You could not, in your wildest imagingings, describe Shaftesbury as a happening town and that’s partly why we love it. Home to the steep cobbled street of Hovis advert fame, a gentleman’s outfitters that makes Are You Being Served look cutting edge and a haberdashers that ages you thirty years the moment you cross the threshold, unlike most modern towns Shaftesbury has hung onto its identity.
Perhaps because it feels as though the average age here nudges 70 Shaftesbury has been left alone by the high street behemoths – no Starbucks, New Look, Claire’s Accessories or Primark and it’s all the better for that. Instead you’ll find a reassuring mix of gift shops,florists and cafes in this idyllically pretty town. So get over yourself and get down with the WI particularly on Thursday which is market day – if it’s home-baked jam and bread, the freshest eggs, the best cakes and some fat hand-made sausages you’re after you’ve come to the right place. There are surprises here too. Looking for the latest skinny J Brands? No problem.
Of course it’s not all about shopping and eating in Shaftesbury, an old Saxon hilltop town, one of the highest in Great Briain, it stands on a 700 foot spur above the Blackmore Vale, Shaftesbury dates back to the days of King Alfred the Great who founded the Abbey here in the 9th century. It’s also the Shaston of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels, many of which centred around the Blackmore Vale.
Gold Hill, made famous by Ridley Scott’s Hovis ad which showed in the 70s and 80s, is as good a place as any to start your tour. This beautiful cobbled lane (pictured above) with its picturesque cottages and sweeping views of Dorset, is bordered by the old 9th century walls of the Abbey.
From here it’s just a one minute hobble to a seriously good cappuccino in Turnbulls. Charlie Turnbull is undisputed king of the café scene in Shaftesbury with his eponymous restaurant and delicatessan. There is nowhere better to buy cheese – sourcing tiny, off the beaten track artisan producers is a point of pride here. Beloved of kids, mothers and grannies alike, from hot chocolate with whipped cream and marshmallows to roasted vegetable salad with grilled goats cheese, this place ticks all the right boxes.
Bang next door to Turnbulls stands the beautiful, chic grey Grosvenor Hotel currently the source of much gossip and speculation. A victim of the recession, this trendy, very non-Shaftesbury kind of joint is currently subject to several takeover bids, including one from a favourite pub of ours so fingers crossed we’ll have news of Dorset’s answer to Babington House coming very soon.
Still at the top end of town we’re nipping over the road now to Mine a boutique-y gift shop. There are few better places to pick up a present for a girlfriend – True Grace scented candles, Dr Hauschka bath oil, the standard Cath Kidson paraphernalia, pretty joke mugs with slogans like "trophy wife" or 'big girl's blouse" and lots of wearable, trinkety jewellery. You can also score a good pair of jeans here –(J Bramds and For All Mankind) and silver Hunters for festivals, if you’re that way inclined.
On market day you’ll find a bunfight of oldies elbowing for the old-school extravaganza that is the Women’s Institute Country Market at the Town Hall. Step back 50 years why don’t you – there’s a ticketing system here so you collect little bits of paper for your orange-yolked eggs, gooseberry jam and ginger loaf brought in by WI members from out of town and pay at a table manned by two old timers with a cash box. Genteel and very Shaftesbury.
Outside there’s a fish stall, the wonderful Long Crichel bakery stall (brownies, sourdough, pizza, cheese straws,almond croissants) and addictively good organic veg from Kensons Farm.. There are plants, a stall selling olives and baklova, another with hand-reared beef. For food lovers this market is unmissable.
They don’t make shops like Hine & Parsons any more, Shaftesbury’s answer to Peter Jones. Reinforced bras, wool in every colour of the rainbow, knicker elastic and cut-price sheets, the possibilities are endless. Step inside this time warp with an open mind and you won’t leave empty handed.
Across the road, gentlemen, you’ll find your own 1970s throwback in the shape of Squires (love the name). It’s the place for school uniforms, tweed plus fours and caps that will look just right on the river. Service is dignified. Check it out if only to remind yourself how it used to be.
There are two very good florists in this town, both serving up the kind of pared back brown paper and string kind of wrapping we demand with our flowers these days. Bright Blooms on Bell Street and Wild Paeony on the high street.
There's nothing glamourous about Bargain's, Shaftesbury's version of a pound shop, but park your fashionista sensibilities outside because this extraordinary store covers all bases. From fabric glue to plastic toboggans you'll find it.
The Toybox recently took over from the much-loved Hardings which was on the brink of closure for a long time. It has shipped in a good selection of toys, everything from micro-scooters to Lego, Sylvanian Families and pirate outfits. It’s kiddie heaven here – a whole wall filled with stink bombs, rubber spiders and itching powder and they’ve nailed the pick n mix experience. Good for kids from zero to around eight.
Stomp is the place for children’s shoes. It has a brilliant selection of school shoes, trainers, boots and sandals with all the best brands including Birkenstock, Geox, Aigle, Havianas, Camper and Converse but being a small enterprise doesn’t carry huge stock. Quite often you’ll need to order and collect a few days later – a small price to pay for having such a good shoe shop in a distinctly old fashioned town.
In Swan's Yard, you'll find Indulge, a patisserie and baker's which is so good and popular it's soon to move to bigger premises at the bottom of the high street. We love everything here from the chic pastel coloured macaroons, to the dense chocolate brownies, the meltingly good quiches and white chocolate drizzled flapjacks. Old fashioned paper swirls of sweets are a hit with kids.
New in town is Beggar's Banquet cafe in Muston's Mews which combines excellent vegetarian food with live music. It's a pared down, cool place with vintage records pinned up on the walls, mismatched furniture and smoothies to kill for.
Right opposite it a chic, vintage military shop called Hogspear which has the kind of jackets Balmain rips off and sells for thousands. Don't miss an opportunity to step inside and marvel - zebra skin and brown bear rugs (yes really), antique swords, army jackets, leather holdalls and every kind of military hat you can think of, this one is definitely worth a rummage.
And while we're on the subject of antiques, you can't come to Shaftesbury and not pay a visit to Leanings (5 High Street) a junk shop extraordinaire, the kind that extends back into lots of tiny, cluttered rooms full of gems. From clapped out rocking horses to cocktail shakers, there's bound to be something you'll need.
Boschen Lingerie seems a little out of place in WI central - lacy black lingerie doesn't immediately spring to mind - but it has a good selection of underwear including Lejaby, Aubade and Chantelle plus scent from La Perla.
Feeling hungry? Aside from the burgeoning cafe scene (new Elodie's in Swan's Yard is also a great pit stop), Chutney's Indian Restaurant on Salisbury Street is always worth a visit (lamb passanda is outrageously good). It's not always easy to find a good curry house in the country and this one's a tried and tested crowd pleaser.
No cinema of course but it's always worth checking the Shaftesbury Arts Centre which shows a range of good films - coming soon on April 14 is The Woman in Black.
Don't bypass a visit to the Abbey built in 888 by Alfred whose daughter Aethelgifu was its first Abbess. It gives you a strong sense of this most ancient hilltop town and stunning, far-reaching views looking out over Dorset.