The picturesque county of Dorset on England’s south coast is famous for its sandy beaches, quaint villages and rolling hills. With evidence of human settlement in the area dating to the Neolithic era, Dorset is brimming with history from the prehistoric era to the present day.
On the Jurassic Coast, Lyme Regis is famous for its fossils and is a World Heritage Site, while Maiden Castle near Dorchester is the largest Iron Age hill fort in Europe. The mysterious Cerne Abbas Giant – an ancient chalk hill figure – is visible for miles around, while the dramatic ruins of Corfe Castle, which witnessed its fair share of bloody history, are a famed beauty spot for history lovers and picnickers alike.
Here’s our guide to 10 of the best historical destinations that Dorset has to offer.
Corfe Castle is a stunning 11th-century castle in Dorset, that has fulfilled a number of roles throughout its thousand-year history. The current incarnation of Corfe Castle was built by William the Conqueror in around 1066, although even before this the site was of great historical importance. Legend tells that when a Saxon hall stood on the site, the young Edward the Martyr was murdered there in 978 during a plot to position his half-brother Ethelred ‘the Unready’ as monarch. Corfe Castle was eventually slighted by the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War.
Today, Corfe Castle remains under the remit of the National Trust and is open to the public. Its romantic ruins sit high atop a natural ‘motte’, with many of its original features still well preserved. The castle’s towering 12th-century keep may be explored, while a number of its gatehouses remain in good condition and allow visitors to walk through centuries of history.
The Cerne Abbas Giant is a giant naked figure sculpted into a chalk hillside in Dorset, often associated with fertility. Hill glyphs (also known as geoglyphs) are found across the UK: some date back as far as the Iron Age, with others created as recently as the 19th century. Recent sediment analysis suggests the Cerne Abbas Giant dates back to the late Saxon period, around the 10th century. As with all chalk figures, it has to be continually maintained, or else the image will disappear into the hillside.
Today, the giant remains a centre for celebrations – particularly on May Day, when Morris dancers gather for dawn every year. The site is cared for and run by the National Trust. The Giants View car park offers an excellent viewpoint if you want to see the whole landscape. It’s also not far to walk up to the giant’s feet.
Dating back to the Iron Age, the village of Tyneham was noted in the Domesday Book as Tigeham, or ‘goat enclosure’. Just before Christmas 1943, as the Allied World War Two effort was reaching a crucial stage, the War Office (now Ministry of Defence) requisitioned Tyneham so that the army could prepare for D-Day, 7 months away, by using the land as firing ranges for training troops. The village was temporarily evacuated and all of the 225 residents – mainly fisherman and farmers and their families – were given 30 days to leave. They had no idea at the time, but they were never to return.
While it’s still an active Ministry of Defence site and part of the Armoured Fighting Vehicles Gunnery School at Lulworth Ranges, Tyneham permits visitors approximately 150 days a year. The church and school have exhibitions about the village and its inhabitants. A lot of the buildings are in various states of disrepair and to this day Tyneham remains a ghost town, albeit a fascinating and rare time capsule of a village frozen in 1943.
One of the most striking sites on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, Lulworth Cove is world-famous for its prehistoric geology and landforms. Today, it is a popular tourist spot for geologists and sunbathers alike. Lulworth Cove was formed by the sea breaking through a thin layer of hard Portland stone that runs parallel to the shoreline. Once the sea broke through, the waves allowed for the much softer clays to be eroded more quickly and thoroughly.
Today, Lulworth Cove is visited by more than 500,000 people annually, 30% of whom visit during July and August. Low tide reveals stunning rock pools filled with sea creatures, while the surrounding countryside is popular with walkers. The cove can be reached along the South West Coast Path national trail.
Hod Hill is an Iron Age hillfort and one of the largest of its kind in Dorset. With its imposing size and ramparts, Hod Hill would have defended a village. In 44 AD, it is likely to have been captured by the Romans during their invasion of Britain. Evidence of Roman occupation of Hod Hill can be seen at the site in the form of the remains of a Roman fort. It is thought that a Legionary cohort here of 500 men would have been garrisoned here, along with a cavalry detachment around 250 strong. It was abandoned in 51 AD as military priorities changed.
Today, visitors can explore the earthworks from both the Roman and Iron Age periods and imagine what it would’ve looked like thousands of years ago. Inside the hillfort, there are remnants of buildings and property boundaries in the form of circular hollows and ridges.
Maiden Castle is a vast, well-preserved Iron Age hill fort in Dorchester. Its name is believed to be derived from two Celtic words, ‘Mai’ and ‘Dun’, meaning “Great Hill”. Imposing and incredibly complex, Maiden Castle would certainly have posed a great challenge to anyone wishing to invade it. Whilst the site was initially occupied during the Neolithic period, the structure of Maiden Castle was built around 600 BC. It would have started as a small settlement, but as its society grew so did Maiden Castle. At its peak, the site would have been heavily populated, the size of fifty football pitches and filled with houses and workshops.
Today, Maiden Castle is an English Heritage site and is open to the public. Visitors can traverse its massive earthworks stretching over the hilltop, where it is easy to see their use both for defense and as an impressive display of power.
Mapperton House and Gardens in the village of Beaminster in Dorset has its roots in the Domesday Book (as Malperetone – ‘farm where maple trees grow’). Since the 11th century, it has been owned by just four families – Brett, Morgan, Brodrepp and Compton. It is the current home of the Earl and Countess of Sandwich and was described by County Life magazine as ‘the nation’s finest manor house.’ The majority of the mansion dates back to the 1660s when it was renovated by its then-owner, Richard Brodrepp. It is a perfect example of Stuart-era architecture and design.
Quintessentially British, the house and gardens are open from Sunday through to Thursday, and are free for Historic Houses and RHS members. There’s a quaint cafe in the old coachhouse and plenty of parking on site. Allow a couple of hours to wander around the glorious grounds and soak up the atmosphere.
Sherborne Castle is a 16th-century Tudor mansion in the market town of Sherborne in Dorset, overlooking the River Yeo. Sir Walter Raleigh passed through the town on his way to Plymouth and ‘fell in love’ with the ruin of a 12th-century castle that was on the site. After Elizabeth I relinquished it to Raleigh in 1592, he decided, rather than refurbish the existing structure, to build a new four-storey lodge there. It was completed in 1594 and six years later, Raleigh added the four, heraldic beast-topped hexagonal turrets, one to each corner of the house.
Over the years, each subsequent guardian added their own touches including Georgian sash windows, panelled doors, marble fireplaces and the fine furniture which you can see today. The present gardens were laid out in the 1750s by Henry, 7th Lord Digby, and include the 50-acre lake, sweeping lawns, herbaceous borders and grand trees designed by none other than Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, widely recognised as Britain’s greatest landscape gardener. The castle and gardens are open from April through to September every year. Guided tours are available.
Standing proud on Handfast Point at the southern end of Studland Bay, Dorset, is one of the south coast’s most famous landmarks: Old Harry Rocks. Also known as Old Harry, the stack of three formations make up a part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site and are managed by the National Trust. Thousands of years ago, Old Harry Rocks used to be part of a long stretch of chalk between Purbeck and the Isle of Wight that later eroded away during the last Ice Age.
Today, Old Harry Rocks are a popular site amongst geologists and tourists alike. The route leading to Old Harry is popular with cyclists and walkers and is part of the South West Coast Path. Near Old Harry are open grass areas where lots of people enjoy a picnic; similarly, the nearby village of Studland is home to plenty of places to eat and drink.
Cloud’s Hill is an isolated idyllic cottage in Dorset, England, and is known as the former home of T. E. Lawrence. The humble cottage became a sanctuary for Lawrence, who returned from Arabia as the media’s romanticised hero, pictured in Arabic dress and becoming ‘Lawrence of Arabia‘. The cottage at Cloud’s Hill was originally built as a forester’s cottage in the early 19th century. Dilapidated and uncomfortable, Lawrence began renting Cloud’s Hill in 1923 when he was stationed nearby at Bovington Camp with the Tanks Corps.
Since falling under the National Trust’s management, Cloud’s Hill has continued to welcome visitors, telling them to leave their worries at the door. Inside you can see the Book Room, where Lawrence would spend evenings reading on a large leather bed or in the small chair made to fit his slight frame.