Sherborne is a picture-perfect Dorset town with two castles, an abbey and buildings straight out of a Thomas Hardy novel. It wasn’t hard, therefore, to change it into a Victorian marketplace for the new Far from the Madding Crowd film, which comes out this spring. Set designers replaced the shop signboards in Half Moon Street, imported some gravel, pruned the trees, and suddenly the green in front of the abbey became Casterbridge, where Carey Mulligan’s character Bathsheba Everdene appears alongside Tom Sturridge and Matthias Schoenaerts.
Far from the Madding Crowd isn’t the first historical drama to have been shot in the pretty market town. Just days after the Hardy crew finished filming, Sherborne School opened its doors to Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch for the Imitation Game, and then again to the cast of BBC 2’s Wolf Hall, starring Damian Lewis and Claire Foy.
Television, film and literary plaudits aside, Sherborne makes a wonderful base for exploring West Dorset and Somerset. The Eastbury Hotel is in the town centre, but feels like it could be in the middle of the countryside. The rooms are spacious, and there’s a large walled garden, which was still colourful in January, with paths winding through shrubs, arbours and evergreens.
Sherborne is about a 50-minute drive from the coast, and we arrived with our baby and three-year-old after a hike along the South-West Coastal Path, all aching, muddy and tired. The Eastbury is a smart hotel, but not the kind where you feel out of place arriving as we did. Other guests were dressed casually, too, after a day in the country, and the receptionist Gemma greeted us warmly. Because of a mix-up, there wasn’t a family room available so Gemma gave us a deluxe room, and while we were at dinner, rallied around so that when we returned we found a cot and an extra bed made up.
Like the gardens, the hotel is winding and charming – which we discovered on our walk from the bedroom to the conservatory restaurant. The bedrooms are all individual and stylish, ours overlooked the courtyard, and was cosy and warm. Although the shower wasn’t quite hot enough for me, and I found it a little cramped, I was thrilled to see the huge bath – always welcome after hiking Dorset hills. The bed was comfortable, and we enjoyed a reasonable night’s sleep in spite of the usual shenanigans which resulted in all four of us squashed together in the same bed with the 3-year-old stealing the duvet. At least it was a super-king.
Nearby sits the impressive Gothic abbey, and some upmarket independent shops. The castles were closed for the winter, but, having visited them before, I would definitely recommend them. The old castle is a picturesque ruin destroyed by the Parliamentarians in the Civil War, and the ‘new’ castle (which at 400 years old seems rather ironic) is a beautiful stately home and gardens, owned by the Digby family since the execution of its first owner, Sir Walter Raleigh.
Food and drink
The décor in the restaurant is a little old-fashioned, but the food certainly isn’t, and the two AA Rosettes are well justified. In the summer, you can eat outside on the terrace.We were tempted by the seven-course taster menu, but with two exhausted children, there was no way they’d sit it out. Instead we ordered starters. Although we ate hastily in between reading Thomas the Tank Engine and spoon-feeding the little one, nothing could detract from the taste. My scallops were sourced locally from Lyme Bay, and perfectly seared – crisp on the outside and juicy inside, complemented by cider-glazed pig cheeks and toasted seeds. My husband had the terrine, which was tasty, albeit quite filling for a starter. I think he would have preferred the scallops. The boys had pasta, cooked especially for little appetites, and served with a big smile.
Unfortunately we didn’t make it to the mains. My three-year-old was practically asleep on the table, so with a heavy heart we informed the waiter we’d be returning to our room. He suggested we carried on with room service – and what a great idea it was.
In the modern-family take on a candle-lit dinner, we put the boys to bed, switched off the lights and selected the torch app on my iPhone. A gentle knock on the door indicated our dinner had arrived, which we ate in lounge chairs at the writing table, whispering and giggling at the absurdity of the situation.
I could barely see my meal. It was like eating at Dans le Noir – the ‘blind restaurant’ in London. As they say, losing one sense does heighten another, and the meal tasted all the better for it. My salmon was served on a bed of soda noodles with tender stem broccoli, locally-sourced crab and a broth with a hint of ginger, which was subtle at first with a gentle after-kick. It was the perfect portion size, and left just enough room for dessert – vanilla and pear cheesecake, again delivered quietly to the room with an amused smile from the waitress.
Breakfast the following morning was excellent, even though my son bemoaned the lack of baked beans. I was especially impressed by the selection of muesli, with one dish containing carrot, and the other beetroot and ginger. As a mum who can’t get her kids to eat vegetables, watching them wolf down the muesli was a revelation. I must get the recipe!
Price: Short breaks start at £82.50 per person per night for dinner, bed and breakfast. For more information, please visit the website or call 01935 813131
Address: The Eastbury Hotel, Long Street, Sherborne, Dorset, DT9 3BY
Radio Times Travel Rating: 8/10 – a welcoming hotel in the heart of Hardy’s Dorset with excellent food and a warm country feel.
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