The western counties are well trodden by rat-race defectors. Seven miles south of the A303, the narrow artery that pumps roofboxes and caravans from the south into Devon and Cornwall each year, lies the pretty market town of Shaftesbury. Perched on a hill 719m feet above sea level, Shaftesbury is one of the highest and oldest towns in Britain, with views stretching across Dorset, Wiltshire, and Somerset. Ampersand House, a B&B in a Grade II-listed building and the rural idyll realised by London graphic designer, Kathryn Sampson, opens next week.
The two double guest bedrooms are both en suite. Named after typefaces, Gill Sans is the larger with a king-size bed, generous bath and a fold-out sofa. Caslon is slightly smaller with eggshell-painted floors, modern prints and a power shower. Thoughtful extras include an iPod dock, a small television and DVD player, a Teapigs selection box and a glass jar filled with home-baked and wholly addictive amaretto biscuits. The Korres toiletries (including hand cream) in the bathroom are generous and covetable.
The breakfast room and lounge is bright and modern, in bold contrast to the house's 18th-century origins. A Mackintosh sideboard is loaded with Dorset cereals, fresh juices and the weekend papers, while a steaming cafetière of fresh Monmouth coffee suggests you can take the girl out of London but you can't make her drink low-grade coffee.
The hot breakfast menu offers a variety of treats from a full Dorset breakfast to eggs Benedict, Florentine and Royale. The warm home-baked bread and croissants with local butter and jams which follow are not entirely necessary but inevitably devoured.
Ampersand is upping the traditional B&B game by offering an on-demand menu of home-cooked dishes. Starters and desserts start at £4.50 and a small selection of main courses at £9. A selection of wine and an honesty bar means you can kick back in front of the log fire with a glass of decent shiraz or a whisky.
The name Ampersand House is a nod to owners-cum-hosts, graphic designer Kathryn Sampson and Andrew Monaghan, head of English at a nearby school. Leaving London a year ago, Kathryn, with her illuminating smile and friendly, nurturing manner, is very much at home as a north Dorset landlady, but has brought her immaculate eye for design to this too-often chintzy industry. Perdy, their gorgeous lurcher pup, will happily lead you on a tour of the area.
There's good reason why the market towns and tea-stained villages of north Dorset attract DFLs (Down From London) in their hordes. Shaftesbury has enough independent shops, antique dealers and delis flogging organic brownies and craft teas to sate any ex-city dweller. Gold Hill, the cobbled setting of Ridley Scott's Hovis advert, is an essential photo opportunity. Salisbury and Glastonbury Tor are both within easy reach, and you can barely go a mile or so without sniggering at signposts for places such as Piddles Wood or Girdles Coppice.
Ignoring a pressing urge to move to Gussage All Saints, I took the looped path around the town to view all three counties from this elevated position. Serious ramblers should check out the Fontmell and Melbury Downs (nationaltrust.org.uk) while the ruins of Old Wardour castle, (which is open weekends until the end of March and then daily) is a great romp for families (01747 870487; english-heritage.org.uk). And, of course, in this part of the country barely a weekend goes by without a literary festival (literaryfestivals.co.uk).
The Pit stop
Shaftesbury has a clutch of proper pubs with beer mats and pork scratchings. The Mitre (01747 853002) has stunning views overlooking Blackmore Vale and Ye Olde Two Brewers (01747 854211; 2brewers.co.uk) at the bottom of Gold Hill is equally as pretty and serves excellent food. Venture out into the wilds of the Dorset/Wiltshire border and there are excellent gastropubs including the King John Inn in Tollard Royale (01725 516207; kingjohninn.co.uk). Back in town, check out Turnbulls, "the West Country's finest cheesemonger" (01747 858575; turnbulls-deli.co.uk); along with a variety of Dorset cheeses it serves a good lunch menu including cheese fondue (obviously) and a lazy Susan piled with English tapas.
Ampersand House, Christy's Lane, Shaftesbury, Dorset SP7 8DL (01747 858613; ampersandhousedorset.com). The Caslon is £85 a night and the Gill Sans is £95 a night, including breakfast. The nearest railway station is five miles away in Gillingham.