Despite its relatively small area, Dorset offers a greater variety of scenery than any other region of southern England. Immortalized in the novels of Thomas Hardy, these landscapes still attract many ramblers today.
The Bournemouth Coast
From Christchurch in the east to Sandbanks in the west, the densely populated coast around Bournemouth is the nearest thing in England to Miami or the Cote d’Azur. It has a mild climate, a wide variety of entertainment and 10 miles (16 km) of sandy beaches backed by low cliffs. Since the 1930s, large hotels, apartment blocks and expensive villas have been built here among the pine trees and rocky “chines” or gorges running down to the sea. The many language schools in Bournemouth attract not only the young but also older people (comfortably-off retirees).
To the west, the suburbs of Bournemouth extend to the shores of Poole Harbour, the largest natural harbor in Europe. More like an inland lake, it is over 6 miles (10 km) wide yet its mouth to the sea is barely 650 feet (200 m) across. The Sandbanks peninsula closes off most of the harbor mouth. On its seaward side there is a good bathing beach, while the sheltered harbor shore is ideal for windsurfing, waterskiing and swimming.
Though Poole and Bournemouth have now grown together, Poole has a much longer history and a very different character. From the south of the town, cargo ships, yachts and ferries head for Cherbourg and the Channel Islands. On the quay there are a number of traditional harbor pubs and workshops, such as the Poole Pottery.
Though the town was damaged during the war, some of its old buildings on the Quay have survived, including the Old Town House (around 1500) which houses a museum of local history; the elegant 18thcentury Fisheries Office, and the Customs House. From the quay you can take the ferry over to the seabird paradise of Brownsea Island, 500 acres (200 ha) of heathland and woodland.
West of Poole is Wareham, a charming, sleepy town dating from Saxon times and enclosed by ramparts on three sides. Around the tiny quay, a departure point for boat trips, are attractive old pubs and restaurants. The Priory next to the parish church today serves as a luxury hotel.
Crossing the Frome, you come to the Isle of Purbeck, a peninsula of heathcovered hills with wooded valleys, one of which is guarded by the impressive hilltop ruins of Corfe Castle. This Norman fortress was occupied by several medieval kings, and in the Civil War was one of the royalist strongholds which Cromwell destroyed. The pretty village at the foot of the castle is popular not only with walkers. From Corfe, take the B3351 left to Studland, an unspoiled village (also reached by car ferry from Sandbanks). Set in National Trust woodland, it has, in addition to one of the finest beaches in England, a large and comfortable hotel.
South of Studland, beyond the chalk stacks of Handfast Point, lies the popular beach resort of Swanage. For centuries, chalk and sandstone was shipped out from here but with the advent of the railway in 1880 it grew rapidly as a resort. Some of the medieval alleys survive, but most of the town is Victorian or Edwardian.
From Swanage, a minor road climbs past quarries of the famous Purbeck marble (actually a variety of sandstone) and up to gray stone villages like Worth Matravers, high above the sea, and Kingston, where a popular old inn, the Scott Arms, looks down on Corfe Castle and Poole Harbour. Returning to Corte, take the minor road west via Kimmeredge to East Lulworth with the ruins of Lulworth Castle (17th century). At West Lulworth is the nearly circular bay of Lulworth Cove, almost shut off from the sea by steep chalk cliffs, and a famous scenic spot. A little way to the west, Durdle Door is an impressive rock arch, carved by the action of the waves.
The next town along the coast is Weymouth, a pretty seaside resort with Tudor and Georgian houses, a wide, sheltered beach, and an elegant esplanade. From its small but busy commercial harbor, ferries leave for St. Malo and the Channel Islands. Beyond the harbor is a causeway leading to the rocky Isle of Portland. For centuries, Portland Harbour was an important naval base and is guarded by Portland Castle, another of Henry VIII’s castles. The lighthouse at the southern tip is open to visitors.
West of Portland is Chesil Beach, a remarkable barrier of shingle some 40 feet (12 m) high and 650 feet (200 m) wide. The long lagoon behind it is now a bird sanctuary. Due to the fast, swirling currents, swimming or sailing are very dangerous both here and in Portland. Abbotsbury, at the western end of the lagoon, has a ruined abbey (11th century) with attractive gardens and a swannery (800 inhabitants). At the border with Devon, is Lyme Regis, an elegant old seaside town well-known to readers of John Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman. West of the town is the beach of Undercliff, where you can sometimes find in nature the fossils which you can also admire in the Philpot Museum.
The Country of Thomas Hardy: There is more to Dorset than its dramatic coastline. The hinterland is haunted by the characters of Thomas Hardy’s novels of rural passion and tragedy, such as Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’UrbervilLes. Hardy (1840-1928) was born at Upper Bockhampton, near Dorchester, where he spent most of his life. The thatched cottage where he was born, Hardy’s Cottage, is open to the public.
Dorchester stands on a hill between two rivers and has been settled since the Stone Age. Just to the southwest of the town, Maiden Castle is a huge Iron Age fortification, where the Celts made a last stand against the Roman legions in 44 AD. Dorchester was an important center in Roman and Saxon times, and there is a fine Roman town house (4th century) and an amphitheater. But most of the other buildings, such as Judge Jeffrey’s Lodgings, date from the 17th and 18th centuries. Visit the Dorset County Museum, which has dedicated a section to Thomas Hardy.
Take the A352 north from Dorchester, and at Godmanstone you will find the smallest pub in England, the Smith’s Arms, formerly a forge. A few miles further north is Cerne Abbas, an ancient village at the foot of a hill on which a huge, primitive figure of a man with a club, cut out of the turf, is outlined in white chalk. The Cerne Giant is thought to be at least 1,500 years old, and his exaggerated phallus suggests a preChristian fertility cult.
The village itself has a tranquil charm. A narrow lane leads off the main street to the abbey, founded in 987. The guesthouse and gatehouse are among the bestpreserved monastic buildings.
The A352 now climbs a ridge from where you have a fine view across the wide Blackmore Vale. On the far side of the valley, Sherborne is a handsome old town with a 15th-century abbey, medieval almshouses and Sherborne School, (1350-70) one of England’s leading boarding schools for boys. Beside the river Yeo is the ruined Old Castle (1109-39) with its massive gatehouse, which Queen Elizabeth I gave to Sir Walter Raleigh. In 1594 Raleigh built a new castle, Sherborne Castle, right next to the old one; this now houses a collection of furniture and paintings. From here, the A30 leads east to Shaftesbury. This is a Saxon hill-town, unique in England, built on a high bluff above Blackmoor Vale. From the main square a narrow lane called Gold Hill opens out into a vista that must be the most-photographed in England: a row of pastel-colored cottages, lining a perilously steep cobbled street against the backdrop of hilly Blackmore Vale.
To complete your tour, head south on the A350 to Blandford Forum, a market town offering one of the most perfect Georgian townscapes in England.