Dorset is, in many ways, one of England’s hidden gems, tucked away on the south coast between Hampshire to the east and the SW peninsula counties of Devon and Cornwall to the west.
It is unspoilt, little known, not (yet) a major tourist destination and only two and a half hours from London or one hour from Southampton.
Bypassed by the national network of motorways, life is somewhat slower in Dorset with narrow hedge-lined lanes linking one village to another.
Yet Dorset has so much to offer, whether you are a serious walker, a leisure walker or someone who does not enjoy walking at all, but still wants glorious views, spectacular countryside and a taste of history at every turn.
From iron age forts, medieval castles, churches and abbeys, its traces of Viking, Roman and Norman invasions, its smugglers and shipwrecks, stately homes, gardens and royal hunting grounds through to the role Dorset played in the defence of the nation during WW2, Dorset has it all.
In addition to this rich vein of history inland lies “Hardy Country” – the beautiful landscapes and villages evoked by Thomas Hardy in his great novels. Because the author set many of his works in the countryside which he knew so well, a terrain which remain largely unchanged to this day, it is possible to trace the footsteps of the major characters in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders and many more.
And then, of course, there is the spectacular coastline…
The Jurassic Coast
The Jurassic Coast is England’s first natural UNESCO World Heritage site and as such ranks alongside the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon as one of the wonders of the natural world.
The stunning prehistoric 95 mile coastline stretches from Exmouth, Devon in the east to Old Harry Rocks in Studland Bay to the west. Lying mostly in the county of Dorset, around 90% of the coastline is inaccessible by car. Most of the time there is nothing between the walker and the sea, other than steep cliffs or golden beaches.
Not only is it one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the country, it is subject to constant erosion, the rugged cliffs are constantly changing, creating a spectacular backdrop to any walking holiday.
Its status as a World Heritage lies in its amazing record of the evolution of species from fish to dinosaurs to mammals. Its fossil-rich journey through 185 million years of natural history tells a fascinating story of ancient deserts, tropical seas, a petrified forest and dinosaur-infested swamps. The process of coastal erosion means that the coastline continues to offer up its secrets from another era.
Highlights of Dorset’s coastal landscape features include:
Lulworth Cove, a beautiful horseshoe-shaped inlet and nearby naturally formed rock arch, Durdle Door
Chesil Beach, an 18 mile long pebble tombolo (spit) is one of the finest barrier beaches in the world, sheltering the shallow waters of the Fleet, a natural haven for wildlife.
Golden Cap, the highest point in Dorset with wonderful views from its cliff-top summit.
Lyme Regis, an historic unspoiled seaside resort with narrow streets winding down to the harbour and the world famous Cobb. The seafront offers spectacular views of the Jurassic coastline.
Charmouth, just along the coast from Lyme, the best beach for fossil hunting.
Studland Beach, a glorious slice of natural coastline in Purbeck featuring a four-mile stretch of golden, sandy beach, with gently shelving bathing waters and views of Old Harry Rocks The dunes and heathland behind the beach are a haven for native wildlife.
View the local tourist information website Visit Dorset’s short film
Inland, Dorset’s gently rolling, fertile countryside, a patchwork of lush green pasture bordered by hedgerows and narrow meandering lanes linking picturesque villages with thatched cottages and quaint pubs, is quintessentially English in character.
Today’s inland Dorset still evokes the vivid picture of rural life described by Thomas Hardy in his many novels and poems.
Corfe, a historic village set a few miles inland on the Purbeck peninsula, boasts the imposing ruins of an C11th castle, an iconic medieval monument, imposing its presence on the winding streets full of shops and places to eat.
Cerne Abbas, one of the most picturesque villages in Dorset, is perhaps most famous for its huge (at 180ft it is England’s tallest) naked chalk giant which stands proudly on the hillside above the village.
Dorchester, the bustling county town dating back in parts to Roman times, with some of this country’s best preserved Roman ruins moments away Prince Charles’ designed urban development of Poundbury.
Shaftesbury, a bustling market town, full of history including the picture postcard and quintessentially English Gold Hill, featured in the 1970’s boy on bike Hovis advertisement amongst other productions.
Sherborne, in the north west of the county, some 20 miles from the coast, historic Sherborne boasts two castles (one in ruins) both of which once belonged to Sir Walter Raleigh.
The Medieval abbey with its beautiful stone vaulted ceiling (the first of its type) and heaviest ring of eight bells in the world.