As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Dorset, Harriet O'Brien picks out a selection of cultural and heritage visitor centres and villages in this glorious Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in southern England.
No visit to Dorset would be complete without a trip to the Jurassic Coast, whose beautiful cliffs line the AONB. There's no doubt that the coastline is stunning and definltely deserving of the attention it receives from visitors to the region, but there is a whole host of other exciting and entertaining things to see and do in the area which will reward the visitor who hangs around a little longer. When the sun is shining, there are rolling valleys and villages of chocolate-box cuteness to explore, fascinating visitor centres and pockets of peace and tranquility found in public gardens and impressive castles. With so much to do in the great outdoors, it can be difficult to take yourself inside, but there are also some fascinating museums detailing the region's history, geology and archaeology which will keep the family amused on rainy days.
Predating the arrival of the Romans, hillforts are some of Britain’s most ancient constructions, striking defensive earthworks usually set around the contours of the highest point of an area. Dorset is liberally peppered with these structures – there are at least 30 in the county. These are glorious places to visit: access is free, you’ll take in amazing views and you’ll be absorbing something of the Bronze Age or Iron Age past. Some of the best sites in Dorset include Hambledon Hill on chalk land near Child Okeford; Pilsdon Pen commanding spectacular views over Marshwood Vale; and nearby Eggardon Hill beautifully sited above the village of Powerstock. dorsetaonb.org.uk/explore/a-time-and-a-place
This has to be the ultimate hill fort. About two miles south west of Dorchester, Maiden Castle is a great complex of ramparts and ditches that enclose an area about the size of 50 football pitches. It is the biggest hill fort in Britain, and by some definitions the largest one in Europe. What you see are the vestiges of a vast fortified structure that was laid out in about 600BC over the remains of a Neolithic settlement. The long and fascinating history here is explained in noticeboards around the site, and from them you will read about all the excavations here – these even unearthed a small Roman temple dating from the 4th century AD. www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/maiden-castle
One of the most striking sights in Dorset, this is also one of the most controversial. A naked figure is etched in chalk into the hillside above the village of Cerne Abbas. He’s a man, and he’s 180ft tall. Such are the only sure facts. Whether he’s really ancient is unclear: earliest records found about him date from the 1700s. Yet he may well be a pre-Roman figure for he stands near Iron Age earthworks. He may be a fertility symbol but equally he could be the god Hercules, complete with club. The best panoramic view is from the A352 above Cerne Abbas. You can also take a close-up look via a footpath running from the village. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/cerne-giant
This is very much a contender for the title of prettiest village in Dorset. Take in the Cerne Giant on the overlooking hill here, but also head into the valley to explore. A collection of thatch, flint and half-timbered houses by the River Cerne, the village grew up around a great Benedictine Abbey. A few haunting parts of this religious settlement remain, the rest was destroyed in the Reformation. In addition, don’t miss St Mary’s church dating from the 14th century; lovely Abbey Street; two old coaching inns – the New Inn (dating from 1725) and the Giant Inn complete with skittles alley; and a delightfully old-fashioned dress fabric shop, The Old Saddler. dorsetforyou.com/cerneabbas
You’re in a geological wonderworld here. Lulworth Cove is a perfect, and picturesque, horseshoe-shaped bay fringed with cliffs composed of Purbeck and Portland stone, greensand and wealdon clay which in many areas are layered in vertical stripes. At the Lulworth Heritage Centre you’ll learn how they were formed and you should also make time to see the absorbing exhibition here about the fossils found in the area. Then take a walk along the shingle cove outside, and for further beaches and geological spectacle, follow the steep cliffside path over to the great coastal arch of 150-million-year-old Durdle Door. lulworth.com
The Jurassic Coast
A remarkable stretch of seashore in Dorset and Devon, the Jurassic Coast is so called because right there at your feet is extraordinary evidence of about 185 million years of evolution, with fossils and dinosaur footprints to be found along spectacular limestone cliffs and coves. In 2001 it was declared a World Heritage Site - so it’s on a par with the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon. The lion’s share of the Jurassic Coast lies in Dorset, and all 71 miles of it here can be walked thanks to the fact that the South West Coast Path runs its entire length from Poole to Lyme Regis. jurassiccoast.com
British beaches don’t come more classically appealing than those along the three-mile sandy stretch of Studland Bay. Lying between the cliff stacks of Old Harry Rocks in the south and the opening of Poole Harbour in the north, Studland Bay is a sheltered, unspoilt haven, perfect for gentle sandcastle excursions. What’s more, backed by the sand dunes of the Studland Bay Nature Reserve, there is also good wildlife spotting here. You can find out about the area’s lizards, dragonflies, birds and more at the National Trust’s Discovery Centre moreorless midway along at Knoll Beach (note that a well-marked sector of this area is a celebrated naturist zone). nationaltrust.org.uk/studland-beach
Fossils at Charmouth
The village of Charmouth lies at the heart of the Jurassic Coast and is effectively the fossil capital of the region. Head to the Charmouth Heritage Centre on the beach to see inspiringly devised displays on the region’s rocks, its geology and its marine life. You’ll see the coiled shells of ammonites found locally, you’ll inevitably gaze amazed at fossils of apparently shark-like ichthyosaurs and you’ll find out about the fragile nature of the cliffs here (and the dangers of mudflows and landslides). Enthusiastic wardens at the centre run guided fossil hunting walks and also marine ventures looking at the fascinating creatures living in rock pools. charmouth.org/chcc
This iconic barrier beach is an 18-mile stretch of shingle protecting not only the land behind it but eight-mile long, wildlife-rich Fleet Lagoon too. It is composed of about 100 million pebbles that shelve steeply seaward and (here’s an amazing feat) that are very neatly graded in size: it is said that true local seamen know exactly where they are on the beach simply by looking at the size of the pebbles – fist-sized near Portland at one end, pea-sized by West Bay at the other. A newly redevised visitor centre on Portland Road in Portland offers lots of information on the geology and wildlife of the Chesil Beach area and runs a host of events throughout the year. www.dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk/chesil-beach-centre
With its scampering red squirrels and flamboyant peacocks, Brownsea Island is an arcadian world-apart. Set in Poole Harbour, this mile-long patch of land has variously been a military stronghold, the centre of a fishing community, a model farm, and a private estate. In the 1960s was taken on by the National Trust who run it as a wildlife reserve – and also lease much of the northern half of the island to the Dorset Wildlife Trust. Accessible by boat from Poole Quay and Sandbanks, this very peaceful place supports a great range of birds from oystercatchers to kingfishers, and is awash with butterflies and dragonflies in summer. nationaltrust.org.uk/brownsea-island
Stimulating yet utterly tranquil, the Kingcombe Centre is a remarkable establishment that runs a day and residential courses with an overall environmental theme. These range from willow workshops and bat licence training to autumn fungus forays. The setting on a working farm between Maiden Newton and Beaminster is superb, and the centre has its own livestock and even honey bees. It is run by the Dorset Wildlife Trust and offers accommodation in a beautifully converted cowshed with 11 comfortable bedrooms and heating by fuel pellet sustainable technology. Meals are served in Kingcombe’s excellent conservatory café whose menu is based on sustainably produced local foods and Fairtrade items. kingcombe.org.uk
Set behind the fabulous Chesil Bank, Abbotsbury’s cluster of historic sites – most notably its 14th-century chapel – draw in history buffs from far and wide. But the pretty village also has its fair share of studios, galleries and shops, making it the perfect stop off for a gentle spot of window shopping, and there are plenty of bakeries, tea rooms, pubs and delis for hungry souls. Other visitor attractions in the village include a swannery, a children’s farm, and the subtropical gardens – a twenty-acre garden filled with fascinating, exotic plants and flowers. For great views of the Chesil Bank, Lyme village and the coastline, climb Abbotsbury Hill at the edge of the village. abbotsbury.co.uk
From cultural events and exhibitions, to vintage shows and farmers’ markets, there’s always something going on in this oft-overlooked but lively little town, also known as the gateway town for the Jurassic Coast. The town’s history is based on rope and net making trade, and even today this industry is going strong – you can swot up on the history of the industry at the Bridport Museum, which displays artefacts from the Roman period to the present day.
Perhaps Dorset’s most famous coastal town – the ‘Pearl of Dorset’ – needs little introduction. With its historic cobb, beach-hut-lined promenade, pretty Broad Street crammed with cute and quirky shops and the stunning Jurassic Coast on its doorstep, Lyme Regis has been welcoming holiday makers for centuries. There are literary connections aplenty (John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Jane Austen’s Persuasion), and if food is your thing then you’ll be spoilt for choice in all the seafood restaurants, cosy pubs, markets and summer foodie events in the area.
This tiny little village, with rows of identical thatched cottages lining the main street, flanked to the front by grassy greens, has to be one of the prettiest village in Dorset. Try to time your visit with the street fair (held every two years; the next fair will be in July 2015), when the village comes alive with music, dancing, farmers’ markets and craft stalls as residents don 18th-century dress to celebrate the rebuilding of the village 225 years ago.
Whether you’re into walking, cycling, bird watching, or boating, Wareham has it all. The town has a rich history dating back to 700AD, all of which can be absorbed in the town’s fascinating museum. There are interesting shops to peruse, some great eateries where you can enjoy delicious local produce. The town’s Saxon walls, which date to the 9th century, surround the town on three sides and can be walked around entirely. Beyond the walls, beautiful countryside stretches out in all directions, crisscrossed with a network of trails for walkers and cyclists.
It would be difficult to find a more evocative and romantic ruin than Corfe Castle, with the remains of its tower forming a dramatic silhouette atop a hill above the Purbeck peninsula. A defensive site as far back as Roman times, the castle had many incarnations, and was destroyed by Parliamentarian troops in the Civil War after valiant resistance by the widowed Royalist owner Lady Bankes. Take in its bailey, keep and walls with arrow slits, then stroll down to the picturesque village of the same name, just below, and stop for lunch or a drink at one of the three pubs there. nationaltrust.org.uk/corfe-castle
Appreciation of Dorset’s landscape today has been much shaped by Thomas Hardy’s works. Head to the Dorchester area to see three seminal sites connected with the writer. The cob-and-thatch cottage where he was born in 1840 is now run by the National Trust and furnished much as it would have been in the author’s day. A few miles away in Dorchester another of Hardy’s homes is also run by the National Trust. Max Gate was designed by Hardy (who trained as an architect) in 1885 and it was here that he wrote many novels including Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Meantime at the Dorset County Museum in the centre of Dorchester you can explore a section devoted to Hardy. hardycountry.org
For information on characterful places to stay, local food and drink, and nearby visitor attractions, see our, see our Green Traveller's Guide to Dorset