As every tourist brochure will remind you, Dorset is Thomas Hardy Country. Its hard to avoid mention of Dorset's most renown native son, so pervasive is his influence. If you are even a casual reader of Hardy's late Victorian novels, such as Tess of the d"Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure, you will find Dorset an unparalleled delight. Hardy drew his portraits of towns and villages from the real places where he lived and worked, and one of the favourite occupations of visitors is speculating on the identity of places mentioned in Hardy's novels.
Hardy himself was born at Higher Bockhampton, where the National Trust preserves his family's cottage. Hardy's final home of Max Gate, Dorchester, is also preserved by the Trust, and a large collection of the author's memorabilia can be seen at the Dorset County Museum in that city.
As pervasive as Hardy's influence is, there is much more to Dorset. The lovely port of Lyme Regis, setting for the novel and film, The French Lieutenant's Woman, is set on steep Georgian streets above Lyme Bay. Join the regular tours of the area led by the Lyme Regis town crier. For a longer walk, take in the South West Coast Path, which follows the entire coastline of Dorset on its way to Devon and Cornwall.
Further along the coast is the open circle of Lulworth Cove, where the great natural stone arch of Durdle Door allows the sea to rush in. Further south is Chesil Beach, a long spit of land strewn with smooth pebbles polished by the action of waves and sand. At the eastern end of Chesil Beach is Abbotsbury, where you can wander at will through colonies of mute swans at the Swannery or explore 20 acres of rare and exotic plants in Abbotsbury Garden.
Near Portland is enigmatic Corfe Castle, where the striking ruins of a medieval fortress hover above an attractive village of whitewashed houses and tile roofs. From an even earlier era is the impressive hill fort at Maiden Castle, the largest such structure in Britain. Earthen ramparts up to 60 feet high mark the place where the Celtic inhabitants of Britain made a futile stand against the might of invading Rome in 45 AD. Other ancient monuments include the impressive Iron Age camp at Badbury Rings, and the massive Cerne Abbas Giant hill figure.
Speaking of hills, there cannot be a more photographed scene in England than the vista from Gold Hill, the steeply cobbled street running through the lovely market town of Shaftesbury. And don't miss Milton Abbas, which has been rated the prettiest village in England. From seaside walks to green-shaded villages, Dorset has more of timeless England about it than just about any place in the country. And then there's Mr. Hardy ....
Tourist AttractionsCorfe Castle Wareham
Corfe Castle is a ruin, but what a ruin! Soaring above Corfe village, the early Norman castle is an unforgettable sight. Corfe Castle was built in the reign of William the Conqueror to control passage through the Purbeck Hills via a road between Swanage and Wareham. There was a fortress at this spot long before the Normans, however; there may have been a Roman military presence here, and certainly there was a wooden palisade here as early as the 9th century.
The Corfe Castle Model Museum has created a replica of the castle before it was destroyed, using the same local grey limestone as that used to construct the original fortress and most of the slate-roofed cottages in the village. In the town hall is the Corfe Museum, tracing the history of the village and castle. A steam railway offers regular trips to nearby Swanage.
Open: Daily all year (closed 25, 26 Dec and 2 days end Jan). Times: March: 105; April to Oct 106; Nov to Feb 104. Tel: 01929 481294
Chesil Beach Portland Beach Road, Portland
Chesil Beach is a long, narrow spit of land reaching 18 miles from Portland Bill to Abbotsbury. Chesil is a steep slope of shingle fronted by pebbles which have been polished smooth by the action of the waves. Visitors can search for "Hag" pebbles, which have a hole bored through them by the natural action of the water.
The Fleet Nature Reserve, a protected wetland area formed in the lea of the Bank, is one of Europe's most important tidal and semi-tidal natural habitats, a haven for bird life. Telescopes are available at the visitor centre to enable visitors to study the birds attracted to the area.
The Chesil Beach Centre near Portland tells the story of the regions unique geology through a series of interactive displays. Visitors can also take a trip on the glass-bottomed Fleet Observer boat to examine the marine world of Chesil more closely.
Open: Chesil Beach Centre open daily throughout the year from 11am - 6pm April to September, and 11am - 4pm October to March. Tel: 01305 760 579
Athelhampton House 5.5 m NE Dorchester
A Tudor house originated by Sir William Martyn, Lord Mayor of London, in 1480's. Later additions from Victorian era. Panelled Tudor rooms, great hall still with its half-timbered roof, original Tudor windows. Wonderful old wooden furniture collection.
Open: 12-5 Easter-end October Wed., Thurs., Sun., and Tuesdays from May-September, plus Mon. and Fri. in August. Tel: 0305 848363
Abbotsbury Gardens Bullers Way, Abbotsbury
Abbotsbury's location near the sea has created a unique micro-climate perfectly suited to "wet Mediterranean", or subtropical plants. The garden is composed of over 20 acres, and is home to many rare and unusual plant varieties. The shaded walks are especially enjoyable in spring, when the garden is a riot of colour. Don't miss the Abbotsbury Swannery nearby.
Open: All year, 7 days a week, 10am-6am (until dusk in winter). Tel: 01305 871387
Alice In Wonderland Family Park Christchurch, Dorset
Aimed particularly at younger children, this adventure park has an Alice in Wonderland theme and includes rides and attractions together with a pantomime show based on Lewis Carroll's famous stories. Other attractions include junior go-carts, bouncy castle, farmyard animals and a maze.
Tel: 01202 483444
Russell-Coates Art Gallery and Museum East Cliff, Bournemouth
An award winning exhibition of art and sculpture from Europe and Japan which once formed the private collection of Sir Merton and Lady Russell-Cotes. Free admission.
Open: Daily except Mon, from 10am to 5pm. Tel: 01202 451858
Stapehill Abbey, Crafts, Gardens & Country Museum Stapehill
Lots to see at these award-winning gardens including charming cottage garden, Japanese garden, 19th century Cistercian Abbey, working craft shops, Country World Museum and children's farmyard.
Open: Apr-Sept; daily. Oct-Mar; Wed-Sun. Tel: 01202 873060
Dorset Tourist Information CentresBournemouth Tourist Information Centre
Westover Road, Bournemouth, Dorset, BH1 2BU. Tel: 0906 80 20 234
Christchurch Tourist Information Centre
23 High Street, Christchurch, Dorset, BH23 1AZ. Tel: 01202 471780
Dorchester Tourist Information Centre
Unit 11, Antelope Walk, Dorchester, Dorset, DT1 1BE. Tel: 01305 267992
Lyme Regis Tourist Information Centre
Church Street, Lyme Regis, Dorset, DT7 3BS. Tel: 01297 442138
Poole Tourist Information Centre
4 The High Street, Poole, Dorset, BH15 1BW. Tel: 01202 253253
Shaftesbury Tourist Information Centre
8 Bell Street, Shaftesbury, Dorset, SP7 8AE. Tel: 01747 853514
Swanage Tourist Information Centre
The White House, Shore Road, Swanage, Dorset, BH19 1LB. Tel: 01929 422885
Weymouth Tourist Information Centre
The King's Statue, The Esplanade, Weymouth, Dorset, DT4 7AN. Tel: 01305 785747
Destination guides by kind permission of Britain Express