The ancient abbey town of Sherborne in North Dorset offers the visitor a delightful centre, either from which to explore a relatively unvisited part of the West Country or in which just to slow down
Sherborne is listed in the guidebook as Dorset’s most attractive town. It is certainly the ideal weekend venue for those who wish to have a complete break surrounded by beautiful buildings and excellent restaurants. For those wanting to use the town as a base for touring, there are so many places within about one hour’s driving: Bath, the Jurassic Coast of South Dorset, Stonehenge and Salisbury are all easy to get to. In addition there is an abundance of village pubs in the glorious countryside that surrounds the town.
But Sherborne has so much to offer the visitor before setting off to see other places. Certainly it has Dorset’s finest church, the Abbey, which dominates the town. Even on those occasions when you cannot actually see the Abbey you will almost certainly be aware of it each and every quarter hour, as its melodious bells ring out the passage of time throughout the town. Inside this magnificent church is one of the finest examples of fan vaulting in England; and don’t miss using the mirror on a trolley to see all the detail in the roof.
The whole history of the town is tied into the Abbey and the old monastic dwellings that surround it. These now house Sherborne School for Boys, one of Britain’s oldest public schools. The golden coloured stonework of the Abbey is reflected in many other lesser buildings and helps to create a lovely warm atmosphere wherever you wander. And this is a town for wandering.
The wonderfully named principal street, Cheap Street, has some interesting and diverse shops, many of which you will not find on your average high street. There is high fashion for the ladies, a delightful independent bookshop in Hound Street (how rare is that?), a treasure trove of leather goods as well as some of the very best charity shops in England.
For those who do not wish to shop, Cheap Street is still a fascinating place to walk down as most of the buildings are very old and each one has its own architectural character. Some of these shops have been in the same family for well over 100 years; that is the sort of town this is. In addition there are some fantastic coffee shops and tearooms as well as a whole range of pubs, at one of which (the Cross Keys, at the bottom of Cheap Street) you can sit outside and watch the world go by.
Sherborne boasts of not just one castle but two. The Old Castle was built as a fortified palace by Bishop Roger de Caen in about 1108 – can you imagine one of today’s bishops building one? It was eventually owned by the Crown until Queen Elizabeth I gave it to her favourite courtier Sir Walter Raleigh. Despite doing his best to make it a comfortable bijou residence he found it easier to abandon this castle and build a new one. The Old Castle was eventually destroyed during the English Civil War and is now a ruin, owned by English Heritage.
The New Castle (built in 1594 and with many more recent additions), which is only just the other side of the lake, is quite frankly one of the ugliest buildings in Dorset. However it is extremely impressive inside and it is surrounded by the most beautiful Capability Brown landscape and lake. It is well worth a visit and here you can also enjoy many peaceful walks through the gardens or further into the deer park on the extensive public footpath network that stretches throughout the grounds. It also has an outstanding Garden Centre by the entrance.
Where to eat
You do not come to Sherborne for the exciting nightlife but there are many good pubs and restaurants for your entertainment. For morning coffee, lunch or afternoon tea there are many cafes in Cheap Street, my favourite is The Three Wishes, which offers a real old fashioned service and excellent cakes. Right in front of the Abbey, in Digby Road, is a very modern and chic family-run wine bar and restaurant - ASpire 2 Eat (01935 389666, www.aspire2eat.co.uk). At the top of the town is The Green (3 The Green, 01935 813821), another very upmarket dining experience, or the Crown (Greenhill, 01935 812930 www.crowninn.biz), which is actually on the main A30 road, but do not let that put you off. If you seek more exotic fare then Paprika (Half Moon Street, 01935 816429) provides a whole range of Indian dishes.
In addition, as Sherborne has a strong population of active senior residents, it also has an amazing programme of cultural events. There seems to be something interesting on every evening of the week, including some wonderful musical events in the Abbey. It is certainly worth checking with the tourist office in Digby road (just opposite the Abbey 01935 815341) to get the latest programme.
Where to stay
There are two principal hotels in Sherborne. The Eastbury Hotel in Long Street is a delightful Georgian town house boutique hotel about 300 metres from the Abbey, it has wonderful gardens and an excellent reputation locally, both for its restaurant and its overall service. Try and get a room facing to the rear; although Long Street is not exactly a major arterial route it can get quite busy. It does do special weekend breaks, including dinner, which are good value. It won the South West Tourism category for Best Small Hotel in 2009.
The very good alternative, and it is rather less expensive, is the Half Moon, which is directly in front of the Abbey. Again it is wise to stipulate a room at the rear as the Abbey bells are less than 100 metres from the front of the hotel. Yes, they do chime all through the night.
How to get there
Getting to Sherborne could not be easier. There is an excellent train service direct from London Waterloo (just over two hours) and the station is within easy walking distance from the centre of the town and all its attractions. You can then also explore further by train either to Exeter or back to Salisbury. For those coming by car Sherborne is ideal for exploring both into Dorset, one of Britain’s most beautiful and peaceful counties, or northwards towards Bath and the north Somerset and Devon coastline. There is something here for everyone.