Exactly half a century after an iconic Hovis commercial hit our TV screens, Roger Guttridge takes a stroll through the story of Dorset’s most famous street
To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, never in the history of a Saxon hilltop town have so many owed so much to a humble loaf – and a load of old cobbles …
Put another way, not even a lead role in the star-studded 1967 version of Far From the Madding Crowd managed to thrust Shaftesbury’s Gold Hill into the national consciousness quite like that Hovis commercial.
It was 1973 when an aspiring producer and director called Ridley Scott cut one of his filmmaking teeth on Gold Hill’s steeply sloping cobbles.
To the sound of Dvorak’s New World symphony and an old feller reminiscing in a northern accent, he filmed a flat-capped bread delivery boy pushing his bike to ‘Old Ma Peggotty’s’ at the top of Gold Hill – before freewheeling back down the cobbles, legs akimbo.
The 45-second commercial (opposite) won a string of awards – and in 2006 was voted Britain’s favourite TV advertisement of all time.
The bread boy was played by 13-year-old stage school student Carl Barlow. He later recalled: ‘On that first day I must have gone up that hill with the bike 30 or 40 times. ‘And the same the second day going down – but that was more fun than pushing the bike up!’
Forty years later he returned to Shaftesbury to switch on the Christmas lights, and was again photographed on Gold Hill with his delivery bike.
In 2017, the retired London firefighter was back again to film a video promoting cycling – this time with an electric bike.
Will he be back again for the 50th anniversary?
Not just a bread hill
In 1978 the Two Ronnies produced a take-off sketch of the ad, in which Ronnie Barker is seen trudging wearily up Gold Hill with a loaf of bread to the same Dvorak soundtrack. As he finally approaches the summit, he comments in a northern accent: ‘Grandad always used to say ’twer a bloody long way to go for a loaf of bread.’ You can see it on YouTube here – cycling tourists continue to recreate the scene to this day.
No stranger to the silver screen, six years before Hovis put jam on the bread and butter of Shaftesbury tourism, Gold Hill featured in several scenes in the film based on Thomas Hardy’s novel.
Gabriel Oak, played by Alan Bates, is filmed walking up the hill while Sergeant Troy (Terence Stamp) precariously leads his red-coated cavalrymen down the cobbles. In a particularly moving scene, a rag-clad Fanny Robin arrives, weak and exhausted, at the workhouse door, where a few hours later she dies in childbirth along with her baby, fathered by the same Sergeant Troy.
References to Gold Hill (or Goldhulle) date back to 1350 and in ancient times, sheep and pigs were penned there on market days. Following the destruction of the Abbey in 1539, the hub of Shaftesbury life moved a few yards to the east to the area where Gold Hill meets the High Street and the Commons.
At the top of the hill were the town stocks and the ancient Gold Hill Cross, probably a preaching cross and one of at least six old crosses that were dotted around the town centre.
The Gold Hill Cross was removed in 1826 to make way for the present Town Hall.
The house top right of the pictures looking up Gold Hill was rebuilt around 1900 on the site of the old Lamb Inn and a forerunner of the workhouse.
It also housed the Gold Hill Museum for a few years before the move to the present site a few yards away in 1957.
- All pictures from Shaftesbury Through Time, by Roger Guttridge (available from Gold Hill Museum and other local outlets).