Heritage > Counties > England


The county of Dorset is to be found on the Southern coast of England nestled between Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. It covers some 1.023 Square Miles and has a population of over 650,000.

The principal towns of Dorset are the market towns of Dorchester, Poole (which can boast the second largest natural harbour in the world, next to that of Sydney, Australia), Shaftesbury, Sherbourne and the resorts of Bournemouth, Lyme Regis and Weymouth.

Dorset is the birthplace of Thomas Hardy, who wrote of Dorchester as 'Casterbridge' and renamed Dorset as 'Barsetshire' in his literary classic, "The Mayor of Casterbridge".


A narrow, broken ridge of chalky hills in the south roughly follows the coast, the easterly ridge being known as the Purbeck Hills. Further north, a region of sandy heathland (HardyÕs Egdon Heath), extends from the Hampshire border to the centre of the county, and another range of chalky downs runs eastwards towards Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.

Central Dorset is traversed by the wide, rolling expanse of Blackmore Vale, and in the north is the densely wooded chalk mass of Cranborne Chase, shared with Wiltshire. Portland Bill is a rocky peninsula extending south into the channel, connected to the mainland by the long pebble ridge known as Chesil Bank. The rolling hills of the interior are archetypically English, green and gently undulating, but DorsetÕs 75-mile-long shore is full of unusual coastal scenery, such as Chesil Beach and Portland Bill.

The Isle of Purbeck is not actually an island, but a promontory of low hills and heathland jutting out below Poole Harbour, giving it the appearance of an island.


ORIGIN OF NAME: West Saxon settlers who made their home around the Roman city of Dorchester were known as the Dorsaete. Seatan is Old English for settlers.

NAME FIRST RECORDED: 940 as Doseteschire.

COUNTY TOWN: DORCHESTER Lively market town. The local museum is a must for Hardy fanatics.


ABBOTSBURY: Part of 11th century Abbey still remains. Famous swannery and sub-tropical gardens.

BLANDFORD FORUM: The most handsome and uniform Georgian red-brick and stone town centre by the Bastard Brothers.

BRIDPORT: Once famous for its marine rope-making, now an attractive old town. The wide pavements are said to have been for twisting the lengths of hemp.

GILLINGHAM: Historic town where Edmund Ironside defeated CanuteÕs army in 1016. Royal manor of Plantagenet kings and hunting lodge King JohnÕs Palace; the moat still survives.

LYME REGIS: Scarily steep and winding road drops you into this predominantly late-Georgian seaside town.

POOLE: Sunny resort - tear yourself away from the harbour to see the largest Bronze Age canoe found in Britain, in the Town House museum.

PORTLAND: Famous for its prison, its military bases and its quarries, source of the stone for so many great buildings - including St PaulÕs Cathedral.

SHAFTESBURY: Market town of Saxon origin. DonÕt miss the museum and its display of buttons for which the town was once famous.

SHERBORNE: A gem of a Dorset town historically and architecturally, with two castles and an abbey with a superb fan-vaulted roof. Cheap Street (cheap means market) has a row of Tudor tenements.

SWANAGE: Medieval fishing village along spectacular cliff-lined coast that became a fashionable seaside resort with the coming of the railway.

WEYMOUTH: Port with a good-looking seafront with late-Georgian terraces along the Esplanade.

WIMBORNE MINSTER: Friendly and intimate small town with unusual twin-towered church, many old inns and hotels and excellent local museum.



MAIN RIVERS: Axe, Frome, Stour.

HIGHEST POINT: Pilsden Pen at 909 feet.

DORSETÕS LOCAL GOVERNMENT: Most of the County of Dorset is two-tiered: Dorset County Council on one level and five district councils called East Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, West Dorset and Weymouth & Portland on the other. Poole is governed by its own unitary authority. Chardstock, Dalwood and Stockland are Dorset detached in Devon controlled by Devon County and East Devon councils, while Wambrook is Dorset detached in Somerset administered by Somerset County and South Somerset District Councils.


Thomas Hardy, outstanding English writer, was born at Upper Brockhampton, near Dorchester, and lived most of his life in Dorset.

Lyme RegisÕs most famous resident is John Fowles, author of The French LieutenantÕs Woman.

Sherborne School, a traditional Anglican public school, has been used as a film location many times. The Browning Version (1951, 1994), Goodbye Mr Chips (1969), and The Guinea Pig (1948) were all made here. Although it is a working school, it is possible to see around the grounds.


May 13: Garland Day in Abbotsbury. Garlands were once thrown into the sea to ensure a good fishing catch.

Early June: Wimborne Folk Festival at Wimborne Minster.

June: Pitchfork Rebellion pageants, to commemorate the landing of the Duke of Monmouth in 1685, in Lyme Regis.

Late June/July: Swanage Festival of the Arts.

July: Thomas Hardy conference, based in Dorchester, with lectures, barn dances, guided tours around Hardy Country, coach trips to Higher Brockhampton.

Late August: The Great Dorset Steam Fair, one of the worldÕs largest, is held at Tarrant Hinton, Blandford Forum.

August: Dorset County Fair, Dorchester.

September: Dorchester Agricultural Show.

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