Actually, I paid two visits to Shaftesbury on the same day. It was 20 miles down the road from Coombe Bissett, mostly along the A30 - a nice fast, satisfying drive in Fiona. I had to 'go home' to the caravan to take some food shopping back (I'd been to Waitrose in Gillingham), cook a meal and eat it, and then grab a warm woolly cardigan for the evening before returning to see the beacon lit. I thought nothing of racing along the A30 four times altogether.
It was a sunny afternoon. It was thoroughly pleasant to wander around Shaftesbury, a place I always made time for. Shaftesbury is perched on a hilltop in North Dorset, and has a welcoming, familiar, small-town feel. It also has wide views to the north, south and west. I've been coming here on and off since 1975. I spent the first night of my honeymoon here in 1983, and more than once have I seriously considered living here. Its only real drawback (for me) is that it's not especially near the coast.
It's long been discovered by weekend emigrees from London, and all the old-style cottages and town houses have been snapped up. It controversially found itself saddled with a Tesco some years back, which must have been a challenge to the existing food shops and fuel stations, but that's all settled down now.
On the eastern approach, off the A30, a rash of Poundbury-style town houses has recently appeared. Poundbury is the semi-posh western suburb of Dorchester, the county town - developed with the express approval of Prince Charles the Architect - that has allowed only 'houses of character' to be erected, some of them faintly bizarre, a contrived, idealised urban vision that seems a bit out of place so far from the Metropolis. I'm not mocking Poundbury, nor this imitation at Shaftesbury. The houses are individually all different, they do have character of a sort, and are built to high standards. And all are naturally very green and eco-friendly. They just seem an odd sight, and really have nothing in common with the genuinely old buildings in the town proper. This said, if I ever wanted to live in Shaftesbury, I would have to consider a town house like this. Which means that I would probably instead live a mile or two out of town, in a nice bungalow with a view of sorts. Lucy Melford of Melbury Abbas, perhaps. Sounds good.
Back to the plot. Turning up a side street in Shaftesbury, I saw this house:
How interesting! The Union Flag in the middle, the Dorset County Flag to its right, and on the left, unless I was much deceived, was the LGBT Rainbow Flag. Oh ho! In Shaftesbury, of all places. That meant somebody was Out And Proud. And didn't mind saying so with a flag, even though the Police House was just opposite. This all argued that the town must be gay-friendly, and possibly even trans-friendly. Involuntarily, my transdar started whirring.
Around another corner, and the sounds of a street party drifted towards me. This was being serviced from the Masonic Hall, drinks and light refreshments much in evidence. There were plenty of people about, some sitting, some standing, lots of talk and jollity. I wandered into it all, and ended up chatting to a nice man whose wife was helping with the catering, and as we spoke they began to set up tables in the road for people to eat off.
Near where we were talking I couldn't help noticing a tallish woman with longish brown hair, in a red top, red party hat, blue jeans and black flats. She's in the upper of the two party pictures, in the background, three-quarters of the way across to the right of the frame - find the corner of the modern building, then a bit further right, and left of the chappie in the blue-and-white stripey rugby shirt. Now maybe I am doing this lady a monstrous injustice - for which I will apologise - but at the time I could swear that I'd spotted a trans woman. I know one shouldn't go about looking, but that Rainbow Flag had made me 'aware'. I think she certainly spotted me! She quickly walked off. Which sort of confirmed it in my mind. I must have embarrassed her. I didn't think I looked so obvious. The man I was talking to seemed well at ease with me, and his wife, when she came up to say what was going on next, made no sign herself. Nor did anybody else. But something had given me away to the lady who so rapidly disappeared into the Masonic Hall.
I was back in Shaftesbury again in the evening, I went first into the Hotel Grosvenor for a cocktail, a Manhattan. I used to consume two of these late at night on the cruise in 2009. The barman told me what went into one: it was a very strong mixture, almost pure alcohol. It cost me £8. Whoops. It looked nice, and it tasted nice, but I decided to drink only half, as I was driving.
I chatted with the barman a bit. It seemed that the owner of the Hotel, Charlie, had now found a buyer for it. I'd heard last March that he'd stood to lose £2 million on this venture. He'd completely refurbished the Hotel, creating luxury bedrooms, a Michelin-cheffed restaurant, and a sophisticated bar full of artworks. I had lunch there in 2010, a few months after it reopened, and another meal since then. The food was good, but apparently Charlie had made a miscalculation, hoping that the London set would flock there on the weekends. They hadn't. And the place was too metro for the locals. This is what a local paper had made of it two months ago, in an artlicle published on 11 April 2012:
(From the monthly Valley News)
Is Charlie new owner (again) ?
MYSTERY still surrounded the ownership of Shaftesbury’s iconic Hotel Grosvenor as Valley News went to press this month.
Local rumours that the hotel has a new owner were neither admitted nor denied last month by Winchester-based agents Christie & Co handling the sale. Christie’s Ed Bellfield told Valley News “there is movement and a number of bids have come in.” But he refused to say more.
Earlier he had said he was confident of selling the hotel by Easter. The property is now in the hands of London-based administrators MCR for bids “in the region of £1 million”.
Former owner Charlie Berkshire said in January he hoped to buy the High Street hotel back himself. Staff confirmed last month he is still running the hotel, leading to suggestions that he might be the new owner under a different name.
Mr Bellfield would not comment on whether Mr Berkshire was one of those bidding. The hotel, with its famous Georgian facade and parts of which are 16th-century, re-opened in December 2009 after a two-year refurbishment costing an estimated £2 million. But despite the hotel’s 16 £125-a-night ensuite bedrooms and award-winning restaurant, with a declared annual turnover of more than £650,000, the hotel went into administration last November.
The last of Shaftesbury’s once -famous coaching inns, the formerly-named Red Lion Inn became the Grosvenor Hotel in the 1830s after Shaftesbury’s and the hotel’s new owner Lord Grosvenor, later the Marquess of Westminster, whose descendant is now Britain’s wealthiest landowner. It was renamed Hotel Grosvenor by Mr Berkshire in 2009.
There you are. I don't make these things up! I was told that, in all, this Charlie Berkshire had put £3 million of his own money into the Hotel, and expected to get back only £1 million on a sale - hence a loss of £2 million. It makes my own loss of £200,000 on Ouse Cottage look like peanuts!
I will say, the Hotel was still doing business in style - there was a 30th birthday gathering in the restaurant - and still kept up that well-maintained, luxury look. And the bar was still arty and sophisticated:
A farewell to the barman, and then it was out onto Abbey Walk to join the fun. A band was playing lively hold-hands-and-dance-in-a-circle-everybody music, abetted by the Town Crier in red and gold coat, red breeches, red cocked hat and tambourine.
Incredibly, I encountered the man and wife I met at the street party: they were really pleased that I'd returned to be part of the evening's celebrations. Then we all fell silent to hear a trumpeter on the lit-up church tower. After that, a race over to the open space on Castle Hill, where a beacon had been prepared. I got close to the civic dignitories, the Town Crier and a very young-looking Mayor called Simon:
It was already almost 10pm. That was the time that all beacons had to be lit. Ours however missed the deadline by a few minutes. Meanwhile you could see the horizon decorated with points of light, and we all agreed that there must be two or three official beacons in view, plus several unofficial ones. Chinese lanterns floated about in the air. I was sorry for a tiny elderly lady near me, who was almost blind and couldn't see those distant beacons. She was accompanied by her daughter, I think. She took my arm, and explained how her husband had died, how they'd used to live out of town at Cann, and how she now had a nice little flat off Abbey Walk, near the hospital. She was sweet, but of course she couldn't see me properly, only hear my voice. It was getting pretty dark. Here I am, in a poor-quality shot in the dark:
And then our beacon flared, and it was well and truly alight, and we joined up with all the other beacons around the world. Just like the moment in the film version of Lord of the Rings, when the beacon is lit at Minas Tirith to summon aid from the horse-lords of Rohan, a summons they will answer. It felt like just such a momentous occasion, a feeling that history was being made, an event you'd talk about for years to come. Nearby a man loudly said exactly that.
The heat was fierce! We all lingered for quite a while, then drifted away, only to find that, back at Abbey Walk, in the sky to the south, the moon had risen. It was surely a full moon. It was very big, very round, with a face. This had to be a sign. God save the Queen! And driving back along the A30, with the chalk ridge to my right for miles on end, there were bonfires every mile or so. They must have been mostly unofficial, but who cares? It was the evening of a lifetime. I was glad I'd made to effort to be there, to witness it all.
Pity about the half-abandoned cocktail though.