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6 reasons to love Dorset’s towns this Valentine’s Day

PUBLISHED: 10:47 14 February 2017

Sherborne Castle set in a Capablity Brown landscape

Sherborne Castle set in a Capablity Brown landscape


From snowdrops and steam trains to Pre-Raphaelite art treasures, Andy Greeves explores the many different reasons to fall in love with some of our local towns this Valentine’s Day

1. Shaftesbury’s Snowdrops

If the sight of glorious drifts of snowdrops makes your heart beat faster, then February is the ideal time to make a date in Shaftesbury. Back in 2012 this north Dorset town planted thousands of snowdrops to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Each year this is celebrated by the Shaftesbury Snowdrop Festival. Sponsored by BV Dairy, this year’s event takes place 12 – 21 February when you can enjoy a series of free, daily walks (3k and 5k circular routes) that take in the town’s incredible Diamond Jubilee Legacy Snowdrops.

One of the highlights of this festival which celebrates this delicate harbinger of spring is the Snowdrop Lantern Parade on Saturday 18 February between 6.15pm – 7.15pm. Prior to the parade Snowdrop Lantern Making Workshops are held at 10am to midday and 2pm to 4pm, suitable for all ages. Venue details can be found on the festival website shaftesburysnowdrops.org.

The Snowdrop Lantern Parade’s route takes in Gold Hill – a local landmark made famous by Ridley Scott’s 1973 television commercial ‘Boy on Bike’ for Hovis bread. The hill also features on the cover of J.K Rowling’s book The Casual Vacancy. At the top of the hill is Gold Hill Museum. Displays in its eight galleries tell the fascinating story of rural and town life of Shaftesbury and the surrounding area. It also features an award-winning cottage garden which has wonderful views over Blackmore Vale, known by writer Thomas Hardy as ‘Vale of the Little Dairies’. For opening dates and times visit goldhillmuseum.org.uk.

If you are something of a galanthophile then you will enjoy browsing the Heritage Collection of Snowdrops showcased at Shaftesbury Abbey Museum and Gardens from 11 – 19 February (10am and 4pm admission £3 for adults and free for under 16s). You can also admire the town’s remarkable snowdrop displays from above at the Trinity Tower. You will need to be pretty fit though as there are 60 steps up a narrow spiral staircase to the Ringing Chamber and another 60 steps to the top of the tower. You will however be rewarded with fabulous panoramic views from the highest point in north Dorset.

2. Sherborne’s Architecture

Home to two castles, a magnificent abbey and a host of Georgian shops and houses, Sherborne is, from an architectural point of view, one of Dorset’s most beautiful towns. Many of its buildings feature a local stone known as Inferior Oolite limestone, which has a distinctive honey-gold colour. With the area around the Abbey little changed since Thomas Hardy’s time, you won’t be surprised to discover that Sherborne played a starring role in Thomas Vinterberg’s film version of Far From the Madding Crowd.

Architectural gems to look out for include the Conduit – an early 16th-century hexagonal washing area originally used by the monks of Sherborne Abbey. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, the Conduit was moved to its current location on the Parade, becoming a focal point for the market place and a town icon in the process.

At the town’s heart is the Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin – known as Sherborne Abbey. This Grade I listed building, which features several architectural styles including Saxon, Norman. Early English and Perpendicular, is the main venue for the Sherborne Abbey Festival (28 April – 2 May). It has become one of the highlights of Dorset’s cultural calendar and 70% of all performances have free entry, making it one of the most accessible music festivals in the country. This year’s performances include Tenebrae’s Hymn of Heavenly Beauty, two BBC Young Musician of the Year winners - clarinettist Emma Johnson and violinist Nicola Benedetti, the Gypsy Carnivals Band, Parisian-style jazz singer Gabrielle Ducomble and Emerald O’Hanrahan – better known as Emma Grundy in The Archers – will perform her one-woman show Jane Austen at Home. Full programme at sherborneabbeyfestival.org.

2017 is the 400th anniversary of the Digby family ownership of Sherborne Castle. Built by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1594, it went to the Crown after his arrest for treason; Sir John Digby acquired it from James I in 1617. Sherborne Castle is open from 1 April until 29 October (except Mondays and Fridays). Details at sherbornecastle.com.

Though the castle is closed to the public at this time of year – you can still enjoy a romantic stroll through its grounds, which were designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Castle grounds open at 10am and the Tea Rooms from 10.30am.

3. Bournemouth’s Best Kept Secrets

Bournemouth is the UK’s favourite coastal resorts, but it’s quite possible that one of its most romantic treasures may have escaped your attention. And you would be in good company. On visiting the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum back in 2009, former BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman commented: “The place is a feast… If only I’d known the Russell-Cotes was there it would have made all those political party conferences I had to cover in Bournemouth a lot more fun.”

This striking Grade II listed building on the town’s East Cliff holds an impressive collection of fine art and artefacts, including some wonderful Pre-Raphaelite pieces such as the renowned Venus Verticordia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

The Russell-Cotes hosts regular exhibitions, the current exhibition Meeting Modernism features popular works from the early 20th century owned by the gallery’s first curators Sir Merton and Lady Russell-Cotes. Read about it in this month’s magazine. More details at russellcotes.com.

A short bus ride from the town centre is the Bournemouth Natural Science Society (BNSS) which was founded in 1903 to promote the study of science and natural history. Situated in a Victorian Grade II listed building at 39 Christchurch Road, the BNSS houses an array of collections including natural history specimens, archaeology, geology, botany and an Egyptology collection which boasts a 2,500 year-old mummy. The BNSS is open to the public on Tuesdays from 10am until 4pm. More details at bnss.org.uk.

Want to learn to dance with your partner? Then trip the light fantastic towards Pavilion Dance South West (PDSW) right in the heart of town. Opened in 2010 this has become a centre of dance excellence, with over 40 classes for all ages and abilities in everything from street dance to tap, ballet to African dance and ballroom. Its theatre also hosts live performances as well as live screenings of world class ballet including the Bolshoi on Screen. Details at pdsw.org.

4. Dorchester’s History

Dorchester has a rich heritage going back to pre-historic times that is reflected by the vast number of museums and historical attractions in the local area. This makes Dorchester an ideal location for a romantic day out if the weather isn’t so good.

Dorset County Museum, right in the heart of town, brings together 200 million years of the county’s history under one roof. The museum houses six galleries with a wide variety of fascinating treasures and exhibitions including its current spotlight exhibition ‘Nautilus: Beautiful Survivor – 500 million years of evolutionary history’. Based on the forthcoming book by Wolfgang Grulke, this exhibition celebrates the Chambered Nautilus, one of the oldest living things on our planet. This remarkable animal has inspired artists, designers and architects throughout its long history as this exhibition, which runs until the end of May, reveals. The museum – along with its tearoom and gift shop – is open all year round. Details can be found at dorsetcountymuseum.org.

World Heritage Museums and Exhibitions have five different museums in Dorchester with subject matters ranging from dinosaurs to Tutankhamun and teddy bears to Terracotta Warriors. The five attractions are open daily. Special school holiday events for 2017 include the Great Half-Term Dinosaur Hunt (February 11-19/May 27-June 4/October 21-29) and the Great Dinosaur Egg Hunt (April 8-23) at the Dinosaur Museum on Icen Way and The Tutankhamun Exhibition on High Street West hosts King Tut’s Treasure Hunt on May 27-June 4. A joint ticket called the ‘Gold Saver Pass’, offers admission to five museums and exhibitions for the price of two. Details at goldsaverpass.com.

Renowned novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) resided in Dorset for most of his life. Hardy lived at Max Gate, the house he designed on Alington Avenue in Dorchester, between 1885 and 1928. Here he penned some of his greatest works including Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. The property is now owned by the National Trust. They also own Hardy’s Cottage, the distinctive cob and thatch cottage in Higher Bockhampton where the writer was born. Hardy wrote Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From the Madding Crowd at the cottage. There is an excellent Visitors Centre here and lovely walks through the nearby woods. Find out more at nationaltrust.org.uk.

5. Swanage’s Steam Scene

Remember that poignant scene in the 1945 film Brief Encounter between Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard? Well you can play out your own version in Swanage. The award-winning Swanage Railway operates steam and diesel services between Swanage and Norden, chuffing past the impossibly romantic ruins of Corfe Castle (nationaltrust.org.uk/corfe-castle) and its charming village nestled below.

Swanage Railway is a true story of people power. British Rail closed the Swanage branch line in January 1972 and removed six and a half miles of track for scrap that summer. In 1976, work began on restoring the line as a heritage railway and the Swanage Railway was created. Now some 40 years later it is one of the county’s most popular attractions and won Gold in the Dorset Tourism Awards last year.

Trains run at weekends throughout the year and daily between March and October. Special events this year include the Spring Steam Gala (March 31 to April 2) and Diesel Gala and Beer Festival (May 5-7). If music is your thing then step aboard the Rock and Roll Express for an evening of live rock and roll at Corfe Castle station on June 17. Look out also for special Cream Tea Trains on selected Tuesdays between April and October. More at swanagerailway.co.uk.

6. Lyme Regis’ Fossils

Known as ‘The Pearl of Dorset’, Lyme Regis is renowned for the fossils which can be found all along this particular stretch of the Jurassic coastline. The town is also the birthplace of Mary Anning (1799 –1847) a fossil collector and paleontologist who made some remarkable finds along the local cliffs, including complete ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons.

For those hoping to discover the fossilised remains of a belemnite or ammonite, a guided fossil walk comes highly recommended. Brandon Lennon runs Lyme Regis Fossil Walks along this part of the Dorset coastline at safe tide times. More at lymeregisfossilwalks.com.

February and March are ideal months to visit this lovely coastal town, before the summer crowds come. Take a romantic stroll along the famous harbour wall known as The Cobb. It features in local author John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman; it is also where Jane Austen, who visited this fashionable resort in the early 19th century, set Louisa Musgrove’s dramatic tumble in Persuasion. Discover more about this on a Literary Lyme Walking Tour led by local expert Natalie Manifold (literarylyme.co.uk).


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