by Ben Johnson
Dorchester is a historic market town with its roots in Roman times; however it is most famously associated with Thomas Hardy.
With its elegant 18th century houses, broad walks and bustling shopping streets, Dorchester has much to offer the visitor. Its history can be traced back to the Iron Age, like nearby Maiden Castle. The Romans built a town here in AD 43 (Durnovaria) and you can see reminders of Dorchester’s Roman past in the County Museum and the Roman Town House. However Dorchester is perhaps better known for its part in the following two events in history.
In 1685 Judge Jeffries presided here over the ‘Bloody Assizes’ following Monmouth’s rebellion and defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor. He ordered the hanging of 74 men. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were deported from Dorchester to Australia in 1834 following their attempts to form a trade union.
Wednesday is market day in Dorchester, where “every street, alley and precinct announces old Rome”. (Thomas Hardy, from his novel ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’). Hardy was born in 1840 at Higher Brockhampton, near Dorchester. Later in his life he returned to this part of Dorset and set up home at Max Gate, a house of his own design in the town, and where he died in 1928. Max Gate and the cottage where he was born are open to the public. Various tours of ‘Hardy’s Country’ are available – see below.
Like many towns in this part of Dorset, you have to be fit as the main street rises up a steep hill! The lovely Georgian buildings, to be found mostly off the main street, give the town a very elegant feel. But do not stay just in the town – a must when visiting this part of Dorset is a visit to Maiden Castle, the huge and complex Iron Age fort just outside the town. Marvel at the sheer scale of the earthworks built with such primitive tools.
And don’t forget the beautiful coast – Lyme Regis, where ‘The French Lieutenants Woman’ was filmed, has a lovely harbour and small sandy beach. The town’s streets seem to tumble down the steep hill into the sea! West Bay, or as it used to be called, Bridport Harbour, is where the T.V. series ‘Harbour Lights’ is filmed.
Picturesque village scene in Hardy’s ‘Wessex’
Selected Attractions in Dorchester
Various tours are available. Town Walking Tour – takes between 1 and 2 hours and includes ancient and Roman sites, Dorset celebrities and a visit to the Old Crown Court and Cells. Thomas Hardy Tours. Hardy Trail. Ghost tours. Details from the Tourist Information Centre, Dorchester Tel: +44 (0)1305 267 992
View our interactive map of Museums in Britain for details of local galleries and museums.
View our interactive map of Roman Sites in Britain for details of nearby sites.
Max Gate Tel: + 44 (0) 1305 262 538
House that Thomas Hardy designed himself and lived in from 1885 until his death in 1928.
Dorchester is easily accessible by both road and rail, please try our UK Travel Guide for further information.