Shaftesbury is famous for its hilltop setting and our steep slopes were at the centre of the action on Sunday.
Locals strolled down Tout Hill to carry on a medieval tradition and more energetic people carried weighty cheese truckles as they charged up Gold Hill’s cobbles. ThisisAlfred presents a taste of 2019 Shaftesbury Food Festival event.
Last year, Shaftesbury resident Janet Swiss called for the reinstatement of the Byzant procession between the Town Centre and Enmore Green. Now, for its second year, it is as if it has never been away.
Shaftesbury has no running water and the town traditionally made payment to the neighbouring manor for access to a spring at the foot of the hill. As Reverend Dr Helen Dawes explained, Sunday’s Byzant procession followed the established route of thanksgiving. “It’s going to be a tour from the upper part of the town, that didn’t have its own water supply, down into Enmore Green, that did. And then back around and up.”
As the group waited to head off from The Commons, enjoying the cooling shade of the Grosvenor Arms Hotel, Mary Ridgewell made sure that participants and spectators understood the historic significance of this event. “History tells us that this town was founded in 880, along with the nunnery by King Alfred no less,” Mary announced. “The original marketplace would not have been here but along Bimport, or ‘the market within’ as the translation goes,” she told the crowd.
At 2.30pm the walkers, dressed in medieval costume, set off. Claire Commons is the Shaftesbury Town Council Clerk. Today she was unrecognisable, dressed up as a medieval spinster – a woman that worked with wool. Claire was authentic in her spinning action.
“I’ve been spinning for the last four or five years but I learned on a spinning wheel when I was a child and my mum had a spinning wheel. It’s really nice to just don another set of clothing and be somebody else for the day. It’s great fun,” she said.
Gold Hill Museum volunteer Ian Kellett was given the task of leading the procession, clutching the Byzant – a broom-like object decorated with peacock feathers. During the circuit, Helen paused and blessed the party with sprinkles of water. “As we go around different parts of the town, I’m going to be giving thanks and asking God’s blessing, not only on the different places we go to but on the different parts of our lives,” explained Helen.
“I’ll be asking God’s protection and safety for those who travel through this town. I’ll be praying for prosperity for our town as a community and for our local businesses. Praying and asking God’s blessing on the friendships within our town, and also on the farmers and those who produce our food far beyond our town. So really bringing a whole different range of aspects of our life together into God’s presence and asking his blessing on it.”
By mid-afternoon, Shaftesbury was heaving. Hundreds of people were browsing food stalls along Park Walk or on the High Street. Many were seated, watching local chefs offer live cookery demonstrations outside the Town Hall. Others were sat in the Abbey Gardens enjoying the Ukulele Band.
Chamber of Commerce Chairman David Perry says the 2019 Food Festival was a huge success. “I think it’s been absolutely fantastic. It took me a long time to get from one end to the other. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people outside of Christmas,” said David.
He believes that Shaftesbury should consider additional calendar events. “We have five or six big events throughout the year, but I think there’s room to fit in more. And it certainly does help businesses, particularly if it’s on a Sunday,” said David, before he drew the winner of the prize hamper in the Chamber of Commerce’s window display competition.
14 entrants correctly identified the clues to countries displayed in shop windows. Squires staff member, Steve Armstrong of Coppice Street, won the huge prize.
Charlie Turnbull launched the Food Festival’s famous cheese races. He used to operate his cheesemongers and deli from the High Street premises where Willow trades today. His former manager, Carolyn Hopkins, now sells specialist cheeses each week from her ‘Truckle Truck’, a 1969 Citroen H van.
Carolyn said that cheese fans were out in force for the Food Festival. “There’s definitely a lot of interest in cheese and people are really looking for something quite unusual. During the week, they tend to know what they want, cheese for a particular recipe or for a meal. And here they’re saying ‘what have you got that is a bit different?”
Just around the corner, on Gold Hill, there was more cheese. The superfit were battling the heat and sweating in the sunshine for prizes and rapturous applause as they raced with heavy cheeses up the iconic slope. Children were given a polystyrene block replica but the men had to grab a 23kg truckle and run up the incline. Women were given a hefty 16kg challenge.
Commentator James Thrift was concerned when the Shaftesbury Fire Crew, who are much-loved cheese run participants, were called out to a fire ‘shout’ in the Sturminster Newton area. “That is a slight worry actually because some of the men’s teams are from the fire brigade,” said James. “They race in their overtrousers, which add an extra stone. They are up against guys in shorts,” he added. Luckily the crew returned in time for the afternoon finals.
The fastest woman competitor was Gillingham resident Ceri New, who raced up the hill in just 19.7 seconds. Ceri body builds but says that the cheese run was still tough. “I don’t specifically train on the hill every day to do this once a year. It is a challenge. I don’t think it matters how fit you are, you’re running up an incredibly steep hill with a heavy load. It burns your legs a lot and you fatigue quite quickly. You just have to push through it,” said Ceri, who added that she was oblivious to the cheering crowd. “When you’re running up the hill, you don’t really think about them. You’re kind of just ‘tunnel-visioned’ on the end goal. You have just got to get to the end.”
Ceri says that she took part just for the fun of it. “I really don’t try and beat my times. I just want to come and have a laugh with my friends. I literally roped in the girls to do the relay with me at the last minute. We are just here to have a nice time. We don’t care really about winning or losing. Some of them train. Some of them don’t. In fact, my friend has got a broken toe and she still managed to do the relay with me!”
Ceri is clearly from a competitive and super fit family. Her son Marcus competed in the under 10s section. He said he was proud of his mum.
was the fastest entrant overall and his family will be proud of him too. They watched him power up the hill, carrying the 23kg cheese as if it were as light as a rugby ball, in an astonishing 15.5 seconds.
“My father lives on Gold Hill and my mum is around the corner,” he explained. Jasper says he works in London but considers Shaftesbury to be his home. He comes back each month. And Jasper completed the challenge 0.2 seconds faster than in 2018. “I almost feel like they gave me some generous deductions there. But if the clock says that, it goes to show I’m doing something right,” he said.
Jasper works out regularly and last year he was preparing for an even more challenging climb, which helped. “I was training for climbing a mountain, so I feel like that really gave me an edge,” he said, as he spoke about tackling California’s 4,300 metre Mount Shasta.
Jasper says he will come home to defend his title in 2020. “If my legs carry me, it would be an honour. It really would. It’s a lot of fun here,” he said.
And if you want to take part or just soak up the fun, organising committee member and chef David Griffin Shepherd says the May 2020 Festival date has already been set. “We’re looking to be on the third Sunday next year, which I believe should be the 17th,” he said.
And many visitors and residents will be looking forward to it. “The weather’s helped. It has brought everybody out. There has been a really good community atmosphere going on,” said Claire Commons.