A couple from Indiana are sharing Shaftesbury’s scenery and stories about our area with thousands of their online website and podcast followers in The States.
Jonathan and Jackie Thomas run Anglotopia.net, a site that shares their love of British places and culture. They told ThisIsAlfred how they fell in love with our town. And they have advice for any local tourism businesses wanting to encourage American visitors.
You can hear the passion in Jonathan Thomas’ voice when he talks about Shaftesbury. It was 5am, his time, on a cold Midwestern winter morning when we chatted about a chance discovery of our Saxon hilltop town that changed his life forever.
“The story actually starts in about 1999 when I discovered a poster of Gold Hill in a hobby store here in Indiana. I bought it and put it on my wall. When you’re a teenager, you’re angsty, angry and miserable all the time. My reasoning was that life isn’t so bad, because one day I’m going to go where this poster is,” Jonathan explained.
Jonathan decided to track down the iconic scene. “It took a little bit of homework because the image just said ‘Cottages of Dorset’ and didn’t specify where it was. This was before Google. I actually had a guidebook of Great Britain that had a similar picture in it,” said Jonathan. “It said it was Gold Hill and it was in Shaftesbury, Dorset. So when we were making the plans for the first trip, and I was determined to go visit this place, I emailed the Shaftesbury Tourist Information Office and got directions and how to get there by train. It was an adventure for two 19-year-old kids who have never been on a train outside a British city before.”
The couple wasn’t sure that they were in the right place when the cab took them from Gillingham station and dropped them off in Shaftesbury. The Town Centre looked so different from the famous hill scene that Jonathan and Jackie were seeking.
“It’s a very weird juxtaposition. It’s this twee little village scene but Shaftesbury is not a village. It’s actually a large built-up town,” he said. “When you talk to people about Gold Hill, many of them think it’s in Yorkshire. When the taxi dropped us off in the High Street, we thought that it didn’t look anything like the poster – the High Street is Victorian and it’s more modern. It’s weird that it’s tucked away behind the church and you have to know where it is. It’s a little secret.”
Seconds after the pair stepped out from the taxi, they knew that their 7,600-mile round trip had been worth it. “When we came around the corner behind the Town Hall and I saw Gold Hill for the first time, it almost felt like I was coming home,” said Jonathan.
That was over fifteen years ago and Jonathan and Jackie have been back many times since. They’ve stayed on Gold Hill and had visitors peer through their window. They love the town, its location and its services.
“There are very few really good high streets left in England. And I think Shaftesbury still has a good High Street with lots of interesting little shops. There’s something new to see every time we visit and it doesn’t feel like it’s been completely taken over by charity shops. We’ve seen a lot of change in the High Street in the last fifteen years. We’ve seen the greengrocer and the hardware store go and that’s sad, but things change. And you just have to get used to it,” Jonathan said.
The pair will continue to write about our town and chat about our destination on their podcast. During one of their broadcasts, they expressed a desire to relocate here. “My philosophy, and one of the things we tried to communicate with Anglotopia, is that if you have a dream, you should do everything you can to achieve it. You can make it happen if you work hard and do the right things,” said Jonathan.
“We would love to live in Shaftesbury one day. It’s just very difficult for Americans to move there right now. But that should be changing in the next few years with the new immigration system coming in. In the next ten or twenty years, that’s what we would really like. I can’t imagine anything better than spending time in Shaftesbury and never having to leave.” He paused before adding, “Just the thought of that sounds wonderful.”
So what is the attraction of Britain to this American couple? “I remember on our first visit, the taxi driver from Gillingham couldn’t understand why we had come so far to see Shaftesbury. He said ‘this is a boring landscape, I prefer other parts of England’. People would probably say the same thing about Indiana – it’s flat, boring and cold most of the year,” Jonathan explained. “It’s a difficult question to answer. I’m actually trying to answer it in the book I’m writing about Britain. It comes down to the landscape, the people we’ve met, the friends we’ve made and the sense of history that permeates everywhere in England. When I’m in England, driving through the countryside, I am at peak happiness and contentment.
“When I first started visiting, England was a foreign place. I’ve now been there almost twenty times over the last twenty years and I’ve become connected to the place and I love it so much. It’s kind of an irrational love. It’s very much like your love for another person,” added Jonathan.
“I think there’s a big really big cultural difference between the US and Britain,” Jackie interjected. “Although we both speak English and might have what is known as a ‘special relationship’ – I’m making a huge generalisation here so I apologise – but Britain as a whole seems to be more outward-thinking. The focus is global. You’re part of a bigger worldwide community. In the United States, especially where we’re located, the thinking is very insular. So you will meet people well into old age that have never left the state,” she said.
“It’s just we feel like we belong there, and we’re only going to get that sense of belonging when we finally are able to move there. So that’s the long term goal,” Jonathan concluded.
The couple blog and broadcast advice for Americans who want to discover England. So what is the important message that Shaftesbury area tourism businesses need to explain in their promotional material? “Accessibility is probably the biggest thing to communicate. It’s easy to get to Shaftesbury once you know how to get there,” said Jonathan.
Americans often assume that public transport is infrequent or unavailable. We are comparatively well served, but Jonathan says tourism businesses just need to spell out what to do, step-by-step. “And there’s a lot to see and do here,” said Jonathan. “There’s more to Shaftesbury than just Gold Hill. When we first visited, we were here only for a couple of hours. We quickly realised that we needed more than a whole day to visit it because there’s so much more.”
Jackie recommends Shaftesbury as a place for an extended break because there’s so much that will interest American visitors on our doorstep. “You’re pretty close to the coast and it’s a great base for doing Dorset in general. We make sure to travel down to the coast every trip. The landscape varies so much. It is a feast for the eyes,” said Jackie. “You come around a bend and then there’s another hilly valley. You get this feeling as you travel through Dorset that you’re a speck in time. It’s been there forever. It’s a really special place. We’ve done a lot of travelling around Britain but there’s nowhere else in Britain that’s quite like it,” she said.
“Another place that we love to visit is Stourhead House and gardens. That has become one of our special places,” added Jonathan. “The gardens are so beautiful. You can go to have a nice walk. You can see a stately home. You can have a nice lunch in the National Trust café. I would say the pubs in Shaftesbury are great too. They’re a great place to have Sunday roast.”
And the pair have more advice on experiences that they believe American travellers would appreciate. “First would be Wardour Castle, which is nearby. That’s a wonderful castle ruin and Americans have a lot of exposure to it from film and TV. Walking around Shaftesbury and around the Blackmore Vale is good. One of my favourite walks is to Melbury Hill. I like to climb to the top because the views from the top are amazing,” Jonathan enthused.
The couple’s Shaftesbury stories and experiences will soon be published, and readers may like Jonathan’s writing style. “I hate to do a comparison, because I want to be different, but it’s kind of like Bill Bryson where he writes for two audiences. He writes for American anglophiles who are interested in Britain. But he also writes for British people who might be interested in a perspective on their own culture they didn’t have before. So it’s kind of for both,” said Jonathan.
Jonathan and Jackie don’t have a date for the release of the book yet. It’s still being written. “I’m closer to the end than to the beginning,” he laughed, “So hopefully it’ll come out maybe next year. It’s called ‘Adventures in Anglotopia’.”
Bill Bryson is famous for his people watching and observations so I was keen to know what behaviours the pair had noticed when watching the British. “One of our favourites is tut-tutting,” said Jonathan. “And we learned that the British have a very different attitude to customer service than Americans have. Here the customer is always right,” said Jackie. “That’s not so much the case in Britain.”
Do you that refreshing? I asked, jokingly. “One of the things that I love about the British, for the most part, is that you know where you stand with them,” she replied.
“One off the things we love is that the English take simple pleasures in things. The joy in a good cup of tea, the joy of going for a nice walk in the countryside,” said Jackie. And one of those simple joys is just enjoying your surroundings. Maybe the couple will be here permanently soon. For now, Jonathan and Jackie will continue sharing stories about the town that they can’t wait to return to. “We like to think of Shaftesbury is our as our English home away from home,” said Jonathan.
Follow Jonathan and Jackie at Anglotopia.net.