Steeped in history and pretty as a picture, Abbotsbury is a haven for its residents and a thriving hub for artisan businesses.
Famed worldwide for its subtropical gardens and swannery, the village inspired author Ian McEwan to write On Chesil Beach, while director Thomas Vinterberg used it as a filming location for his adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd.
And while the pace of life in the village may feel somewhat dreamlike – lending itself well to tales of romance and beauty – Ilchester Estate is a workhorse that provides a home to a truly eclectic mix of businesses to this day.
Chief among Abbotsbury’s businesses is arguably the village’s colony of nesting mute swans, the only one in the world, and a feature of local life since the 11th century.
Next year will be the 1,000th anniversary of Abbotsbury and Portesham being gifted to Orc, a servant of King Canute, who managed the birds with the assistance of the nearby Benedictine monks. The swannery recently held a food and craft fair, attracting record numbers of post pandemic visitors.
Martin Alderman, general manager for Abbotsbury Tourism, said: “It definitely feels like Abbotsbury is becoming a destination, and the village and attractions work well together to welcome tourists and local visitors.
“The subtropical gardens are world-renowned, and the Swannery is such an amazing place, they are special unique businesses we are lucky to have at either end of the village. As a place of business, there is no more beautiful a setting than Abbotsbury and the Jurassic coast.”
The subtropical gardens will host a family-friendly, open-air performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Sunday, July 30 at 3pm, and a plant sale on Sunday, September 10.
If you’re visiting the village this summer, it’s certainly worth a visit to the Ilchester Estate to peruse the other businesses that call the village home.
Contemporary woodwork gallery Dansel has been run by Danielle and Selwyn Holmes since 1976, offering nothing but handcrafted, original works made in Britain.
Danielle told The West Dorset Magazine: “We don’t deal in anything that is mass-produced. Selwyn and I are traditional furniture makers and, several years ago when we needed bigger premises, we were approached by the estate to ask if we would like to make a new home here.
“We’re now based in a very large, wonderful barn with a thatched roof and have been able to move our whole workshop into here.”
Working alongside potters and glass engravers, Danielle said she sees thousands of visitors coming to the estate every year.
Boasting a totally different type of artisan trade, Mike and Cheryl Robins have recently taken over the Robins Farm Delicatessen and butcher’s shop, offering a wide variety of high-quality, locally produced food.
The pair have been busy renovating the premises to bring the 100-year-old business “into the 21st century” while maintaining what Cheryl called “that more traditional, almost retro look”.
South African-born Cheryl says she and her partner will continue to sell the traditional favourite foods that locals love, as well as some new South African delicacies.
“I think the sausage rolls are a favourite for people round here,” said Cheryl. “so we’ll definitely be selling those but we’re also going to start selling biltong and boerewors, which are very tasty, large beef sausages. They’re perfect to go on a smoker or a brai, which is what we call a barbecue in South Africa.”
Cheryl said she and her partner have been dreaming about running a business like Robins farm for more than 20 years.
She said: “Mike is a British citizen but we’ve both recently moved here.
“I lived by the ocean in Durban and I’m so happy to be back by the sea again. The people here are so nice and friendly – people don’t seem so hassled in their lives as they do in London.
“We will be having a big reopening – with a glass of bubbly for visitors – once we’ve finished renovating.
“There’s going to be some big changes and some new products, but we will also maintain the history and heritage of this very special place.”
For anyone who fancies rolling up their sleeves and getting a bit creative for themselves, Duir at Abbey Farm offers a soap handcrafting workshop.
Truly a feast for the senses, the half-day sessions will teach you how to create your own soap using your choice of natural oils, butters and essential oils, under the guidance of Jane Ward.
As a certificated member of the Guild of Craft Soap and Toiletry Makers, Jane will take you through a safety briefing and demonstration of cold process soap making, before you choose a complimentary notepad and pen to begin recording your own scent and colour choices over a tea or coffee.
After beginning work on your first batch of soap, the session will break at midday for a light lunch provided by the nearby Cherries Cafe. After lunch, you can return to the session to make a second batch of soap.
You can take the fruits of your labour home in an eco-friendly, disposable mould, ready to be cut into 14 100g bars between 24 and 48 hours later. You could hand crafted your own soap to add a touch of true personalisation to your home or make a thoughtful gift for a loved one.
All of Duir’s soaps are palm oil and cruelty-free and do not use parabens or sodium lauryl sulphate and all the wrappings can be upcycled, composted or ethically recycled.
Offering a broad range of products and services – from making pergolas and potting sheds to selling soil and plants – Muddy Patches owner Peter Ellis describes his business as a “little bit of everything”.
Since moving on to the Ilchester Estate, Muddy Patches has cleared up an area of land and set up a kiosk and stores plus an enclosure for rescue animals.
“Our first priority is to be a sanctuary for nature,” said Peter. “We’ve left many areas wild and have created many new habitats, including a stream which we had toad spawn and newts in only a year after it was dug.
“It’s also a creative venture – we really wanted a place that was exciting to look at and inspiring for our customers.
“We also wanted to educate people about the pets and wildlife we have down there, teaching them the proper way to interact with them and how wonderful nature is.”
Peter said Muddy Patches employs several local people who have come to feel “like family”.
He added: “We support several local artisans and we are trying to increase tourism to help support the village as a whole.”