From Thomas Hardy to teddy bears, there’s plenty to occupy visitors in Dorset’s handsome county town
Just eight miles from the Jurassic Coast (renowned for its fossils and seafood) and surrounded by Iron Age forts in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Dorchester has history coming out of every brick and stone.
The town was founded around AD 54 by the Romans as a trading centre and strategic garrison (Durnovaria). The largest Iron Age hillfort in Europe, Maiden Castle, lies two miles south, and the colossal priapic chalk hill carving, the Cerne Giant, is just eight miles north.
To get your bearings, walk through the Borough Gardens to the Keep Military Museum, whose rooftop terrace gives a 360-degree panoramic view. To the west, the Roman hillfort and aqueduct are now overshadowed by HRH The Prince of Wales’s spanking new town, Poundbury – the embodiment of his ideals of urban planning, and a must-see for anyone interested in the British monarchy and architecture.
In comparison, Thomas Hardy’s “Casterbridge” is relatively compact. One of Britain’s greatest authors, Hardy set several of his most famous works in the town. Hardy’s Cottage, the author’s humble birthplace in Higher Bockhampton, is now owned by the National Trust, as is the rather grander Max Gate, the house he designed and lived in until his death. Both houses lie on the eastern outskirts of the town and Hardy’s statue is at the top of Dorchester’s main thoroughfare, High West/ High East Street.
A short distance down High West Street is an impressive Georgian building, the Shire Hall Courthouse Museum, which opened in May 2018 to great acclaim. Visitors can discover the stories of those tried in this historic courthouse (most famously the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who were sentenced here for their part in the early trade union movement in 1834), following in their footsteps from cells to dock. The Dorset County Museum is currently closed for refurbishment (due to reopen in 2020) but highlights from its archaeology, costume, art and literature collections are on display at a pop-up venue in Brewery Square (until February 2019) and then on roadshows throughout the county. An array of smaller museums and attractions dotted about the town – a Dinosaur Museum, Tutankhamun Exhibition and a Teddy Bear Museum, among others – provide quirky appeal.
High West becomes High East Street at Cornhill, marked by a fine Victorian building with a clock tower: the Corn Exchange, home to Dorchester Arts. Perhaps due to the Hardy connection, many writers, including Tracy Chevalier, Minette Walters and Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame), have settled nearby. An annual literary festival is held in mid-October and the area is popular with lm and TV companies for its unspoilt and dramatic locations; Dunkirk, On Chesil Beach and Broadchurch were all filmed here.
From Cornhill and the town pump, shop-lined South Street leads into Weymouth Avenue where a massive sculpture of a dray horse welcomes you to Brewery Square – a vibrant mix of restaurants and shops – recently converted from Victorian brewery buildings. And just a few steps further up in Copper Street, Duke’s Auctioneers and Gallery hold top-quality sales and exhibitions, with interesting objects always on view.
Back on the Avenue, you reach the most ancient part of Dorchester, Maumbury Rings. Originally a Neolithic henge, the Romans turned it into an amphitheatre; the Parliamentarians used it as a fort during the Civil War; and during the 18th century it was a place of public execution.
These days, it’s a rather more tranquil open space, frequented by walkers and picnickers – like so many places in this town, a place where history and the modern world mingle seamlessly.