The small town of Beaminster stands in an area of outstanding natural beauty and was much loved by Thomas Hardy, who made it ‘Emminster’ in his novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The picturesque River Brit runs along beside the main street, the little square is edged by 18th century houses of golden Ham stone, and the church’s richly ornamented Tudor tower is one of the best in Dorset. Rolling hills surround the town, and 800ft-high Toller Down offers fine views of the area. Two basically Tudor houses stand near Beaminster – Mapperton Manor and gardens to the south east, and Parnham House to the south.
Blandford Forum was a very old settlement, but a fire in 1731 destroyed it almost completely, leaving a mere 50 or so houses standing. The rebuilt town has the classical proportions of Georgian architecture – the Corn Exchange being a fine example. The only major buildings to survive were the Old House, Dale House and Ryves Almshouses, all 17th century. 5 miles north west of the town is Child Okeford, a prosperous farming settlement, with thatched cottages, Georgian houses, and an impressive manor house.
Bournemouth was ‘discovered’ by Victorian society in the mid-19th century when an eminent physician – one Dr Granville recommended its mild, sunny climate to those in delicate health. Until 1811 the area had been completely undeveloped, a tract of wild common land between Christchurch and Poole through which the stream of Bourne wound its way to the sea. Then a local squire, Lewis Tregonwell, built himself a summer home where the Royal Exeter Hotel now stands, and in 1837 another local landowner, Sir George Tapps, saw the potential of the area and began to establish a resort to the east of Tregonwell’s house. His investment was the beginning of a massive expansion; in the second 50 years of the last century the town’s population grew from 695 to 59,000, as rich gentlemen built villas among the pines of the river valley and speculators erected hotels on the clifftops.
The popularity of ‘The Queen of the South’ continues for few resorts canrival its 6 miles of sheltered sandy beaches, or the magnificence of the 100ft-high cliffs, split dramatically by wooded chines. The town does not rely solely on its natural advantages to tempt the holidayamaker, however: lifts and walks connect the beaches with street level, where, behind the promenades and gardens, is a modern town with excellent facilities.
Parks and gardens cover 2000 acres, one-sixth of the area of Bournemouth. The valley of the Bourne has been landscaped into Lower, Central and Upper Gardens, ablaze with flowering trees and shrubs in the early summer.
Robert Louis Stevenson lived for 3 years in Bournemouth; the site of his house is now a public garden. Mary Shelley, second wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley and author of Frankenstein, is buried along with her husband’s heart in St Peter’s churchyard. A memorial window inside the church commemorates John Keble, author of the Christian Year, after Whom Keble College, Oxford is named. He died in Bournemouth in 1866.
This 18-mile natural breakwater, which separates the English Channel from the Fleet (an elongated lake) between Portland and Abbotsbury, is the product of thousands of years of labour by the sea, the tides, and the storms which threw up masses and masses of pebbles. The process of time has succeeded in grading them: at the Portland end, they average 3; inches in diameter, declining little by little until, at Abbotsbury, they are just under one inch in diameter. Many and most various things have been washed up on the bank, but the merman, reported in the 18th century, should not be taken seriously. The 95-ton sloop, thrown over Chesil Bank by a gale in 1824, and dumped in the Fleet, is a fact.
Jane Austen liked Charmouth for its peaceful atmosphere. The village, which used to be a fashionable stopping place for coaches, has many attractive old houses and enjoys fine views over Lyme Bay. Katherine of Aragon stayed at the Queen’s Arms soon after arriving in England and in 1651, Charles II came here in disguise, seeking a boat that would take him to France. Black Ven, not far away, is where Mary Arming made the discovery of the fossilised ichthyosaurus, now in the Natural History Museum. Fossil-hunting is still a popular pastime on the attractive beach just south of the village, and the cliffs around Charmouth offer some excellent walks.
The River Stour which forms a boundary between the two, has, perhaps, saved Christchurch from being engulfed by its neighbour Bournemouth. Both the Avon and Stour meet here hence the town’s original name of Twynham. The name Christchurch comes from a story about the building of the church. The towns people had decided on St Catherine’s Hill for the site, but every night their building materials were removed and when a beam that had been cut too short was mysteriously lengthened, they decided that Christ himself had intervened, built their church on the new site and renamed their town. The priory church has a magnificent Norman turret on the north transept. The Red House Museum contains interesting exhibits from the excavations at Hengistbury Head.
The Chase, which covers 100 square miles, used to be a hunting forest, often visited by King John, to hunt fallow deer. In time, the forest laws, instead of keeping poachers out, allowed the Chase to become a haven for all kinds of miscreants, until in 1830 Parliament passed a specxal Act to bring it under the control of the law. Cranborne itself, once the centre of the Chase Court, is now a picturesque village, its attractive houses grouped around a village green. The gardens ACT of Cranborne House were laid out in the 17th century by the lst Earl of Salisbury.
Dorchester is still the busy market town of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. The lines of its main streets were laid out by the Romans and there is an excavated Roman house in Colliton Park, and the County Museum contains many items relating to Roman and pre-Roman times. In Colliton Walk there is a statue of Hardy, who was born near Dorchester at Higher Bockhampton. Hardy’s Cottage has been preserved by the National Trust. Hardy spent his later years at Max Gate, just outside Dorchester – he had trained as an architect and designed the house himself. The Dorset County Museum also has a room reconstructed as Hardy’s study.
In 1685, Dorchester hosted the Bloody Assizes at which Judge Jeffreys presided. His courtroom was allegedly in the Antelope Hotel. The trial resulted in 74 people being hanged, and many more were transported to the colonies. The famous trial of the Tolpuddle martyrs took place in the Shire Hall in 1834, which is now a TUC memorial. The early trade unionists were transported to Australia but following a reprieve 4 years later, five of the six families involved emigrated to Ontario, where their descendants still live.
Maumbury Rings, a Stone Age circle, adapted by the Romans for use as an amphitheatre, seated 10,000. As late as 1767, the site was used for public executions or ‘hanging fairs’.
West of the famous Lulworth Cove lie two bays, divided by a limestone headland in which the sea has cut an arch Durdle Door. This is one of the most beautiful parts of the Dorset coast. There is sheltered bathing and a 5-mile footpath along the chalk cliffs.
Low cliffs of black shale overlook the small bay where thatched cottages stand beside the derelict quay of Kimmeridge. Smedmore House to the south east is originally Jacobean, with Queen Anne and Georgian additions, and contains an exhibition of antique dolls and marquetry furniture. Ruined Clavel coastguard tower on the cliffs was once a summer house belonging to Smedmore. One mile inland, the church in the tiny village of Steeple very surprisingly contains representations of the stars and stripes – the Washington coat of arms. One is cut into the stone porch, while the other is painted in scarlet on the barrel roof.
Lulworth Cove, deep in Hardy country, is an exquisite small bay backed by magnificent chalk cliffs, its waters almost totally enclosed by two arms of Portland and Purbeck stone. Stair Hole, with its strangely twisted rock strata, is of considerable geological interest. Durdle Door, the natural rock arch that juts out into the sea just west of the cove, is a spectacular sight on stormy days,when huge waves crash through it. Lulworth Castle, gutted by fire in 1929, stands in 600 acres of woodland. The adjoining Rotunda (built in 1786) is ‘ the first Roman Catholic church for which Royal permission was given after the Reformation, George III agreed to it on condition that it did not look like a church.
Lyme Regis became a fashionable south coast resort in the 18th century. Its first importance was as a medieval port, earning its royal title when Edward I sheltered by the Cobb during the wars against the French. Later the Duke of Monmouth landed here in 1685 to lead the ill-fated rebellion against James II. The town was a smuggling stronghold, but regained respectability in the days of Jane Austen. The massive, curving breakwater, the Cobb, was the scene of Louisa Musgrove’s fall in Persuasion, and more recently was a setting in John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The town is substantially unchanged today, with Georgian houses lining the steep main street that runs down to the harbour and shingle beach. There are fine views along the bay, much of which is a nature reserve, dominated by Golden Cap at 617ft, it is the highest cliff on the south coast. The cliff area running round to Charmouth is rich in fossils; many finds can be seen in the town. The most famous fossil, discovered in the Undercliff, was the 21ft ichthyosaurus found in 1811 by Mary Anning, the 12-year-old daughter of a local carpenter.
Lyme Regis was the birthplace of Sir George Somers, who discovered Bermuda when his expedition was wrecked there in 1609. Somers lived 6 miles east of Lyme Regis at Berne Manor, Whitchurch Canicorum, where he is buried in the church.
Set on a hilltop to the south west of Dorchester, this Iron Age fort is one of the largest earthworks in Europe, with a perimeter of over 2 miles and terraced ramparts rising to more than 80ft. Finds of pottery and tools indicate that the site was first occupied c2000 BC, but fortified in approximately 300 BC. Excavations revealed an ammunition store containing 20,000 sling-stones and a mass grave. Some of the skeletons had axes embedded in their skulls. Vespasian and the Romans captured the hill-fort in AD 43.
Yachts and pleasure boats of all kinds throng Poole’s enormous bay, a natural harbour, said to measure more than 100 miles round. Encroaching suburban development has now linked Poole to its neighbour, Bournemouth, but Poole is much the older town of the two. The 18th-century atmosphere of Poole’s old town is remarkably well preserved. Scalpen’s Court and the former Guildhall both contain museums of local history, while at Poole Quay a maritime museum is housed in the 15th-century cellars. Poole Pottery was founded in 1875 and its quayside works are open to the public. Marconi conducted early wireless experiments here in 1898. The town’s greatest asset, however, is its natural harbour. Warehouses, harbour offices and ships’ Chandlers still line the harbour. Now a popular yachting centre, Poole was formerly the administrative centre of Dorset.
Isle of Portland
An isthmus and the pebble spit of Chesil Bank are all that join Portland to the mainland. The inhabitants of the scattered villages long claimed to have distinct ancestry from their neighbours on the mainland, and jealously preserved their own customs and traditions, including smuggling. For many centuries, Portland has been a defensive site; in the 19th-century, a large harbour was built here using convict labour and Portland is still an important naval base. The southern tip of Portland Bill is graced by an old lighthouse now a bird-watching station. Portland Museum is housed in a cottage associated with Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved. William Wordsworth’s brother was drowned off Portland. The Normans built the now ruined Bow and Arrow Castle, and in the 16th century Henry VIII added Portland Castle. Pennsylvania Castle was built in 1800 by John Penn. It was designed by James Wyatt. Many architects have made use of the beautiful Portland stone, among them Sir Chrtstopher Wren, who used it for St Paul’s Cathedral. The United Nations Buildings In New York are also made of Portland stone.
As charnnng as Its name suggests, Puddletown stands at the foot of the Piddle Valley and only changed its old name of Piddleton in the 1950’s. Hardy called at Weatherby in Far from Maddening Crowd and the open country between the village and Wareham features in several of his novels Egdon Heath. A milelong avenue of rhododendrons leads through Puddletown Forest. Nearby is Athelhampton Manor Hall.
Shaftesbury, the only hilltop town in the county, is where King Cnut ‘ (Canute) died in 1035. It is situated on top of a 700ft-high plateau overlooking Blackmore Vale. Its old name was Shaston and that is how Thomas Hardy refers to it in his Wessex novels. The abbey of which only fragments remain, was founded in AD 981, and it was here that King Edward the Martyr was brought after being murdered by his stepmother at Corfe Castle. The town has an excellent museum which stands at the top of the picturesque, cobbled Gold Hill and contains a fascinating collection of locally made buttons, needlework, toys, agricultural and domestic items, fans, pottery and finds from local excavations.
Sherborne is one of Dorset’s most architecturally consistent towns, with many medieval buildings in golden Ham stone. The focus of the town is its 15th-century abbey church, which has beautiful fan vaulting in the Lady Chapel, and a glass reredos engraved by Sir Lawrence Whistler in 1958. Great Tom, the church bell, was a gift from Cardinal Wolsey. Part of the original abbey buildings are incorporated into Sherborne School, one of the town’s well-known public schools. Among Sherbome‘s famous pgupils were C Day-Lewis and the brothers John Cowper and Llewelyn Powys.
Sherbome has two castles; the Old, built in the 12th century by Bishop Roger, Chancellor to Henry I, was beseiged and slighted during the Civil War. The New Castle was begun in 1594 by Sir Walter Raleigh, who lived in the town for 15 years. Queen Elizabeth had leased him the Old Castle in 1592. The castle stands in the 20-acre park landscaped by Capability Brown, and it was here that Sir Walter was ‘extinguished’ when his servant first saw him smoking the tobacco he brought back from the New World. In 1688, William of Orange probably printed his ‘Proclamation to The English People’ in the castle. The owners of Sherborne Castle are said to have been cursed by an early Bishop of Sarum; indeed. three were executed, two died in prison and one was poisoned. Sherborne Cascle is the ancestral home of the Digbys.
The quiet resort town of Swanage is the only place between Poole and Weymouth where the road reaches the coast. There are several old houses in the town and the oldest part is the area around the Mill Pond. The church, though rebuilt, has a 13th-century tower, and the facade of the Town Hall (erected in 1883) originally graced the Mercers’ Hall in London which Wren designed it in 1670. Another import from London is the clock tower, which once stood near London Bridge.
Encircled by ancient earthworks, Wareham was a market town in saxon times; its centre is Georgian, rebuilt after an extensive fire. Set on the River Frome, above the Frome Marshes, it is popular with fishermen and small boat enthusiasts. Extensive heathland between Wareham and Puddletown, now partly wooded as the result of an afforestation scheme, is the basis of Hardy’s fictional Egdon Heath, and there are several nature reserves in the area. Lawrence of Arabia had connections with the town and St Martin’s Church contains a fine sculpture of him by Eric Kennington, whilst a small town museum on St John’s Hill has numerous Lawrence relics.
Weymouth, a dignified town of fine Georgian houses, was favoured by King George III who once lived at Gloucester House (now a hotel). Author Thomas Hardy was also well acquainted with the resort, which appears in his novels as Budmouth. Weymouth is still popular with holidaymakers. There are picturesque alleys to explore in the Melcombe Regis quarter, and a 17th-century house in Trinity Street has been restored and refurnished in contemporary style. Weymouth is also a port, and a terminus for ferries.
The Minster at Wimborne embraces many architectural styles from Norman to Gothic; its west tower carries an attractive quarter-jack clock, the quarter-hour bells struck by a grenadier bearing a hammer in each hand, and its chained library contains a partly damaged copy of Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World (1634). The Priest’s House Museum (OACT) has an interesting display of agricultural implements and a fine collection of horse brasses among its’ exhibits. A wide variety of birds, including many tropical species, can be seen at Merley Bird Gardens, to the south of the town.