Thursday, June 20, 2024

Cranborne Chase, the A-list alternative to the Cotswolds

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A couple of miles south of the village is Old Wardour Castle, an atmospheric ruin that appeared in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner. Not far from that is pint-sized Swallowcliff, home to the Royal Oak pub, owned since 2020 by TV presenter James May.  

There are celebrity residents too in Tollard Royal, as pretty as a picture with its duck pond, 13th-century church and thatched roofs. Nearby is quirky Larmer Tree Gardens, which hosts an annual music festival and where a disconcerting number of bold-as-brass peacocks roam among temples and statues.

Hidden on the edge of the village is Ashcombe House, Beaton’s home for 15 years where he hosted the likes of actress Tallulah Bankhead and Salvador Dalí. The property was purchased by Madonna and Guy Ritchie in 2001; he kept the estate in their divorce settlement, and remains in residence, brewing his own beer and entertaining shooting pals. Should you hear the crack of a shotgun, it may well be Vinnie Jones laying waste to a clay pigeon. 

Comely Cranborne is another place, like Broad Chalke, full of life. There’s a top-notch farm shop, where you can stock up on artisan produce from local businesses like The Book And Bucket Cheese Company, Sixpenny Brewery and Orchard Bay Bakery – all based in the village, a cracking garden centre and cafe, and an impressive three pubs (that’s one for every 260 residents), including The Fleur de Lys, a 17th-century coaching inn with B&B doubles from £95, and La Fosse, a highly rated restaurant-with-rooms. 

A room for the night

Posh pubs with rooms are in plentiful supply, with the 18th-century Beckford Arms, part of the idyllic Fonthill Estate between Tisbury and Hindon, among the very best. It has kept the creaking floorboards and cosy nooks but added fantastic food, smart rooms and welcoming staff – offering a flawless blueprint for ambitious country inns up and down the country.

Five years ago, we’d have probably stayed there. But with two young children in tow, space was a must. Stylish self-catering accommodation is one area where Cranborne Chase is still somewhat lacking – hardly a surprise given its under-the-radar nature. But on this front, things are improving. 

Over in the village of Wimborne St Giles, a couple of miles from Cranborne, the owners of the manor house have converted around half of its stable buildings (the rest still belong to the horses) into a trio of wonderful holiday apartments.

The main 17th-century Riding House is magnificent, a daring conversion featuring eight en-suite bedrooms – some where the animals once bedded down, others on mezzanine floors – and a vast living area filled with velvet sofas and a billiard table. We made do with one of two Groom’s Cottages, slightly more prosaic but still grand, with four-poster beds, giant copper bathtubs, chandeliers and the obligatory Aga. All are rented out by Kip Hideaways. 

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