In & Around Dorchester
People have been living in this area of England for thousands of years. Dorchester is surrounded by an exceptional number of prehistoric and Neolithic sites, especially Maiden Castle, the largest Iron Age Hill Fort in the country, which is visible from many of our bedrooms. Entry is free, it is very atmospheric, and the views are lovely. Poundbury Hill Fort just outside the town to the north is another, smaller, example.
Dorchester was founded as the Roman garrison town of Durnovaria, and there are a number of visible Roman sites, including the Roman Town House (free entry) in the grounds of County Hall, Maumbury Rings (an amphitheatre which was originally a Neolithic Henge), part of an aqueduct near Poundbury Hill Fort, and remains of the town walls near Top o’ Town roundabout. The sites of the old Roman walls are marked by the tree-lined walks which surround the town centre. There are a further large number of Roman remains underground below the town centre, including what is thought to be an extensive system of baths.
Much of medieval Dorchester was destroyed by a series of fires in the 17th Century. More recently, the town was the site of two well-known court trials. The “Bloody Assizes” of Judge Jeffries following the rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth in 1685 led to a large number of gruesome executions. The court case is thought to have taken place in the Oak Room of the Antelope Hotel, now a tea room on Antelope Walk. The judge is said to have lodged in High West Street, at what is now the Prezzo restaurant. The other trial was of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, which was a key point in the birth of the trade union movement. Commemorated out of town at a small museum in Tolpuddle Village, the courtroom itself is currently being restored and will be open to the public in the Shire Hall on High West Street in Spring 2018.
Dorchester is closely linked with two literary figures, the Dorset dialect poet, William Barnes, commemorated with a statue outside St Peters Church in High West Street, and more famously, Thomas Hardy, who featured Dorchester (“Casterbridge”) and the surrounding area as the “Wessex” of his writing. Hardy was born in what is now known as Hardy’s Cottage in Higher Bockhampton, just outside the town, and lived for his final 40 years at Max Gate, a home he designed himself on the eastern edge of the town. Both are now owned by the National Trust, and open to the public. A little further on is Clouds Hill, a home of Hardy’s friend, T. E. Lawrence of Arabia.
All of this history is brought together at the excellent Dorset County Museum, which displays a diverse collection including Jurassic Coast fossils, remains from Maiden Castle, Roman mosaic floors, a recreation of Hardy’s study, and a splendid Victorian Hall. The other major museum in town, The Keep, tells the story of the Devon & Dorset regiment, which is much more interesting than it sounds. The exhibits are displayed in the marvellous Keep of the old Dorchester barracks, which also has panoramic views of the town from its roof.
Dorchester is an excellent touring centre for Dorset. We are eight miles from the Jurassic Coast, England’s only natural World Heritage Site. Stretching for 95 miles from Poole Harbour to Exmouth, this coastline is famous for both its glorious views and fossil-rich 185-million-year-old cliffs. Highlights include the twin landmarks of Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door; the highest point on the South Coast, Golden Cap; the 16-mile long natural phenomena of Chesil Beach; the fossil-rich beaches including Charmouth and Kimmeridge (also home to the new fossil museum, The Etches Collection); the traditional (in a good way) resorts of Swanage and Lyme Regis; and West Bay (aka “Broadchurch”). The coast can be accessed by car, on foot, or on the “Jurassic Coaster” buses from Dorchester South railway station.
The nearest point on the coast from Dorchester is Weymouth, which has all the attractions of a family seaside resort including a wide sweeping beach with lovely views of the Jurassic Coast and an atmospheric old harbour. Beyond Weymouth is Portland, with its huge manmade harbour and fantastic views from the top of the hill and the lighthouse at Portland Bill, back to Chesil Beach and the Jurassic Coast.
Inland, there are some lovely old towns within easy reach. Sherborne has honey-coloured stone cottages surrounding the Abbey, the grandest church in Dorset. There are also two castles (one ruined, one a stately home), and a town centre with a huge range of thriving independent shops. On the way to Sherborne is Cerne Abbas, home to the ancient Giant carved into the hillside, and Minterne Gardens, particularly impressive during the azalea and rhododendron season.
Bridport is a country town with a popular market on Wednesdays and, particularly, Saturdays. The town is known locally for a wide range of independent food shops. A mile away is West Bay, now well known for its role in “Broadchurch”, “Harbour Lights” and many other TV and film appearances. There are also lovely views of the Jurassic Coast from here.
A little further on is Charmouth, where the beach is a Mecca for fossil hunters of all ages, and Lyme Regis, a smart seaside resort with the iconic Cobb harbour wall (“French Lieutenant’s Woman”), lovely views, and some smart shops and restaurants.
For military enthusiasts, in addition to The Keep in town, there are two world class museums within easy reach. The Fleet Air Arm Museum near Yeovil tells the story of the navy’s aircraft including an impressive recreation of an aircraft carrier flight deck, and the Bovington Tank Museum has the largest collection of tanks in the world, with live displays on certain dates.
Virtually just around the corner from the Tank Museum is Monkeyworld, as seen in the TV series, which does wonderful work as a sanctuary for endangered monkeys.
Further on in the same direction is Corfe Castle, a village built almost entirely of the local Purbeck stone, and highlighted by the iconic ruined castle on top of the hill. From here, the Steam Railway will take you into Swanage, a well preserved old fashioned seaside resort.
Dorchester is surrounded by the Dorset Area of Natural Beauty, and there are wonderful views in all directions whether you drive, cycle or walk. Hardy’s Monument, dedicated to the Admiral who accompanied Nelson at Trafalgar (of “Kiss me Hardy” fame) is about five miles out of town, with jaw-dropping far-reaching views. The tower itself is owned by the National Trust, and you can go up to the top for even better views. (Note that this site has limited opening hours.)
There is an easy and fine circular drive along the A35 over the downs with panoramic views to Bridport and West Bay, and then on the coast road in the direction of Weymouth towards Abbotsbury, where there are sweeping views of the Jurassic Coast and Chesil Beach. Abbotsbury is home to the Swannery, a managed colony of 600 nesting swans, and the Tropical Gardens, 30 acres of exotic plants and flowers.
In addition to Sherborne Castle, just outside Dorchester is Athelhampton House and gardens. Further afield is Kingston Lacy, a huge “Italian-style” National Trust property and gardens, and Forde Abbey, originally a Cistercian monastery, later converted into a house with 30 acres of gardens. Montacute House is another impressive NT property, an Elizabethan mansion and gardens just beyond Yeovil.
Walking & Cycling
Aquila Heights is very well located for both walkers and cyclists, with easy access to both the Jurassic Coast and the South Dorset Ridgeway (which can be seen from all our bedrooms except room 7), and Dorchester is a hub for local public transport. Let us know if you need any assistance to find public transport options to get to the start and end points of walks.