Shaftesbury-on-Sea: life on a landlocked island
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
Living in Shaftesbury can sometimes feel like living on an island. Not the most obvious comparison, I’ll grant you, given that the town is in the very northern reaches of the county and a good 30 miles from the nearest stretch of coast, but there must be something about being perched up high on a promontory, landlocked or otherwise, that draws the eye to the horizon.
So far reaching are the views that, on a clear day, it’s easy to convince yourself that you can see the English Channel sparkling in the distance. And when Neil and I are walking down on the coast path, we’re certain we can make out the familiar forms of Win Green and Melbury Beacon as we turn our gaze inland.
The feeling of being ‘at sea’ in Shaftesbury is never more apparent than when there is low-lying mist in the valley beneath the town’s slopes. N, who knows about such things, says it’s called a cloud inversion. (I prefer the German die Füchse kochen Kaffee – ‘the foxes are making coffee’ – which I learnt from the excellent Robert Macfarlane on Twitter.) Here in the Blackmore Vale, the low cloud can be so dense that it looks rather like the ocean, especially when the nearby hills of Melbury and Duncliffe rise above like islands. It’s a spectacular sight to wake up to in the morning and one that I will never tire of.
Not long after we moved here, I began to notice that Dorset residents sometimes viewed Shaftesbury as a different kind of place, even though it’s only really the town’s altitude (705ft above sea level) that separates it from the surrounding villages. My uncle, who has lived his entire life in the same part of the Cranborne Chase just ten miles southeast of Shaftesbury, refers to the town as being ‘two coats colder’, often with a barely concealed shiver. And once while waiting to go in for a job interview, an affable PA asked me ‘but what’s it like living up there?’ I later learnt that she was from a village seven miles to the south. One-time Blackmore Vale resident Thomas Hardy was similarly intrigued by Shaftesbury, describing his ‘Shaston’ in Jude the Obscure as ‘the city of a dream’, ‘one of the queerest and quaintest spots in England’, ‘breezy and whimsical’.
The reality of living in Shaftesbury is quite different. While there are undoubtedly days when the cloud hangs stubbornly and the views disappear from sight, the town actually enjoys higher than average hours of sunshine per year, frequently basking in that wonderful golden light that first drew us to the town, its head and shoulders clear of the mist, while the villages down in the vale below remain shrouded. And Shaftesbury’s lofty location means there are views at every turn, constantly changing with the light and the weather. The local tourism advisory committee has recently branded the town ‘The High Point of Dorset’ and while, geographically speaking, that may not be entirely true (Lewesdon Hill in west Dorset wins that particular prize), they are right to champion its unique vantage point as well as the obvious play on words.
‘A bright, pleasant and healthy town’ was the verdict of Dorsetphile Sir Frederick Treves (better known as the surgeon who looked after Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man) writing in The Highways and Byways in Dorset at the beginning of the 20th century. While he briefly notes Gold Hill as an attraction, it is the view from Park Walk that causes him to wax lyrical:
‘On the southern edge of the ridge is a delightful wooded walk, called Park Walk, from which extends a view surpassed by few in England. This meditative avenue is on the very edge of the height, and it is said to have been a walk in the Abbey Park. The view from the Abbey terrace is across a vast, verdant, undulating valley of the richest pasture land – a plain without a level stretch in it. It ever rolls away into shallow valley and low hill, with now and then a wooded height or the glittering track of a stream. The land is broken up into a thousand fields fringed by luxuriant hedges.’
I’m with Treves: as I’ve said elsewhere, while Gold Hill will surely remain Shaftesbury’s number one attraction for visitors to the town, it’s only part of the story. There’s something about being up above it all, about being able to gaze out far and wide in all directions, that truly makes the heart sing. The high point of Dorset indeed.