Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of the post we published last week where we’re finally finishing the trip diaries from our last trip to Britain. Enjoy!
In the service of Brevity, we’re going to use this post to cover our entire stay in Dorset. Since this was our vacation bit, we slowed down a bit and stopped doing a ton of things every day. So, there’s not as much to write about and it would be better served in one big omnibus article.
Our favorite stop in Southwest England is Shaftesbury in Northern Dorset. It’s a quiet market town located on top of a hill with sweeping views of the surrounding rolling countryside. It may be familiar to you as the town Shaston in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex books. You can really feel the words of Thomas Hardy when you survey Dorset’s beautiful landscapes. It’s paradise for us and we can never wait to go back.
Shaftesbury is also home to a very famous street called Gold Hill, which was featured in a Hovis Bread Advert directed by Ridley Scott in the 1970’s. Since then, Gold Hill has been a magnet for tourists looking to visit the picture perfect English Street Scene. In the summer, Gold Hill is popular with Tourists, who come from all over the world to photograph and admire this perfect English street scene. We love it in the fall and winter when the tourists are gone and you can have the place to yourself.
First up, a few words about where we stayed.
For those that don’t know, Gold Hill in Shaftesbury is our favorite place on Earth. It’s our Anglophile Zen place. A few years ago we learned that there was a self catering cottage on Gold Hill called Updown Cottage that travelers can rent out by the weekend or week (self catering means a holiday rental). The owners Jane and Simon introduced themselves through our site and when we returned to England in 2009 after a long absence, we made it our goal to stay there for a few nights.
When we finally did, we fell in love with the place and consequently became good friends with the owners as well.
We can’t imagine staying anywhere else and in fact planned our entire Diamond Jubilee trip around the availability of the cottage so we could stay there for as long as possible.
So, a little about the cottage itself to entice potential visitors to the area. Updown Cottage has 4 bedrooms and comfortably sleep 6. It was quite a bit more space than we needed but it was wonderful to be able to stretch our legs a bit. There’s a full kitchen on the bottom level with a dining room that leads out onto a beautiful back garden with views of the Blackmore Vale. There’s 3 bathrooms, one of which had the most wonderful bathtub – again with more views of the Blackmore Vale. There’s even laundry facilities which was very handy. Oh and I forgot the piano! There’s satellite TV with all the major channels and Wireless internet. There’s a charming desk in the sitting room that was perfect for Anglotopia’s corporate headquarters while we were there.
It’s perfect for families traveling together. It was ideal for us as we could finally put our toddler in a separate room from us, which meant that all of us got back onto our regular sleeping schedules (and thus we all became much nicer to each other and our moods substantially improved).
If you want to live in English country bliss temporarily, this is the place to do it.
The Town of Shaftesbury (While Looking Like a Village, it’s not a Village)
The best part of staying in self-catering accommodation is that you get to become a temporary local. We shopped on the High Street (what Brits call the Main Street). We went and did our grocery shopping at the local grocery store (which was fun!). We ate the local restaurants. We felt very much at home.
It was fun to get the locals news and gossip. You’ll notice in the picture at the top that the famous Abbey Ruin wall running along the right side of Gold Hill was blocked off. Turns out some massive cracks appeared in the ruins, which are about 1,000 years old. So, they had to block off the sidewalk to health and safety reasons. Which was a real shame because it ruined all our pictures of Gold Hill this trip. What was really interesting though was that as they tried to figure out how to go about fixing the cracking wall, they couldn’t figure out who actually owned the wall! Being a ruined monument, with houses on top of it and all around it, it was difficult to figure out who’s problem it was to fix it. (Editor’s Note: I’m happy to report that it has now been fixed thought I’ll have to wait until we go back to find out how they did it).
Our favorite new stop in town was the Abbey Ruins Museum. There’s much more to Shaftesbury than its famous Gold Hill, which at the end of the day is a residential street. Shaftesbury is dripping in English history. The town itself dates back to the year 880 when it was founded by Kind Alfred the Great, who founded a benedictine monastery which became the wealthiest in England.
You can explore Shaftesbury’s ecclesiastical history at the Abbey Ruins Museum. The power of Shaftesbury’s abbey lasted until Henry VII dissolved all the major monasteries and seized their lands and wealth. The abbey was destroyed, leaving majestic ruins centered on the current abbey ruins museum, where you can still see the ancient stone carvings and a statue of Alfred the Great himself.
We explored the tourist sites, walked the towns streets and lanes. Enjoyed the views across the Blackmore Vale. The town was bedecked in its finest for the Diamond Jubilee, with bunting strung across the high street and store getting into the spirit. Shaftesbury is a large enough town that there’s plenty to see and do but also small enough that it feels like a village where everyone knows each other. It’s not just a tourist trap, it’s a place where people live.
Exploring Swanage With a New Friend
One of the perks of running Anglotopia is that we get to meet people from all over the world – including Britain. Writer Jennie Walters got in touch with us a while ago to share her Swallowcliffe Hall series – a series of books about servants in a Stately Home that’s become really successful thanks to the Downton Abbey craze.
Jennie has a cottage down in Swanage, a seaside city on the coast of Dorset, where she does most of her writing and offered to show us around the area. I jumped at the chance as we had never had a chance to explore the Dorset coast which we’d heard as very beautiful.
So, on one of the days in Dorset, we drove down to the coast and paid her a visit. Jennie was kind enough to drive us around to her favorite sites. We ate a lovely lunch in Worth Matravers in a really cool restaurant with a gourmet menu and a vintage theme. She showed us around the coast – as much as she could until the fog rolled in a blocked all the views! We also had a chance to sample delicious Purbeck ice cream, a local ice cream.
It was a lovely day out that was unfortunately cut short by Jackie getting car sick. We can’t wait to go back again and visit our new friend.
Flying Over Dorset
Before we started staying at Updown Cottage, we used to stay in a local B&B in Shaftesbury called The Retreat, run by a charming English couple named Bernard & Sheena. We’d stayed there several time in the past. If you’re looking for a lovely B&B in Shaftesbury, this is definitely the place to stay.
The reason I’m telling you this is because Bernard also happens to have a flying license. You see, there’s a small airfield down the road from Shaftesbury called Compton Abbas where small planes make their home. Bernard offers the chance to go up in a plane and fly around the area in Dorset to see everything from above.
This was not an opportunity that I could pass up!
After arranging it in advance, Bernard and I drove up to the airfield and he let me get stuck in getting the airplane ready for our little tour. Once we were in the air, we flew south towards the coast to Bournemouth, saw the amazing scenery and also the military doing exercises on the water, preparing for the Olympics. Then we turned and flew west towards Swanage and Corfe Castle (which is amazing from above!). Then we flew back to Shaftesbury for a flight around the village where I got some great pictures and then off to a soft landing back at the airfield.
It was a breathtaking journey over Dorset. Bernard even let me fly the plane for a few minutes. As a plane nut I just about exploded with excitement. I took a ton of great photos and shared them with Bernard as we enjoyed a cup of tea at the airport restaurant (it’s well known for its good food).
I can’t wait to fly with Bernard again next time we’re in Shaftesbury.
Our five days in Shaftesbury went by far too quickly and before we knew it, it was Friday and we had to head into London for all the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
We packed up the car, ourselves and began the trek down the A303 to London. But we had one final stop left.
After 10 trips to England, we finally managed to stop and visit Stonehenge. It’s an impressive site in person. Unfortunately you’ll share it with a mob of tourists from all over the world, so you won’t really get the place to yourself.
The facilities are also a disgrace (they’ve been called a national disgrace by others more important than me). They’re shabby, not equipped for the crowds and a bit of a disappointment when you consider it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world.
Thankfully, there’s hope on the horizon and they’ve finally got approval for a new visitor’s centre, which will replace the inadequate facilities currently there. They’re also going to close one of the busy roads that goes right by the ruins. The plans will make it a much more peaceful place and deal with the crowds brought by the coaches much better. (Editor’s Note: since I originally wrote this they’ve since closed the road and begun construction on the new visitor’s center).
That said, you have to go at least once. It’s an amazing and atmospheric place.
After our stop at Stonehenge and quick lunch at a Burger King in a lay by, we hit the road to London. The plan was to drive to Heathrow, drop off our car and then have a car service take us to our rented flat in London, which we’ll talk about in our next trip diary.
Check back next week for the continuation of our Diamond Jubilee Trip Diaries.