Cranborne Chase, the A-list alternative to the Cotswolds

Stourhead Gardens in Wiltshire
Stourhead, run by the National Trust, lies within the Cranborne Chase AONB - Alamy

There’s no more infuriating traffic jam in Britain than the one that forms, without fail, on the A303 as it passes Stonehenge – simply because a critical mass of motorists can’t help but slow down to gawp at the ancient monument.

Given that millions experience the logjam en route to the South West’s holiday honeypots, perhaps it is apt: a precursor to the week of congestion that awaits.

Exit this hellish highway a few miles beyond Stonehenge, however, and a different world awaits. Cranborne Chase is one of those places that half the country has driven through on the way to more lauded locations, but very few have heard of. It’s a shame.

I was fortunate enough to discover it with my family over a long weekend in April. I’m already thinking about a return visit. This National Landscape (the new-fangled name for our AONBs) is like the Cotswolds without the crowds: an expanse of rolling hills, handsome villages and stately homes – minus the coach tours and hip hotels charging north of £500 for a standard double.

On the roads, kamikaze pheasants seem to outnumber cars, parking places are easy to find and seldom is a fee demanded. Out walking its chalk downs, you’ll rarely see another soul, and are greeted by a cacophony of birdsong in every clump, copse, thicket and wood.

So unspoilt are its 380 square miles that it has, since 2019, held International Dark Sky Status – a testament to the lack of light pollution and stargazing opportunities. The honour puts it on a par with the Pyrenean Pic du Midi and a couple of remote corners in New Zealand. A honeypot it is not.

Cranborne Chase
The former royal hunting forest straddles three counties - Getty

A most ‘liveable’ heart

A former royal hunting forest, Cranborne Chase straddles three counties: Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire – but at its heart is the Chalke Valley, stretching from cathedral city Salisbury to slightly down-at-heel Shaftesbury, known for its cobbled Gold Hill of Hovis TV advert fame.

The heart of the Chalke Valley is the village of Broad Chalke. For one week each year, it positively bustles with outsiders, thanks to a much-lauded annual history festival, which features chaps in chainmail, Spitfire flybys and talks by luminaries such as Max Hastings and Antony Beevor. For the other 51 weeks, the locals have it largely to themselves.

Not only is it postcard-worthy – lined with thatched cottages and bisected, much like the Cotswold tourist magnet of Bourton-on-the-Water, by a gentle stream – but it’s thriving, the sort of place that has other villages casting envious glances (and city folk like me checking for listings on Rightmove). In 2023, the Sunday Times even named it one of the country’s 72 best places to live. High praise indeed.

Stopping off for supplies at Chalke Valley Stores, its award-winning village shop/cafe/Post Office/church/community centre (Knit and Natter sessions are every second and fourth Tuesday), the chirpy staff were keen to opine on the reasons why it won the accolade, with one mischievously hinting at an influential local’s Fleet Street connections.

The Queen's Head
The Queen's Head in Broad Chalke - Alamy

Nevertheless, she said it was a fantastic place to live, not least because it retains so many of the vital services lost elsewhere: a village hall, a surgery, a primary school, and a cosy boozer, the Queen’s Head, recently renovated and offering elevated gastropub fare and four comfortable rooms (doubles from around £105).

“Cyclists love it round here,” she said, when I asked whether the town is on the tourist trail. “But it’s not exactly Lyme Regis!”

“No coach tours then?” I replied.

“We’re working on it,” joked her colleague.

Comely villages – and A-list residents

If coach tourists do discover Cranborne Chase, they will find plenty of other winsome villages to goggle at. We certainly did. Tisbury, the largest settlement in the AONB, is home to a 12th-century church with ancient yew trees.

In Tisbury, you will also find Place Farm, a spectacular complex of medieval buildings that once formed a grange of Shaftesbury Abbey, and a colourful little tearoom inspired by the designer and royal photographer Cecil Beaton.

Out walking these chalk downs, you'll rarely see another soul
Out walking these chalk downs, you'll rarely see another soul - Alamy

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.

The Groom's Cottages offered by Kip Hideaways
The Groom's Cottages offered by Kip Hideaways

Our mornings involved tackling generous breakfast hampers; after a day’s sightseeing, afternoons were spent taking the children to meet the horses, or for walks down an avenue of trees, across a carpet of false garlic, to explore the beautiful old Church of St Giles – with its effigy of a Crusader knight that bewitched the toddler and fine row of almshouses; at night, owls could be heard hooting outside our bedroom window while (rare) breaks in the cloud revealed a canopy of stars.

Stepping out

We could have easily spent our time doing little but village-hopping and dipping between country pubs, but we did find time to explore the great outdoors.

At Garston Wood, an RSPB reserve, we strolled alone – save for a solitary dog walker – among a sea of bluebells, pale yellow primroses and white wood anemone, chased butterflies, spotted a dashing hare, and listened to drilling woodpeckers. On the rolling meadows of Martin Down National Nature Reserve, we picnicked on farm shop goodies to a soundtrack of skylarks. At the north western edge of the AONB, we spent a morning walking slowly around the vast lake at The National Trust’s Stourhead, stopping to admire its follies, build forts amongst its trees, and hunt for bears in its grottoes.

On the up

For a last supper, we headed to an establishment that perhaps best captures the emerging nature of this small corner of England. Pythouse Kitchen Garden, with its sustainable ethos and glorious, artfully rustic dining room – all exposed brick and distressed wood, strung with fairy-lights and with a windowsill full of geraniums – gives off vibes of The Pig, the extremely on-trend and oversubscribed rural hotel and restaurant chain with nearby outposts in the Cotswolds, the New Forest and on the Dorset coast.

Find locally sourced cuisine at Pythouse Kitchen Garden
Find locally sourced cuisine at Pythouse Kitchen Garden

The main difference? You can get a table here at short notice and it’s all shockingly good value. For £37.50 per person, we feasted on still-warm potato bread with a summery pea whip, buttery gnocchi with a generous pile of the season’s last purple sprouting and devilishly good roasted cauliflower with fermented wild garlic and rhubarb miso – plus a chocolate pudding that had us close to raptures.

Most of what we ate came from a beautiful walled garden, upon which the restaurant gazes. Beyond it lies a small glamping “village”, with bell tents and shepherd’s huts.  Addressing my comparison with The Pig, owner Piers Milburn, who grew up locally and opened Pythouse seven years ago with his wife Sophia, said: “I think we actually have one up on them, because we do things on a smaller scale so are even more sustainable.

“We serve trout instead of salmon, get venison from the local stalker, we’ve even had grey squirrel on the menu. We find a use for absolutely everything, even potato peelings, and recently turned leftover blackcurrant twigs into skewers for canapes.”

He added that Cranborne Chase is on the verge of becoming fashionable. “It is happening, big time. We’re getting more tourists but also people wanting to move here. Places like Tisbury are regularly appearing in the broadsheets as great places to live. Right now it’s at that sweet spot where there are fantastic places to eat, drink and stay, and new ones opening up, but it’s still not crowded with tourists and prices are reasonable.”

Get there now, before it’s too late.

Cranborne Chase essentials

Oliver Smith was a guest of Kip Hideaways, which offers stays in the two Groom’s Cottages (each sleeps four) from £450 per night and the Riding House (sleeps 16) from £2,000 per night.

Rooms at the Beckford Arms start at around £85; mains cost from £15.

Pythouse Kitchen Garden offers a four-course set menu for £37.50pp and glamping packages for large groups (12 people or more) from £1,150 for two nights.

Entry to Stourhead costs £20 for adults, £10 for children. Families might also wish to visit nearby Longleat, with its stately home and safari park (day tickets cost £42.95 for adults and £32.95 for children)