As picturesque hilltop towns with fabulous views of Dorset countryside go, Shaftesbury is an absolute stunner. And, if you haven’t yet made plans for your Bank Holiday escape, this is the perfect place to spend a foodie few days because, from Thursday 1 May to Monday 5 May, Shaftesbury holds it annual food festival.
Getting there is straightforward: just over two hours' drive from London on the M3/A303, or two hours by train to Gillingham from London Waterloo, then onward in a bus or taxi.
First thing to do when you arrive is stride up Gold Hill, the narrow and wickedly steep cobbled lane, lined with button-cute cottages, where the Hovis advert was filmed 35 years ago. (Remember the little boy struggling to push his bike uphill, to a soundtrack of Dvorak’s New World Symphony?)
While you're there, pop into the Gold Hill Museum of local life for a saunter in its pretty cottage garden, which has views over Blackmore Vale.
'As picturesque hilltop towns with fabulous views of Dorset countryside go, Shaftesbury is an absolute stunner'
Highlights of the food extravaganza are numerous. There is a herb exhibition at Shaftesbury Abbey, a party in the high street with maypole dancing on Saturday and, on Sunday, Swan’s Yard and Bell Street will fill with food stalls, and visitors will be able to choose between barbecues and ice creams, cheeses, local fruit and vegetables, cakes and pies.
When you can eat no more, take a short trip out of town. Shaftesbury lies at the centre of a huge menu of diversions, ranging from Longleat to Stonehenge. A few miles north-east is Old Wardour Castle, a rather fabulously showy, lightly fortified 14th century residence built by John Lord Lovel.
If you have children in tow, the Bush Farm Bison Centre, just north of Shaftesbury, is unmissable. Bison, elk, raccoons and prairie dogs inhabit this 30-acre farm. Admire the magnificent beasts roaming the Wiltshire woodlands, then buy elk and bison steaks at the farm shop (www.bisonfarm.co.uk).
Ten miles north-west of Shaftesbury is Stourhead, a grand 18th century Wiltshire estate. The Palladian villa is handsome and stuffed with 18th century treasures, but the grounds steal the show: there are lakes, temples, bridges and grottoes to explore, as well as follies, including the famous King Alfred’s Tower.
Shaftesbury fills up for the festival weekend so book ahead. The largest hostelry is The Royal Chase Hotel. With 33 rooms (the Thomas Hardy suite is £220 a night), it was once a training school for an order of missionary priests, but is now part of the Best Western chain www.theroyalchasehotel.co.uk.
One of the most delightful inexpensive options is The Retreat, a Georgian town house in the centre of town, in Bell Street (www.the-retreat.org.uk; double rooms from £78 a night).
La Fleur de Lys is a smart little independent hotel www.lafleurdelys.co.uk, set in a 19th century ivy-clad terraced building on Bleke Street, with just seven bedrooms (standard double £110). The establishment majors on fine food made from great British produce: Cornish crab; locally smoked salmon; Wiltshire venison.
And, if you find there’s no room at the inn in Shaftesbury, right next door to Stourbridge is a charming boutique hotel, Spread Eagle Inn (www.spreadeagleinn.com, double rooms, £110 per night) with five bedrooms and a reputation for delicious locally sourced food and locally brewed real ale.
Before you go, visit: www.shaftesburydorset.com.