Find out what I got up to when I spent the day as a tourist in my hometown, Sherborne. Includes sights such as Sherborne Abbey, the Conduit, Cheap Street and Sherborne Castle and gardens.
I was lucky enough to spend the first 21 years of my life in and around Sherborne, the historic abbey town in north-west Dorset.
Yet, it wasn’t until I left to go to university that I began to appreciate how fortunate I had been to grow up in such a beautiful setting.
I return to Sherborne regularly. However, we’re usually dashing around seeing friends and family when we visit the town.
So, on a recent extended trip to the town to house sit for my mum and dad, Tiff and I decided to be tourists for the day and explore the sights such as Sherborne Abbey, Sherborne Castle, Sherborne Museum and Cheap Street.
We started the day with a morning walk around Lenthay Common with our Border Terrier, Tilly.
Near to my mum and dad’s house, this is one part of town we come to often. But, it’s a bit far out for the average tourist (just over a mile out of the town centre).
It’s worth a visit though – situated to the west of the town, it provides great views down the Yeo valley and hills beyond. Today, a handful of cows were chomping on grass yellowed by the warm weather we’d had so far this summer. Visit earlier in the spring though and the common is usually scattered with buttercups.
The common hasn’t always been peaceful. Sherborne experienced one major air raid in the Second World War and it was here the first bombs fell as German planes traced a line along the railway to the town. There are still a couple of bomb craters visible in the middle of the common, which now make handy waterholes for the cattle.
The common has also been a racecourse and a golf course in its time.
Chapter House Books
With Tilly suitably exhausted from chasing her ball around the common, we dropped her off and wandered into town. Our first stop was a warren-like bookshop called Chapter House Books on Trendle Street. Even if you’re not a bookworm, this is worth a browse to experience what it’s like in one of the town’s old buildings.
There’s a cafe at the back of the shop, which does hot drinks and simple lunches like jacket potatoes and paninis. We weren’t quite ready for refreshments yet. But we made a note to return at some point.
St Johns’ Almshouse
Across the road from the bookshop is St Johns’ Almshouse. Built in stages between 1440 and 1448, this beautiful cloister-fronted building still houses 18 elderly people.
The Almshouse has a chapel and ante-chapel and you can have a look round on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 2pm (£2 entry).
Unfortunately, today was Tuesday. I did get to visit the building regularly in the late 80s and early 90s though because my great grandfather was an Almshouse resident. In those days it was a prospect of a ride on the electronic stairlift, rather than a peek inside the 15th century chapel, that attracted me.
The Almshouse is perched to the left of the majestic Sherborne Abbey. We headed there next.
Not only is the abbey and its pretty curved close featured in the 2015 film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” but it’s also where Tiff and I were lucky enough to get married in 2010.
In the film, Sergeant Troy is seemingly jilted by his sweetheart Fanny Robin at the abbey because she turns up for their wedding at the wrong church (which was actually Castleton Church in the east of the town in the film).
Luckily, the only person who didn’t turn up for our wedding was the organist. This meant Tiff had to shelter from the drizzle in a health food shop while the verger sourced a replacement from a music competition, which was handily happening at Sherborne School that day.
Among the nerves and excitement, it was difficult to take in the beauty of the abbey on our wedding day. And while we’ve been back a few times for the odd event, we’ve never really taken the time to explore the abbey properly until now.
There are guided tours on Tuesdays and Fridays. Unfortunately we arrived too late for today’s tour. But there’s plenty of information sheets dotted around that explain things.
Sherborne Abbey ceiling
The first thing that strikes you when you enter the building is the stunning fan-vaulted nave ceiling. This is decorated with 115 painted bosses depicting everything from tudor roses to a mermaid holding a mirror.
The gilded ceiling above the choir near the back of the Abbey is even more colourful and just as beautiful. Both ceilings date from the 15th century.
Other highlights among the scores of things to see in the abbey include many stained glass windows such as the Great West Window by the entrance, two gigantic organs and the tombs of Alfred the Great’s older brothers.
You can also see the unusual reddening on part of the wall near the centre of the abbey, caused by a fire after the townspeople rioted in 1437 (over the location of the baptismal font, apparently).
Once we’d had our fill in the abbey, we wandered along the cobbles into Church Lane, which connects Abbey Close with the Parade at the bottom of the town’s high street, Cheap Street. And while Tiff nipped of for a look around the shops, I popped into Sherborne Museum for a gander.
The museum is tucked away in one of the Abbey’s former buildings on Church Lane. Compact and spread over three floors, it celebrates Sherborne’s geological, industrial, cultural and social history. Entry is free. But it welcomes donations.
I was particularly interested in an exhibition about Sherborne’s Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), a group that supported medical services during war. This is because my great grandmother, who was likely a VAD nurse in the First World War, met my great grandfather when he was in Sherborne to recover from a bayonet wound. They later moved to his home city Liverpool before returning the Sherborne with my nan and her siblings in tow in the early 1940s.
The museum also features a scale model of the town’s old castle before it was demolished by Parliamentary forces during the Civil War. Plus, an archive of digital photographs dating from the 1800s and beyond. There are regular one-off exhibitions too, like last year’s Cider Saturday event.
After I left the museum, I passed the Conduit, which is probably Sherborne’s most iconic building.
Essentially a washroom for the abbey monks, this small hexagonal structure was originally part of the abbey but was moved here to the Parade in 1539.
It’s overlooked by the Cross Keys pub (currently closed and boarded up but the pub to be seen in when I was 18) and the half-timbered former inn, Bow House.
Bow House is now part of Sherborne School, whose notable alumni include talents such as Alan Turing, Hugh Bonneville and Jeremy Irons. And, Chris Martin.
I worked for a time at Sherborne School, which meant I got to see inside many of the school’s historic buildings including Bow House, which some staff claimed was haunted.
I then wandered up through Cheap Street in search of Tiff. Cheap Street is handily closed to traffic during the day, creating a relaxed atmosphere.
The street is probably named after the old English word ‘ceap’, which can also mean ‘trade’ or ‘market’ as well as ‘low price’. This is just as well, as ‘Inexpensive Street’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.
I’ve probably walked up and down this street hundreds of times. But I rarely take the time to appreciate what a beautiful high street it is as it meanders from The Green at the top of town.
The buildings that flank the street are all manner of shapes, sizes, styles and periods including some genuine (and some mock) timber-framed tudor buildings. The shop fronts feature a good mix of independent and well-known names.
Unfortunately, there are quite a few empty shops at the present time. That said, a few businesses have survived here for many years.
Take J&M Parsons, which has been selling meat at 39 Cheap Street since 1840. Or, Oxford’s Bakery over the road – the shop opened in 1969 and the bakery in nearby Alweston has been supplying bread and cakes to the town and surrounding villages since 1911 (make sure you come away with some of Steve’s lardy cake).
Both of these are still family-run concerns, and many of the townsfolk came out in force recently to stop Tesco building a new supermarket on the edge of town. That said, there was also strong support for Tesco by locals who can’t afford to shop at some of the higher-end stores that tend to open in the town. (“Never mind Tesco, give us a Lidl“, said my dad at the time.)
The Three Wishes
Another business that has a long history in Sherborne is the Three Wishes cafe, back down near the Conduit. For some reason though, I’ve never set foot in the place. I righted that after I caught up with Tiff.
With its narrow frontage, the Three Wishes looks cosy from the street. Yet, inside its pretty spacious.
Because the weather was fine, we made our way through the cafe to its hidden courtyard. I say hidden, because I had no idea it existed. But the sign on the street gives it away for everyone else.
And what a handsome courtyard it is, sheltered by the surrounding buildings with shrubs and flowers bordering the paving.
The Three Wishes does a varied cafe/bistro menu including soups, burgers, risottos, pasta dishes and hearty options like pies, braised beef and sausage and mash. Open from 9.30am most days, there’s also a good choice of breakfast dishes served until 11.30am.
After a delicious Americano coffee (hard to find these days in my experience), I ordered the bacon and chicken triple-decker club sandwich (£8.50). Tiff went for one of the specials, a Cajan spiced beef wrap with coleslaw, mozzarella and minted mayo (£9.50).
Tiff’s meal was especially tasty, and I ended up stealing more bites of it than I should have. My club sandwich, which I only ever seem to order when in Dorset (for years I was convinced it was invented here), hit the spot too.
Before a stroll up to Sherborne Castle, we had dessert at the recently opened Ecco Gelato on Long Street.
As the name suggests, this cafe sells Italian-style ice cream – all made on the premises – as well as coffee, waffles and the like. We loaded up a tub with a couple of sorbets and Tiff’s favourite Oreo cookie gelato to take away (£5).
To get to the castle, we strolled along Long Street and then cut through East Mill Lane to New Road. On the railway bridge here, there’s a quaint view over to the ruins of the Old Sherborne Castle. We’d planned to go there too today. But the afternoon was passing by quickly and we wanted lots of time to explore the “new” Sherborne Castle and its gardens before the forecasted thunderstorms reached us.
Sherborne Castle isn’t really a castle at all, but a 16th-century mansion. The original owner was Sir Walter Raleigh. He took a liking to Sherborne after passing through frequently on his trips between Plymouth and London. He originally planned on modernising the old Sherborne Castle, which was still whole at this point. But, he ended up building a new house nearby, initially named Sherborne Lodge.
It passed to the Digby family (now Wingfield Digby) in 1617. The family still own the house and the 15,000-acre estate, which as well as fields and parkland includes several pubs and scores of farm buildings, homes and shops.
The Turkish Gun
Entrance to the castle and garden is £12 (or £6.50 for the gardens only). After we paid at the main gate, it was a pleasant walk up the drive past the castle’s stableblock and the “Turkish Gun”, an artillery piece captured by the Dorset Yeomanry in Palestine in the First World War.
Here on the mound behind the gun, there’s great views across the castle’s parkland and the western end of the castle’s 50-acre lake, which you might not get time to enjoy if you arrive by car.
We decided to look around the castle first. This is on a self-guided basis, but there are information sheets in all rooms and stewards available to answer questions.
Sherborne Castle tour
The tour begins in the castle’s state rooms and takes you through various drawing rooms, dining rooms, the library, bedrooms and even a bathroom.
Each room includes various art, furniture and porcelain that the Digby family have collected over the last 400 years. There’s also an excellent gallery of photos of the Wingfield Digby family from the mid-1800s to the present day.
The information sheets give an overview of the items on display in each room as well as stories about the castle and its inhabitants.
One story highlights how the new castle almost met the same fate as the old castle in the Civil War after Parliamentary forces besieged it.
The owner at that time, Lord George Digby, was away fighting for the Royalists. His wife Lady Anne stayed home at the lodge (as it was still called then). Fortunately, the commander of the soldiers sent to destroy the house was Lady Anne’s brother. She threatened not to leave the building if the soldiers demolished it, The castle – as it became known after the siege – was saved.
The hall at the front of the building, complete with suits of armour guarding the exit, marks the transition into what feels like the less salubrious parts of the castle. This eventually leads through a flagstone dining room down to the original cellar kitchen. Here, there’s also a small museum featuring artefacts from the Civil War and an exhibition celebrating the work of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, the man behind the the castle’s gardens.
We took a stroll around the lake and gardens next.
Sherborne Castle gardens and lake
Sherborne Castle gardens was one of Capability Brown’s first commissions. His design included the lake, added in 1753. This is the centrepiece of the gardens, which make use of the old castle ruins as a backdrop. There’s even a mock ruined tower built on the far side of the lake to add symmetry to the vista.
There are many specimen trees towering above the floral borders and lush lawns that flank the paths and lake’s edge. Some of the trees are ‘champion’ trees – in other words, the largest of their species in the UK and Ireland.
The garden has two marked walks – one short on the castle side of the lake and one long on the opposite side. We headed for the lake’s boathouse and pier first, which are part of the short walk.
We then took in a big chunk of the long walk. Here, there are lovely views of the castle through the trees and a waterfall that marks where the River Yeo, which feeds the lake, continues on its way past the edge of the town.
We also spent some time at “Raleigh’s Seat”. He built this into the wall that overlooks the former road to Dorchester. It’s thought this is where one of Raleigh’s servants doused him in ale after mistaking his pipe smoking for a fire.
By now, the clouds in the distance were looking menacing. So with a 30-minute walk back to mum and dad’s to negotiate, we decided to make a move.
However, the threat of lightning didn’t stop us from taking a slight detour onto “The Slopes”, a hillside next the the castle’s main entrance. Here, there’s a great view over Purlieu Meadow to the town and the abbey beyond. You can get there through the revolving gate by the castle’s main entrance. Then there’s a short public footpath that leads along The Slopes back to the junction of New Road and Gas House Hill near the railway station.
In the opposite direction, this path takes you up behind the new castle and through the deer park to the small village of Haydon. There are more fantastic views of the town and the castle at the top of the hill here.
Not that we had time for that today, unfortunately. Instead, we headed home to beat the rain, which of course never materialised in the end.
An odd – but pleasant – day
Having toured Sherborne’s familiar and not-so-familiar sights, it had felt like an odd day. And, I was surprised time had ran away from us – after all, we didn’t have time to go the old castle, the Pageant Gardens or – importantly – any pubs. Maybe next time, eh?
We had a lovely time though. Just make sure you give yourself more than a day in the town if you visit – there’s loads to see and do.
Info: Sherborne is in north-west Dorset, about an hour’s drive from Bristol, Poole and Salisbury. It’s close to the A303 trunk road and has a railway station on the London Waterloo to Exeter line. Accommodation options include The Eastbury Hotel, The Bakehouse, Clare Cottage and Rose Cottage although there are many small hotels and B&Bs in the area. For guided tours of Sherborne with Blue Badge guide Cindy Chant, see the Sherborne Walks website.