Shaftesbury Area Tourism Boost Following £140k Grant For App

A new app is set to transform the way in which Shaftesbury’s beautiful setting and rich history is presented to locals and visitors.

The Cranborne Chase AONB has been awarded £140,000 from an EU-funded grant scheme, Dorset Leader, to develop the interactive promotional tool for mobiles and tablets. AONB officer Roger Goulding believes that this technology could significantly enhance visitors’ experience of our town and the surrounding countryside. “It should revolutionise, to a certain degree, the offer in the area,” Roger said.

Roger said that the need for the app was partly identified because research revealed a lack of awareness of what an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ actually is. “People didn’t necessarily understand what Cranborne Chase AONB is and why its history and heritage might be important,” said Roger.

“Cranborne Chase was designated an AONB in the 1980s,” Roger explained. “It means it is one of the most special areas in the country, because of its beauty. It is a landscape that needed protecting for the future – to keep those qualities.”

Although Shaftesbury is not within the AONB’s footprint, it’s very close. “It wraps right around Shaftesbury. You look at it, you pass through it, you drive next to it. Even the view from Gold Hill looks across to the AONB, towards Melbury Down and Fontmell Down,” said Roger.

Essentially, an AONB is one-step down from a National Park. “Its designation provides the same levels of protection and safeguarding as a National Park, except that we are not responsible for planning,” said Roger.

As much of the AONB’s remit involves protecting our landscape, it’s easy to see why there are strong tourism connections to their work. And Roger says Shaftesbury is very important to the Cranborne Chase AONB. “Shaftesbury is possibly our premier gateway into that countryside for people to enjoy and appreciate. It has so many cultural and historical links with the landscape,” he said.

Visitors and locals will be encouraged to download the app to their smart phones or tablets. It will use a form of GPS to identify when users have arrived on Gold Hill. “Then, maybe a couple of moles will pop up on your phone and chat to you about the places you might wish to go. They will explain what each one has to offer.”

When users are standing on the iconic hill, one of Dorset’s most famous characters will magically appear on their devices. “Thomas Hardy will pop up in person on your phone with whatever view you have in the background. He will be superimposed on that scenery and you’ll be able to ask a number of questions,” said Roger.

App users will only see Hardy and be able to interact with the character in Shaftesbury. Although people might associate Hardy with Dorchester or other regions of Dorset, Roger said that Shaftesbury seemed to be the perfect place to use the author.

“Shaftesbury features so prominently in many of his novels,” Roger said. “You have Fontmell and Melbury Downs. They were bought in his name by the National Trust and are associated with some of his work. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is based across the Cranborne Chase and around Tollard Royal. And he used to spend a great deal of time there, at Larmer Tree, being entertained by the Pitt Rivers family.”

App users will be able to ask Hardy questions about tourism and history, rather than his writings. “You could ask what you can see or do in Shaftesbury itself. He could illustrate what you might be able to see from the view and his connections with those places in the landscape.”

Each location within the AONB will have its own pop-up character on the app. “We have Alfred Stevens, who was a very prominent sculptor, in Blandford,” said Roger. “You can meet Pitt Rivers at Larmer Tree. We also have Woodcuts which is a Roman farming settlement and Winklebury Camp, an Iron Age hill fort, which isn’t very far from Shaftesbury. We hope to recreate that, so people can walk around it and see all of the settlement as it may have looked in the Iron Age.”

Roger says the app will also feature a rather spooky character. “On The Chase, there are lots of reports of a Bronze Age warrior that may have been seen in ghost form in the 1920s. We are looking to recreate that for people to look at on their phones. It is a very mysterious landscape and a good opportunity to evoke that mystery, especially as we have the Dorset Cursus, which is the biggest Neolithic site in the whole of the UK. You can’t see it very well because it is under arable fields. It used to be a 5.8km ceremonial causeway used up until the Bronze Age period. We’re hoping to have a ceremonial procession along that,” Roger explained.

So how will visitors know of the app’s existence and potential? “We hope to have cards on tables in restaurants, pubs and cafes. There will also be a banner up at Gold Hill telling people about the app. There may also be a video loop within Gold Hill Museum,” said Roger.

Although the AONB has been successful in applying for a significant grant to develop the app, EU rules don’t allow those grant applications to cover marketing costs. Roger hopes that local organisations including the Town Council will be able to make up the shortfall, estimated to be around £12,000. And then the app can be properly promoted. “We would be very grateful indeed if local organisations, where the featured locations are, could contribute,” he said.

So when will the project be ready to access on our mobiles? “We’re hoping to have all of this up and running by the end of June next year,” Roger said.