Britain’s most powerful religious sites of today are certainly Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral but where would they have ranked in days gone by?
Some may say Winchester, York or Durham but how about a place that once had the most powerful Abbey in the land, but has now fallen out of most people’s memories. This town and abbey has the tomb of Edward The Martyr who was killed in a nearby castle, the abbey was founded by King Alfred and another ruler King Canute converted to Christianity there as well.
Other goings-on in the town include housing not one, but three former royal mints. The first silver threepenny piece coin was struck there, it was a seat of huge social change in children’s education, one of its streets was used by Hollywood film director Ridley Scott. It was located on ancient trade routes and built up a huge cottage industry that was vital to both men and women but it still remains a fairly small hilltop town.
With a history dating back to 880AD it may have pounded out gold coins for the nation but today there is still gold in ‘them there hills’ that are now pounded in a different way, by leather!
Today it is that hill that is known more than most of the other facts I have listed above. A quintessential English view is right on the button for this country town’s tourism draw. Some 1,200 years ago it would have been the religious relics of Edward and the gold that drew in the tourists.
However the gold in this case is still very much here and it is ‘Gold Hill’ at Shaftesbury in Dorset.
Often used to provide the cover shots of many books and magazines about England and its heritage and rural life. This mainly quiet market town about 90miles west of London was a thriving religious settlement of power and influence in medieval England. A choice place to provide coinage for the nation and hence the name of its famous hill ‘Gold Hill’.
Money making of a different type then became a booming cottage business for many residents in 17thcentury Shaftesbury as it became the centre of the button making industry for many decades after. Fast-forward to late 20thcentury and Ridley Scott filmed his famous Hovis bread advert that then boosted the town coffers once more.
The real gold has gone, the hand made buttons too, but the hill remains as does the abbey ruins. The town’s central location for a West Country break is pretty well on the button for this too. Within 30 miles of Shaftesbury you could find yourself on the beach in Bournemouth or Weymouth, exploring the Roman baths at Bath, visiting Stonehenge or the stately cathedral at Salisbury plus you are in the middle of Thomas Hardy country, the setting for many of his novels about rural life in the county of Dorset.
There are two museums one for the abbey ruins and one run by enthusiastic local volunteers, the Gold Hill Museum with items from Roman artifacts, through to coins and its famous buttons (Dorset Knobs) plus the and of course, it would have to be gold covered a mace with gems and ribbons used for an ascension day ceremony and parade around the town every year.
A perfect place to stay in the town could certainly be the Grosvenor Arms, a recently refurbished hotel on what is called the Commons. The contemporary hotel has some fine dining in its extensive restaurant with a private intimate dining facility also adjoining. Its 16 rooms all finished in a pleasing subtle décor, very much of today.
The Georgian building at its centre has an enclosed outside patio and casual dining areas that open up into it during fine weather. A bar and coffee lounge provide a relaxing place to sit, chat or read the weekend papers.
Although there is certainly no shortage of small cafes and coffee shops within easy walking distance around the town should you desire a caffeine hit or snack.
In prime medal position for the town’s cafes, it has to be The Salt Cellar, as it directly overlooks Gold Hill.
A gold mine I would think for its owners, no better place in the town I suspect for them and for the tourists to take in a view that adds up to pure English gold!