7 of the best things to see and do in the Blackmore Vale
PUBLISHED: 09:56 23 August 2016 | UPDATED: 09:56 23 August 2016
Andy Greeves explores the delightful town of Sturminster Newton and neighbouring Stalbridge and Marnhull at the heart of the picturesque
Celebrations at The Mill
Sturminster Newton’s most iconic landmark is a flour mill on the banks of the Stour, just upstream of a medieval, six-arched bridge. It is believed that there has been a mill on this site since Saxon times, and the first written record of a mill is in the Domesday Book of 1086.
The mill is still in good working order (you can buy flour made duing their milling weekends) and informal guided tours are available. 2016 marks a 1,000 years of milling on the Stour and this is being celebrated with a series of special events: The Essence of the Mill exhibition (16 – 19 September), a Harvest Festival at the Mill (25 September) and a Celebration Finale (21 December).
The Mill is preserved by the Sturminster Newton Museum and Mill Society. Find out more at the Museum on Market Place.
The Mill is open 11am-5pm (Mon, Thurs & weekends) until 29 September (sturminsternewton-museum/the-mill).
Sturminster Newton is located on the old Somerset and Dorset Railway. The line closed in 1966 and it has now become the North Dorset Trailway - a 17 mile route for walkers, cyclists and riders from Stalbridge to Spetisbury, linking many Blackmore Vale towns and villages.
The trail’s flat, surfaced three metre wide track makes it suitable for pushchairs, wheelchairs and mobility vehicles. Access it via the lower end of the Station Road car park; the first section of a 9 mile route to Blandford covers a 4 mile route to Shillingstone. About a mile and a half into the route, you come to Fiddleford Mill and Manor (pop into The Fiddleford Inn for refreshment). Continuing along the Trailway you arrive at Shillingstone, a beautifully restored station dating back to 1863. Operated by volunteers, the station has a shop and café open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday (shillingstone-railway-project.org.uk).
From live music and theatre to talks and classes, The Exchange is the town’s cultural hub and includes a 300 seater theatre, cinema screen and cafe with displays local art. Events coming up include a talk by renowned architectural historian Dan Cruikshank on A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings (27 October). Find out more at stur-exchange.co.uk.
The venue also hosts Crafts at The Exchange – an arts and crafts market on the first Saturday morning of most months (except January, February, July and August). The market features around 30 arts and craft stalls, and is an all day affair in December.
The wonderful Sturminster Newton Cheese Festival returns on 10 – 11 September with around 90 food producers showcasing the best of food and specifically cheese from Dorset and the South West. More at cheesefestival.co.uk.
A taste of Sturminster
There are plenty of places to eat and drink around Sturminster’s Market Place, with the charming Café Espresso and Stur of the Moment café at the heart of the town, while The Swan Inn a former coaching inn serves breakfasts, a classic pub menu and local ales.
The White Hart on Market Cross is a 17th-century pub with open fire offering light snacks around the clock as well as a range of Badger Ales.
Fancy a fish supper? The Sturminster Fish Bar at 49 Bridge Street gets rave reviews from locals and Trip Advisor bloggers for its top notch fish and chips.
Worth the drive is The Fiddleford Inn, situated in a quiet hamlet of the same name between Shillingstone and Sturminster Newton. In addition to some great pub food, they offer an impressive array of real ales and lagers from local breweries (thefiddlefordinn.net).
Shopping and making
Sturminster Newton has a number of excellent independent retailers, including the stylish gift shop Agnes & Vera (agnesandvera.com) at 15 Market Cross where you will find brands including Jellycat, Sophie Allport, AVOCA, Scottish Fine Soaps, Oddsocks and Branche d’Olive. Do check out their fabulous card room at the back of the shop.
Hansons Fabrics & Crafts on Station Road is a handicrafter’s dream with over 20,000 rolls of fabric and a colourful array of yarns, alongside sewing machines and other accessories. It holds regular sewing and craft workshops including Curtain Making For Beginners (30 September) and Make Your Own Cushions (7 October). Find out more at hansonsfabrics.co.uk.
If making things is your passion then Beads With A Twist, opposite the town museum in Church Street, stocks thousands of beads, stones, pearls, tools, wires, findings and other jewellery making supplies. It also has a dedicated studio where weekly jewellery making classes are held (beadswithatwist.co.uk).
If you love flowers then Rustic Rose at 8 Market Cross, is a country flower florist that specialises in weddings and events. It also runs flower workshops on a regular basis, with a maximum of eight people per class and tea and cake supplied. More at rusticrose.co.uk.
Need some pampering or a swishy haircut? Sweet Solutions (sweet-soluations.co.uk) is a health and beauty salon offering a range of professional skin, body and nail therapies; while local hairdressers include The Kutting Station (3 The Parade) and Enzo’s (3-4 Market Cross).
For foodies a trip to the legendary Olives et Al (olivesetal.co.uk) at the North Dorset Business Park, just a short walk or drive from the town centre, is a must. Delights to tickle your taste buds include artisan breads, homemade cakes and their multi award-winning range of olives, oils, and dips. Yum!
Stalbridge officially became a town in April 1992. Situated 4 miles south east of Sturminster Newton this lucky town is home to the multi award-winning Dike & Son – a rare example of an independent British supermarket. Family-run since 1851 they actively showcase north Dorset food and drink stocking produce from over 130 local growers and makers. The store, on Ring Street, which also incorporates a café, also offers an online ordering delivery or pick up service (dikes-direct.co.uk).
The award-winning Else’s Family Butchers, on the corner of the High Street and Station Road, was a finalist in the Dorset Magazine Food and Farming Best Butcher award in 2014. They source quality local meat and game, and have a wide range of homemade sausages and burgers as well as pies, quiches, and pasties in their deli (elsefamilybutchers.com).
Spire Hill Farm in Stalbridge incorporates Thyme After Time’s new 25-seater café (thymeaftertime.co.uk). Many of the traders at Spire Hill had a hand in helping its proprietor Margot Finlay in the creation of the café, including Spiral Joinery, who supplied the stunning oak counter. Margot truly celebrates Dorset in her food and offers a ‘Dorset Fed’ cream tea, the ‘Thornhill Threesome Tea’ or push the boat out with the ‘High Thyme For Tea’ (booking required 01963 362202). Simply Cooking, also at Spire Hill, sells homemade cakes, ready meals and desserts and is open Tuesday to Friday.
Stalbridge has had some interesting residents in the past. During the 17th century it was home to scientist Robert Boyle (1627 –1691). Regarded as one of the founders of modern chemistry, he established the theory of Boyle’s Law. Boyle inherited a Jacobean style mansion at Stalbridge Park and conducted a number of scientific experiments there between 1644 and 1655. By 1822 the house had fallen into disrepair and was demolished. Stalbridge Park is referred to as ‘Stapleford Park’ in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels.
Another famous resident was Douglas Adams who wrote his sci-fi comedy The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sitting at a desk in his mother’s house in Stalbridge.
Situated 3 miles north of Sturminster Newton is the village of Marnhull. Thomas Hardy referred to Marnhull as ‘Marlot’ in his Wessex novels. Surrounded by stunning countryside Marnhull has featured in both a film and television adaption of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and the local hostelry The Crown Inn was the inspiration for ‘The Pure Drop Inn’ in the novel.
The 16th-century thatched pub, which has been serving the community for over 500 years, serves a good range of cask ales and local ciders. Sunday roasts here come highly recommended. (thecrownatmarnhull.co.uk). Also in the village is Robin Hill Stores, which incorporates a Post Office, convenience store and deli.
Want to get to know the area better? Then step out with the Marnhull Ramblers. The group usually meet on the last Wednesday or Thursday of the month (9:30am for a 10am start), with a 5 or 6 mile local walk incorporating a pub lunch. For shorter rambles the Marnhull Shorts meet once a month for a 2.5 mile walk. (marnhullmessenger.org.uk/marnhull-ramblers).