
Over the portal at the main entrance you can still see the Arundell coat of arms, and English Heritage has provided an audio tour, drawing your attention to the many features in the stonework, like a 16th-century bust of Christ, as well as rooms like the great hall, great parlour, buttery, servery and kitchen.
11. Larmer Tree Gardens
A little way into Cranborne Chase is Larmer Tree Gardens, designed by the Victorian archaeologist and ethnologist in 1880. Pitt Rivers intended the gardens as pleasure grounds, for “public enlightenment and entertainment”, opening them up for free (although you have to pay today). Among the private arbours, rhododendrons, mature broadleaf trees and manicured lawns roamed by peacocks and there’s an assortment of little monuments, like a colonial-style pavilion, Roman temple, a Nepalese Room and open-air theatre stage with a backdrop based on Nicolas Poussin’s Funeral of Phocion.
Picnics are encouraged, and you can borrow deckchairs and croquet equipment for free.
In mid-July the Larmer Tree Festival is a folk and world music event, noted for its family-friendly atmosphere
12. Shaftesbury Arts Centre
The old covered market in the centre of Shaftesbury was turned into a gallery and performing arts venue in 1957, and stages exhibitions, plays, live music, stand-up comedy, dance performances and a host of workshops and classes.
The Shaftesbury Arts Centre is run entirely by volunteers, and as a valued local amenity there’s something happening most days, from shows by talented artists and photographers from the region (lasting one or two weeks), Pilates, after-school drama classes to movie screenings on Friday nights.
Every July the Shaftesbury Fringe is a comedy event coinciding with the annual Gold Hill Festival.
13. Melbury Vale Vineyard
This vineyard a mile or so south of Shaftesbury was founded in 2003, on the south-facing slopes of the picturesque Stirkel Valley.
Melbury Vale Vineyard is planted with cool climate grapes like Pinot Noir, Seyval Blanc, Reichensteiner and Bacchus, producing wines like the dry sparkling white, Grace, the fruity sparkling rosé, Decadence, and Elegance, a light white wine with honey, elderflower and pear notes.
The on-site winery was completed in 2013 and has many sustainable design elements like a wildflower meadow roof and rainwater harvesting.
You can call in at the winery shop on Fridays and Saturdays, sampling wines before you buy, and can contact the vineyard in advance for a tour.
14. Gold Hill Fair
On the first Sunday of July there’s a cosy celebration in the idyllic environs of abbey grounds, as well as up on the High Street.
There you can potter around the market stalls, while youngsters can go on donkey rides.
One of the quirkier local traditions is a “Van Pull” along the High Street.
In the Abbey Grounds there’s live music all day long, while the normally closed Trinity church tower is opened for you to marvel at one of the best views in the town.
All proceeds go towards local causes.
15. Shaftesbury Market
Thursday is market day in Shaftesbury, when the High Street is packed with stalls trading fruit, vegetables, flowers, eggs, fresh bread, pastries, honey, preserves and the like.
On Thursday morning you can also pop into the Town Hall for the Country Market, which is more for casual local traders selling home-grown seasonal produce and handmade crafts, home-cooked meals, flowering bulbs and occasionally free range pork and lamb.
For more local groceries straight from the producer there’s a famers’ market on the first Saturday of the month, as well as an arts and crafts market on the High Street on the 3rd Sunday of the month in summer.