A major project to improve the experience of visitors to the Shaftesbury area has received almost £1.7m from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty will use some of the grant money to bring history to life, through a virtual reality app. An additional initiative will encourage cyclists to ride between Shaftesbury and Salisbury using scenic routes that avoid heavy traffic.
“We’re very excited,” said the AONB’s Roger Goulding, as he explained his project’s goal. “It is to transform how people see and engage with the heart of Cranborne Chase, which is right next to Shaftesbury, and into the Chalke Valley.”
The traditional heart of The Chase, a medieval royal hunting ground, includes the villages of Tollard Royal, Ashmore, Berwick St John and Broadchalke. This central area of the AONB will be the focus of many of the planned activities.
The AONB plan to engage with occasional local visitors or tourists using an app, which has been supported by £140,000 of European money, in addition to the Lottery money. The app will offer suggestions on sights and activities around the AONB. It will be promoted on signs, banners and on 10,000 cards placed in cafés, restaurants and shops.
The app will know the location of a user from the GPS system on their phone or tablet. Those location tools will serve up a different interactive video message depending on where the app is being accessed. Actors have been filmed playing the roles of historical characters. The videos will be overlaid on the existing view of the landscape as seen on the user’s phone. This is known as augmented reality.
“We’ve got the app so you can actually walk around a hill fort or you can meet Pitt-Rivers or Hardy at locations around the area, even maybe meet a Bronze Age ghost or see a ceremony on the Dorset Cursus. So it really is an immersive thing,” said Roger. The Dorset Cursus, the largest Neolithic monument in Britain, is near Sixpenny Handley.
Shaftesbury will have its own augmented reality feature, too. “You’ll be able to stand on the top of Gold Hill and meet Thomas Hardy. He will tell you about the landscape that you see out from the top of Gold Hill in front of you. He’ll tell you about his associations with it, maybe a few snippets about his knowledge of the Pitt-Rivers family and the places that he was fond of, not just in the town, but across that landscape that you can see. And that’s going to be replicated by all the other characters in other towns and other locations across the area,” said Roger.
Some people might argue that you could just go into the Tourist Information Centre and buy a guidebook. “Things have changed a great deal. We want to switch on a young audience. We want to bring families here. We want to excite people,” said Roger. “The prospects of coming and meeting Thomas Hardy and having your picture taken with him and delving into some of the heritage of the area with that one-to-one experience offers something that isn’t there at the moment. It will bring a new audience.”
Roger added, “All of these things are just a way of introducing a little level of heritage, just the top hooks, so that people will want to delve further and go into the museums, go into the local places and find out more. They will immerse themselves in some of these stories that we’ve excited them about.”
As well as actors portraying former residents, the app will feature Ollie and Archie – talking mole archaeologists. “It sets the right tone for the sorts of people we want to interest. We want to interest a mainstream audience,” Roger explained. “We’re hoping to launch the app at the start of September.”
Visitors will also be invited to immerse themselves in the landscape by riding across The Chase. “We’d really like to encourage people to cycle out from Shaftesbury and enjoy this great chalk downland on their doorstep,” he said. Roger and his colleagues are planning a series of cycle rides, some point-to-point, some circular. The variety of routes should appeal to visitors and locals with different cycling abilities.
“There might be a full day ride from Salisbury to Shaftesbury and back again, but we would design it in such a way as people could do it in ‘bits’ at a time. It’s making sure they start out from Shaftesbury, go and enjoy the countryside and use the local facilities. The pubs and the communities get the benefits too.”
The cycle network won’t require the building of new cycleways. “It’s just really good signing and sharing the information in a palatable way for people who aren’t confident about using the countryside. Everything is there,” said Roger. “It’s just packaging it in a better way. People need a bit of reassurance and a bit more information perhaps than they’ve had in the past.”
The AONB team has considered road safety and the steepness of slopes when planning these cycle routes. “The main roads to the coast or towards Salisbury are probably a little bit too busy with some very large vehicles going along them. We only want to cross those. We don’t want to encourage people to go along them. There are lots of quiet routes out there. There are some gradients, but you get the benefit of going downhill if you go up. The views from the top of the chalk downs in the area just sublime,” he said.
Roger says the cyclists will be encouraged to use existing country lanes or ancient ways like the Ox Drove. Of course, many visitors won’t have bicycles with them. The project team has already commenced discussions with potential commercial cycle hire operators. The suggested bike routes, complete with a guide to the natural and heritage sights offered on each circuit, should be ready to launch next year. “We’re hoping to have all the cycle routes up and running within the second year of the scheme, during 2020,” he said.
Most Britons spend hours on their phones each week. Roger and his team hope that by making the Shaftesbury area’s heritage interesting and highly accessible from personal devices, visitors’ eyes could be opened to the unique qualities of The Chase. “Those stories are untold, not really shared amongst many people at all, other than maybe one or two in the communities next to them. We want to change that and share the gem that is Cranborne Chase with a lot more people,” said Roger.