This ancient town marking the boundary of the Blackmore Vale has much to offer the visitor, including two castles, a splendid abbey and a charming town centre. Allow at least one full day to explore. Sherborne has an impressive aristocratic pedigree spanning hundreds of years and exudes a refined sense of style.
In most towns and villages in the Blackmore Vale you will see a farmer fresh from his tractor (which may be parked around the corner) or a woman in well-worn jodhpurs and wellies popping into the bank or the grocer, but this doesn’t seem to happen here. I get the impression that Sherborne would frown upon such activity because it is the sort of place where you get dressed up and slap on some make-up to go shopping.
Sherborne’s aristocratic pedigree is embodied in its finest buildings, Sherborne Abbey, Sherborne Old Castle and Sherborne Castle (built by Sir Walter Raleigh), which are all open to the public.
A stroll around the town centre with its medieval buildings is enough to gain an appreciation for the town’s history; it dates back to the Saxons, who named the town ‘scir burne’, meaning the place of the clear stream, and made it the capital of Wessex. Today it is a vibrant market town and a centre of learning, thanks to its three private schools: Sherborne Boys, Sherborne Girls and Leweston.
The centrepiece of Sherborne is undoubtedly its abbey, a glorious spectacle of architecture and history. Resplendent in its golden hamstone, it stands proudly on a perfectly groomed lawn platform, surveying the goings-on of the town. In front a memorial commemorates George Winfield Digby of Sherborne Castle, one of the principal financiers of the abbey’s Victorian restoration.
Perhaps the abbey’s most striking architectural feature is its superb fan-vaulted stone roof, the earliest in England. In his book, England’s Thousand Best Churches, Simon Jenkins proclaims, ‘I would pit Sherborne’s roof against any contemporary work of the Italian Renaissance.’ Another highlight is the engraved glass reredos (1968) by Lawrence Whistler in the Lady Chapel.
Sherborne Old Castle
This atmospheric ruin lies to the east of the town, in the grounds of the new Sherborne Castle, and is all that remains of the original, which was destroyed by Cromwell’s troops during the Civil War. It reportedly took 16 days for Cromwell’s men to bring the castle down in 1645; only the imposing gatehouse, parts of the keep and the outer walls survive, surrounded by a moat.
The entrance passes over a modern bridge with the piers of the medieval one beneath it. It is a serene spot with fine beech trees, views of the surrounding countryside and the town. It oozes history and mystery, conjuring up images of medieval banquets and battles.
Having decided that Sherborne Old Castle was not fit for habitation, Sir Walter Raleigh built this Elizabethan mansion on the other side of the River Yeo in 1594. Raleigh and his wife enjoyed their new home for less than nine years before his execution during the reign of James I.
In 1617 the estate, with its two castles, was purchased by Sir John Digby and has remained in the family ever since. At its core is the house built by Raleigh with polygonal turrets in each corner. It was extended in a similar style (more turrets) by various Digbys through the generations, giving it its rather unusual shape. During World War I the house was used by the Red Cross as a hospital, and in World War II as the headquarters for the commandos involved in the D-Day landings.