10 Reasons Why Dorchester is Special

Tuesday 01 August 2017

Dorchester High West Street

Let’s get one thing clear right from the start – Dorchester is a special place, there is no question about that. The local residents are overwhelmingly proud of their town, so much more so than anywhere else we’ve known. We are only in our second year here, but we’ve already become completely smitten by the place.

Dorchester is a gentle, unassuming place, which doesn’t shout about itself from the rooftops (except perhaps from the roof of The Keep!), but behind this quiet façade there is a small town with large-town amenities, an amazing amount of history and surrounded on all sides by jaw-dropping coastal and country scenery.   

So we thought it was time to rectify this municipal modesty. Loud and proud, here are 10 reasons why Dorchester is a very special place:


1. One of the Best Places for Ancient British History

Maiden Castle

If you prefer your history ancient and mysterious, there aren’t many places better than Dorchester. How many towns have a Neolithic henge (Maumbury Rings) right in the town centre? Just on the edge of town lies Maiden Castle, the largest Iron Age hill fort in Europe. If these two highlights are not enough, the South Dorset Ridgeway runs just to the south, and is the home to over 1,000 ancient monuments including burial mounds, barrows and stone circles. Perhaps not as glamorous as Stonehenge or Avebury, but considered to be just as significant, and there is enough to keep you going for much longer than just an afternoon visit!


2. Home of one of the all-time great writers

Literary Festival

Many authors are associated with areas of the country, but few are as synonymous with a place quite as much as Thomas Hardy is with Dorchester. Not only was he born nearby and spent most of his life here, he also set most of his fiction in identifiable locations in the town and surrounding area. He was also a trained architect and active member of the community, so his name crops up all over town and not just in the two National Trust properties where he lived. For example, he was a magistrate at Shire Hall, worked on the restoration of St Peters Church, laid a foundation stone for the secondary school, and set-out the church foundations at Athelhampton. Today, you can barely walk down the street without being reminded of his name, and fictional place names, on the sides of vans and businesses named after Dorchester’s most famous resident.


3. A Roman town nearly 2,000 years old

Town House Mosaic

Very few Roman towns still exist on their original site, but Dorchester is one of them. It was founded as Durnovaria sometime during the first century and was clearly an important place, valuable enough to be protected by town walls, a tiny fragment of which survives. Even now, the centre of Dorchester is marked out by the course of those walls, now marked by the tree-lined Walks.  Durnovaria must have been quite a place: there are extensive baths under Wollaton Fields car park, remains of the Forum market under the town centre, the amphitheatre at Maumbury Rings, an aqueduct out towards the A37, and presumably there were plenty of houses like the one found behind County Hall. As Thomas Hardy described in The Mayor of Casterbridge: “Casterbridge announced old Rome in every street, alley, and precinct. It looked Roman, bespoke the art of Rome, concealed dead men of Rome.”


4. A birthplace of workers' rights

Tolpuddle Martyrs

Dorchester was the location of the trials of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, which began to establish workers’ rights in the UK, a significant turning point in our social history. This is celebrated by the TUC each year at the Tolpuddle Festival.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of farm labourers who met to form an early trade union in 1834 to protest against poor pay. Under the laws at the time, this was an illegal collusion and the men were arrested, tried, and transported to Australia. There was a mass protest in many parts of the country, so much so that the men were pardoned and allowed to return (although most chose never to come home). The incident and the public response eventually led to the wider trade union movement. The Martyrs are commemorated in a small museum in their old homes in Tolpuddle, but this is all about to become much more special with the opening of the Shire Hall visitor centre in Dorchester in 2017/18, which will showcase the actual courtroom where they were tried and the cells where they were held.    


5. A housing estate with a difference

Queen Mother Square

Most modern housing developments are usually anonymous boxy estates with no character and zero amenities. But not in Dorchester! In complete contrast, here the modern development is a tourist attraction in its own right - we have an innovative building project led by no less than the heir to the throne.

On the western edge of town, the area known as Poundbury is being built over 30 years to design principles laid down by Prince Charles on land owned by his Duchy of Cornwall. The result is a stunning, eclectic mix of architecture and land uses, which is now a must-see tourist sight as well as home, workplace and playground to several thousand people. Not universally popular locally, but most of our guests enjoy it, and way better (and more interesting) than the estate of box houses which would have been the alternative.


6. Some very special museums

The Keep

Lots of small towns have museums, in fact nearly every small town has one, but Dorchester must have more museums per head than anywhere else in the country. They don’t confine themselves to local interest – where else can you find museums devoted to Tutankhamen, Terracotta Warriors, Teddy Bears and Dinosaurs within a few hundred metres of each other? The two jewels in the crown – which people travel specifically to see – are the Dorset County Museum and The Keep. Both are brilliant at what they do (the history of anything remotely related to Dorset and the history of the Dorset & Devon Regiment respectively), and we always recommend them to all history-minded guests. Look out for Dippy the Diplodocus at the County Museum in Spring 2018 before the museum undergoes a £13m expansion. Read more about both museums here.

And once you’ve “done” the Dorchester museums, the town is surrounded by other national-class, and even world-class, museums within an easy drive – the Tank Museum, Fleet Air Arm Museum, the Etches Collection, the Haynes Motor Museum. Dorchester is truly a special place for museums!?


7. Surrounded by Amazing Landscape

Hardy Monument View

It is virtually impossible to leave Dorchester with your eyes open and not get a jaw-dropping view of rolling West Dorset hills and farmland. Our ancestors kindly built so many of the main roads on ridges which give rise to glorious sweeping panoramic views which go on for ever in every direction. If you are on foot, you can access even more glorious views. 40% of Dorset is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and, at this end of the county, the percentage is closer to 100%. The landscape is not starkly dramatic, it doesn’t have the biggest-this or the longest-that, but it has a gently relaxing beauty which just makes you smile. All the time.


8. The best touring centre for the Jurassic Coast

Lulworth Cove

Controversy! We can hear the cries of outrage from Weymouth, Bridport and Lyme Regis…come on, you can’t even see the sea from Dorchester, how can it be the best centre for the Jurassic Coast? But…it definitely is! It is just about central along the 96 miles of beautiful and geologically valuable coastline, and has by far the best transport links. It’s the centre of the Dorset road network, has the most convenient railway station, it’s directly on National Cycle Route 2 along the South Coast (it literally passes the door here at Aquila Heights), and there is easy access to the South West Coast Path along the South Dorset Ridgeway. Almost the entire coast is drivable within just over an hour – that’s not possible from anywhere else. Further, it has all the amenities of a County Town - including Dorset County Museum and its Jurassic Hall – making it the natural touring base for the whole coast.


9. A town full of tree-lined avenues


Dorchester is absolutely full of trees; it’s a real joy of springtime when they all come back into leaf. Not just in the centre - there are many ordinary residential roads which are transformed by their avenues of trees. The highlights, however, are the Walks around the town which mark the course of the former Roman walls – this is surely unique to Dorchester. Although some trees have been lost in recent years for several reasons, many more have been planted in their place including the avenue leading from the town up to Queen Mother Square which retains this Dorchester tradition right into the centre of Poundbury.


10. The feel of a small town - the amenities of a small city

Dorchester High West Street

A large part of Dorchester’s appeal is that it is a tiny town with the amenities of virtually a small city. It’s only a 30 second drive from Top O’Town to open countryside but, due to its historic role as a County Town and as a centre for a large rural hinterland, Dorchester has many facilities which are not normally found in towns of only 20,000 people. There are two multiscreen cinemas, for goodness sake! With the exception of a purpose-built theatre (hopefully soon to be rectified), Dorchester has the level of amenities of a place two or three times its size, but still retains a relaxed, compact town centre with everything in easy reach and relatively little traffic (except during the current roadworks!). This makes for a purposeful, well-appointed place but one that is usually extremely pleasant to drive and walk around, with a relatively laid-back atmosphere and mostly calm and unstressed drivers and pedestrians. Heavenly.


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This guest house is amazing, Perfect is every way. Friendly and helpful owners. The breakfast choice is unbelievable something for everyone whatever their tastes. In walking distance of the town, buses and railway stations. Very near a good choice of eateries for the evening meals. An excellent base for exploring Dorset after a good nights sleep.

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