Shaftesbury is well placed for exploring Dorset as well as Wiltshire just over the border. The market town grew around its famous Saxon Abbey and overlooks the green rolling hills of Blackmore Vale where you can find some excellent countryside walks. Shaftesbury is the only real hilltop town in Dorset set in the chalk hills of Cranborne Chase in the north of the county. It is most famous for Gold Hill, the steep cobbled hill featured in the Hovis "Boy on the Bike" advert of the 1970s and 80s directed by Ridley-Scott. The advert was voted the favourite advertisement of all time in 2006 and Hovis are reputed to have contributed to the restoration of the cobbles.
Markets are held in the town every Thursday and the monthly Farmers Market is on the first Saturday of each month. The Old Covered Market has been converted to house Shaftesbury Arts Centre which organises a programme of amateur and professional plays, films, art, photography and craft exhibitions and workshops. The locally run Shaftesbury & Gillingham Tourism Services next to the town's supermarket is very helpful and it's well worth picking up the town Heritage Trail for a minimal fee to help guide you round the town's historic sights.
At the top of Gold Hill you can visit the Gold Hill Museum & Garden - look out for the huge Hovis loaf outside. The museum is housed in a building formerly used by drovers and traders that flocked to the market town. You can find out all about local history through a variety of artefacts and stroll around the cottage garden with its views over Blackmore Vale.
West of the town is Duncliffe Wood managed by the Woodland Trust. It is one of the largest woods in North Dorset and is an ancient woodland site. The woodland is thought to have been Thomas Hardy's inspiration for his work 'The Woodlanders'. The Woodland Trust have been working to restore it to its original woodland character by planting native broadleaved species. There are still some remnants of the original woodland amongst the conifers planted in the 1950s/60s including coppice stools and small-leaved lime scattered throughout. A rich array of woodland flowers are also here including yellow archangel, moschatel and wood speedwell - all indicators of ancient woodlands. The woods are also home to a fantastic variety of butterflies including silver-washed fritillary, white admiral and purple hairstreak.
Shaftesbury is a historic town with Saxon origins. Saxon King Alfred The Great founded the Benedictine Abbey in 888 AD and installed his daughter as its first Abbess. At its height the abbey was home to the largest Benedictine nunnery. It has some famous connections as King Canute died at Shaftesbury and the boy King Edward the Martyr who was murdered by his stepmother at Corfe Castle was buried in the Abbey after which Shaftesbury Abbey became a centre of pilgrimage. Catherine of Aragon is also said to have stayed here in 1501 when she was on her way to marry Prince Arthur, Henry VIII's brother. The excavated foundations of the abbey in the walled gardens are open to the public, with an onsite museum displaying carved stones and artefacts uncovered during excavation in the nineteenth century. The gardens have been planted with herbs and flowers that would have been used by Saxon nuns for flavouring foods, dyes or for medicinal properties.