Originally published in Arkadia magazine, September 2014.
With a rich past dating back beyond the time of the Saxons, who used its elevated position to great advantage, it is no wonder that Shaftesbury is steeped in so much history.
Well known for Gold Hill, stunning views over the Blackmore Vale and the site of the long lost Abbey, Shaftesbury’s streets are full of ancient buildings, oozing charm, character and holding more than their fair share of secrets. As you wander through the town, it is easy to let your imagination transport you to the Shaftesbury of times past, to Thomas Hardy’s ‘Shaston’, with bustling streets and traders from neighbouring towns and villages assembling at the local market.
The historic Grosvenor Arms boasts a beautiful façade with fine pillars and sash windows. This hides its true past from modern eyes as there has been an inn here since medieval times. Originally a timber-framed building, The Red Lion, as it was then, would have been a busy local landmark when it was purchased by the Grosvenor family and given their name in 1820.
Another coaching inn once stood on the site now called Swans Yard. After a variety of less glamorous uses, the site was re-developed in 1999 to offer a mix of homes and retail units. The result is a unique development, which offers a convenient link between Bell Street and Shaftesbury’s High Street. Despite consisting of modern buildings, this area still has great character due to the sympathetic use of local materials and the artisan nature of its shops, which include the aptly named Around the Corner and The Cygnet Gallery. This artisan presence has earned Swans Yard its reputation as the ‘Creative Heart of Shaftesbury’.
In common with other historic towns, many of Shaftesbury’s buildings hint at their past through layers of subsequent alterations and it is this that gives it so much charm, offering a surprise around every corner, often accompanied by a breath-taking view. Shaftesbury has some beautiful shop fronts too, such as Bright Blooms, on the corner of Bell Street and Parsons Pool – so evocative of the golden age of retail, when the window display was everything.
With the bony hand of Halloween preparing to knock, in the not-too-distant future, I can’t ignore some of Shaftesbury’s ‘darker’ characters. It is rumoured that a lone monk can sometimes be seen on Abbey Walk, beckoning passers-by to follow him into the gardens where the Abbey once stood. According to local legend, the monk was entrusted with the Abbey’s wealth, when Abbess Souche feared the worst from King Henry VIII’s commissioners. The monk buried the treasure but died before he could get word of its hiding place to Abbess Souche. It is thought that, to this day, he is still trying to let someone know where the treasure is located. A few have claimed to have followed the monk, who has also been spotted in a local cellar, but on each occasion the hooded figure has disappeared into thin air without divulging his secret. The Abbey was also the burial place of King Canute’s heart, which some say accounts for some of the more unusual happenings in the area.
Other local sightings have included a woman known as the ‘Grey Lady’, thought to be the ghost of a 16th century nun, and a mischievous child. If you stay in Shaftesbury and you wake to find your bedclothes on the floor, it is said that this precocious child may be to blame!
Shaftesbury is a popular destination, attracting many thousands of visitors each year. I like to think that one of the reasons for its popularity is that the town has many faces – even if some can only be seen out of the corner of your eye! Whether your favourite haunts in Shaftesbury are of the retail, natural or supernatural variety, be sure to pay this fascinating town another visit soon.
Images by Graham Rains, except ‘Bright Blooms’ by Robin Savill.