Picture perfect Shaftesbury lies on the edge of Cranborne Chase, a designated AONB (Area of Oustanding Natural Beauty) in Southern England. I’d seen lots of photos of Shaftesbury online and knew it was packed with beautiful streets and interesting history, but also knew it was quite small and would need tying in with somewhere else to make a break of it. We chose neighbouring Cranborne Chase, to give us a balance of picturesque towns, history and English countryside. This is a much lesser known and visited part of England so was very quiet, and I’m excited to share with you.
You could choose to stay in Shaftesbury itself, or choose one of the area’s many ‘pubs with rooms’ such as The Beckford Arms or The Royal Oak, which make a perfect base out in the countryside for walks, eating and wine drinking without the hustle and bustle of a town centre.
Day 1 – Shaftesbury and The Wardours
We arrived early in Shaftesbury to ensure a car parking space as there is only really one, quite small, central car park. Shaftesbury is the only hilltop settlement in Dorset which means it commands lovely views out over the countryside and is made up of some beautiful steep hills. There are a few sites worth visiting, so spend your first morning exploring Shaftesbury itself.
A. Gold Hill
Start at the most famous point and get some photos before the crowds arrive. Gold Hill (famous for being Hovis Hill, from the bread adverts) is one of the most recognisable streets in England, its beautiful cobbles and rickety houses being picture perfect England. From the top of the hill you can see the rolling fields in the background, although on the day we visited it was a bit misty. It’s actually the 5th steepest street in England, so be prepared to get a bit puffed out walking back up it!
B. Gold Hill Museum
The Gold Hill Museum is deceptively big. Opening at 10.30am, it’s worth popping in to learn a bit more about the history of Shaftesbury including its Medieval history, to becoming a lace and button trading town, to modern times. The Museum also has a nice little garden with more nice views to take in.
C. Shaftesbury Abbey
Shaftesbury Abbey was founded in the 800s by Alfred the Great, the most famous Anglo Saxon King. He believed in education for both men and women, and set up the Abbey as a place of learning and retreat – he put his daughter in charge as the Abbess. Over the years, the Abbey welcomed many wealthy visitors including King Cnut who died here. Katherine of Aragon also visited on her way to London to marry Henry VIII.
Ironically it was then Henry VIII who then destroyed the Abbey during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. All that remains today is some of the foundations, a beautifully done garden and a great museum which tells the history of the Abbey.
After the morning in Shaftesbury, it’s then time to head out in to the countryside. There are various options for lovely walks in the area but I’m a sucker for a Castle so decided to head 20 minutes down the road into Cranborne Chase to Old Wardour Castle and do a walk from there.
D. Old Wardour Castle
Old Wardour Castle was such a treat – I didn’t know what to expect but it blew me away. This Castle was built in the 1380s as a fortified manor home, rather than a Castle as we often know them. In the 1500s it was updated in to Elizabethan style and then, in a Civil War siege of 1644, the owner accidentally blew up one side of his own castle, while recapturing it from the Parliamentary army. From there, the Castle was then never repaired as the family built New Wardour Castle just a short distance away as a stately home, and turned Old Wardour into a picturesque park of ruins, lake and woodland. It remains like this today.
E. Wessex Way walk
After visiting the Castle, finish a day off with a walk which takes you on a loop through rolling fields and woodland between Old and New Wardour Castles, all within Cranborne Chase AONB. The route takes around 1.5 hours and is 3.5 miles long. The route we followed can be found HERE. As you can see we got totally rained on during this walk, but as they say – there’s no such thing as bad weather, only a bad choice of clothing -including mine, when I got wet feet.
Day 2 – Fonthill Estate (or alternative Cranborne Chase walk)
Day 2 is all about a nice long walk in the countryside. There are a huge array of Cranborne Chase walks to do and their website is great with various options detailed, ranging from easy to hard. We hose a medium walk, detailed HERE. The walk was 7 miles and took us around 4 hours to complete, with lots of photo stops.
As you can see, the good old English weather did a massive U-turn and went from cold, miserable rain the day before to glorious, boiling sunshine in the course of 24 hours. At least I didn’t have wet feet again.
A. Beckford Arms to Berwick St Leonard
We started at The Beckford Arms and walked from there through rolling countryside, woodland and some picturesque small hamlets to reach Berwick St Leonard. In Berwick, there is a lovely church which is now unused, apart from one service a year. I find it sad that churches like this are slowly disappearing all over the country, but also understand it’s a sign of the times and not every small village can keep a church going anymore. I hope we manage to preserve many though, as the buildings really are historic and special.
B. Berwick St Leonard to Ridge
After visiting the church, head across the field full of sheep until you reach Fonthill Bishop, and then walk along the public Bridleway until Ridge. The path here is clearly marked and there are some beautiful rolling landscape views.
C. Ridge to Beckford Arms
The final stretch of the walk brings you back across to The Beckford Arms, through some clover fields and varied woodlands. The highlight of this part of the walk though is Fonthill Lake which you can divert to stroll around if you want to see more of it.
After a couple of long walks in the last 2 days, you’ll be ready to collapse with a glass of wine, so spend your final evening resting, relaxing, drinking and eating before heading home.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my little tour of this wonderful lesser known piece of England. What do you think of it? Stay safe and happy travelling everyone.