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Gold Hill, Shaftsbury, Dorset, England.JPG
Gold Hill, Shaftesbury
Grid reference: ST861228
Location: 51°0’24"N, 2°11’53"W
Population: 6,665  (2001)
Post town: Shaftesbury
Postcode: SP7
Dialling code: 01747
Local Government
Council: Dorset
North Dorset

Shaftesbury is a town in Dorset, on the A30 road near the Wiltshire border 20 miles west of Salisbury. The town is built 718 feet above sea level on the side of a chalk and greensand hill, which is part of Cranborne Chase, the only significant hilltop settlement in Dorset. It is one of the oldest towns in Britain.

Many of the older buildings in the town are of the local greensand, while others built from the grey Chilmark limestone, much of which was salvaged from the demolished Shaftesbury Abbey, and have thatched roofs. Tourism is one of the main industries in the town.

The town looks over the Blackmore Vale, part of the River Stour basin. From different viewpoints, it is possible to see at least as far as Glastonbury Tor to the northwest.

The town is famous for Gold Hill, for its ruined abbey and for nearby Wardour Castle.

A market is held in the town on Thursdays. The Blackmore Vale is Thomas Hardy's Vale of the Little Dairies. The town features in Thomas Hardy's Wessex with the names Shaston and Palladour, of particular significance in Jude the Obscure.

Gold Hill

Gold Hill is a steep cobbled street in the middle of Shaftesbury. It leads from the main street steeply down the hill and all down it are beautiful cottages of a bygone age. Gold Hill has been featured on the covers of countless books about Dorset and rural England. Shaftesbury's town signs declare the town to be the "Home of Gold Hill".

The street was famously used in a television advertisement for Hovis bread shown in the 1970s and 1980s, an advert directed by Ridley Scott and fondly remembered today. The hill most recently featured in a Morrisons supermarket advert, also for bread.


Shaftesbury's recorded history dates from Anglo-Saxon times, though there is speculation that it was the town known in Old Welsh as Caer Palladur. Shaftesbury's first appearance in the written record is in the Burghal Hidage. Alfred the Great founded a burgh (fortified settlement) here in 880 as a defence in the struggle with the Norse invaders. Alfred and his daughter Æþelgiefu founded Shaftesbury Abbey in 888, which was a spur to the growing importance of the town. Athelstan founded three royal mints, which struck pennies bearing the town's name, and the abbey became the wealthiest Benedictine nunnery in England. On February 20, 981 the relics of St Edward the Martyr were translated from Wareham and received at the abbey with great ceremony, thereafter turning Shaftesbury into a major site of pilgrimage for miracles of healing. In 1240 Cardinal Otto, a papal legate, visited the abbey and confirmed a charter of 1191, the first entered in the Glastonbury chartulary.

King Canute died here in 1035. In the Domesday Book, the town was known as Scaepterbyrg; its ownership was equally shared between king and abbey. In the Middle Ages the abbey was the central focus of the town.

In 1260, a charter to hold a market was granted. In 1392, Richard II confirmed a grant of two markets on different days. By 1340, the mayor had become a recognised figure, sworn in by the steward of the abbess.

In 1539, the last Abbess of Shaftesbury, Elizabeth Zouche, signed a deed of surrender and the abbey was demolished and its lands sold, leading to a temporary decline in the town. Sir Thomas Arundel of Wardour bought the abbey and much of the town in 1540, but when he was later exiled for treason his lands were forfeit, and the lands passed to Pembroke then Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, and finally to the Grosvenors.

The town was held for the King during the Civil War. Wardour Castle fell to Parliamentary forces in 1643 and Parliamentary forces surrounded the town in August 1645, when it was a centre of local clubmen activity. The clubmen were arrested and sent to trial in Sherborne.

Shaftesbury was a parliamentary constituency returning two members from 1296 to the Reform Act of 1832, when it was reduced to one, and in 1884 the separate constituency was abolished.

The town hall was built in 1827 by Earl Grosvenor after the guildhall was pulled down to widen High Street. It has been designated by English Heritage as a grade II listed building.[1] The town hall is next to the 15th century St. Peter's Church.[2]

The major employers in the 18th and 19th centuries were buttonmaking and weaving. The former became a victim of mechanisation, and this caused unemployment and emigration.

The five turnpikes which met at Shaftesbury ensured that the town had a good coaching trade. The railways, however, bypassed Shaftesbury, and this influenced the subsequent pattern of its growth.

In 1919, Lord Stalbridge sold a large portion of the town, which was purchased by a syndicate and auctioned piece by piece over three days.

Most of the Anglo-Saxon and Mediæval buildings have now been ruined, and most of the town dates from the 18th century to present. Thomas Hardy wrote:

Vague imaginings of its castle, its three mints, its magnificent apsidal abbey, the chief glory of south Wessex, its twelve churches, its shrines, chantries, hospitals, its gabled freestone mansions—all now ruthlessly swept away—throw the visitor, even against his will, into a pensive melancholy, which the stimulating atmosphere and limitless landscape around him can scarcely dispel.


  • Pitt-Rivers, Michael, 1979. Dorset. London: Faber & Faber.
  • The 1985 AA illustrated guide to the country towns and villages of Britain.

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