Originally published in Arkadia magazine, September 2013.
With the latest section from Stourpaine to Blandford opening earlier this year, the North Dorset Trailway now takes in 12 miles of beautiful Dorset countryside, connecting Sturminster Newton with Spetisbury. Once linking Bristol with Bournemouth and Christchurch, the Somerset and Dorset Railway carried its last passengers in 1966, but more recently has allowed a new type of traveller to evolve; a race of explorers for whom locomotives have been replaced by local motives.
Whilst many people use the trailway to get their daily exercise or as the perfect cycle route, away from the dangers of ever-increasing traffic, there is also a growing band of like-minded people that look upon the trailway as the string that connects the pearls of North Dorset. Along its route you will find a wealth of specialised, artisan and rural businesses – a mix of traditional shops, that once reaped the rewards of their association with the railway, and newcomers that provide the perfect complement to their long-established counterparts.
Let’s take a look at one possible journey, from the almost endless possibilities that the trailway has unlocked for us, beginning at Sturminster Newton, on the site of the old livestock market. Here you will find The Exchange, a protean, Swiss army knife of a building, which is a community centre, music venue, theatre, learning centre and art gallery, amongst a great deal of other things. It’s also a monument to the resilience of a town that has seen more than its fair share of set-backs, including the closure of both the livestock market in 1997 and the nearby creamery just three years later. Its Bibbern Gallery is a beautiful space offering views in the direction of the trailway, over a variety of buildings that hark back to the days when the trains still rattled through the town. The gallery also contains a café, making it the perfect place to sit back and enjoy some of the very best work by local artists.
Travelling from Stur to the beautiful village of Child Okeford, we stumble across Bere Marsh Farm, where camping is available in its idyllic riverside meadows and woodland. Only a handful of tents are allowed at any one time, making for a peaceful stay and affording the best possible chance of enjoying the rich, diverse wildlife which also enjoys this part of the Blackmore Vale. Although we don’t have time to pitch our tent on this occasion, we’ll definitely visit again! We can’t possibly pass Child Okeford without paying a visit to another farm – Gold Hill Organic Farm. Here they have perfected the art of growing organic veg, which can either be collected from their lovely farm shop or delivered to your door as one of their legendary vegboxes. It’s not only the fresh produce that is home grown here though; their gift shop also sells a wide variety of local crafts, including ceramics, glassware and textiles. It’s almost time to move on, but not before we’ve sampled some of that delicious organic produce in their café!
Arriving at the fascinating Georgian town of Blandford, we head straight for Salisbury Street, home to three wonderful ‘pearls’, all within a stone’s throw of each other. The Hambledon Gallery has been in existence since, 1962, when the railway was still serving the town. Wendy Suffield, the shop’s owner, describes the stock as covering “everything but fruit and veg” (just as well we stopped at Gold Hill en route!) and they really are the only things missing, leaving us to enjoy two floors of wonderful clothing, home accessories and even toys, in the beautiful surroundings of this period building.
Just down the hill you’ll find Papyrus, another beautiful emporium with stock ranging from clothing and jewellery to home wares and stationery. The ornate shop front and beautiful window display give you a glimpse of the atmosphere you can expect once you’ve stepped inside. Here you will find a diverse range of beautifully made products in the shop’s intimate, yet comfortable surroundings.
Our third Salisbury Street pearl, and the last stop on our journey, is the beautiful Hawthorn Contemporary Craft Gallery which, once again, reminds us of the quantity and quality of local artisans. The gallery, opened in 2010 by fibre artist Stephanie Carswell, showcases artists producing works in a wide variety of media, including ceramics, card, turned wood, felt and collagraph print.
We’ve reached our destination for now but I hope you are inspired to explore these and more of the special places that exist along the North Dorset trailway. Without the rails to limit our journey, we really can discover what Dorset has in store for us “off the beaten track”.
Arkadia magazine is available from selected outlets throughout Dorset or online here.