Shaftesbury was founded about 1100 years ago as the home of King Alfred's citadel Benedictine Abbey and it has remained largely unchanged since the 18th century. The famous author Thomas Hardy loved the area and immortalised many of Shaftesbury's (Shaston's) streets and houses in his works. The Ox House in Bimport, behind Shaftesbury's Abbey, was the schoolmaster's house in 'Jude the Obscure'.
Shaftesbury's most famous view is without doubt that of the cobbled street of Gold Hill, known to millions as the 'Hovis' hill from the TV adverts in the 1980s. The origin of the name Gold Hill is not certain but one theory is that it comes from 'Gild Hall' as today's Town Hall stands at the crest of the hill.
To one side of Gold Hill, facing the famous cottages, is the original buttressed wall of the Abbey grounds. The remains of King Edward the Martyr (reputedly murdered by his stepmother at Corfe Castle, near Wareham) were interred at the Abbey in 979 and later King Canute died here, although he is buried in Winchester. The Abbey brought prosperity to the town for seven centuries until its dissolution during the reign of King Henry VIII. Today, holiday makers can wander through the remains of the Abbey Church, experience a little of medieval life at the Abbey in the new, state-of-the-art Abbey Museum, and sample the unique aromas of the Anglo Saxon herb collection.
Shaftesbury Town Museum, which explains the town's history over the centuries, is at the top of Gold Hill, tucked away in one of the historic cottages. Its unique displays include original Dorset bonnets and buttons - once a thriving cottage industry in Shaftesbury - and the 'Byzant', a gold festival totem that played an important role in the town's water gathering ceremony.
The town of today is a browser's and historian's treasure trove, with haberdashers, ironmongers, traditional food mongers, hardware stores and gift shops along the High Street. Just off the High Street is Swans Yard, home to a community of local artists as well as the Shaftesbury and District Guild of Craftspeople and the Shaftesbury Arts Centre.
For those of you looking for a bit of activity while on holiday, Shaftesbury offers access to some of the best walking and cycling routes in the south of England. Walkers can follow the long-distance Wessex Ridgeway or take a shorter, circular day walk around Cranborne Chase or the Blackmore Vale. Hod and Hambledon Hills offer breathtaking hill fort landscapes, while the chalk downlands at Win Green, Fontmell and Melbury Downs are home to rare flora and fauna as well as unbeatable views of the Dorset countryside. Cyclists can choose between the 73/45/26-mile North Dorset Cycleway and Wiltshire cycle routes as well as numerous shorter ones.
In less than one hour from Shaftesbury you could be fossil-hunting or cliff walking on the Dorset World Heritage Coast, dipping a toe in the sea at Bournemouth, absorbing the mythical powers of Stonehenge or discovering the grandeur of Salisbury Cathedral.
Shaftesbury is an ideal holiday destination for anyone looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of modern life and explore the peace and tranquillity of the rural North Dorset countryside.
Shaftesbury Tourist Information Centre
8 Bell Street, Shaftesbury, Dorset SP7 8AE
Tel: 01747 853514
How to reach Shaftesbury by public transport
There is a direct train service from London Waterloo to Gillingham in Dorset (approx. 2 hours). An alternative route is by train from London Waterloo to Poole on the south coast, followed by a bus connection north towards Shaftesbury. There are direct National Express coaches running to Shaftesbury from Manchester, Bristol, Bath, London and Heathrow Airport, daily between May and October.