“Dorset has no high mountains and no coal. Everything else of beauty and almost everything of utility can be found within its borders.”
This was Ralph Wightman’s description of one of England’s most enchanting counties. Twenty-five miles of the county’s spectacular coastline has been awarded World Heritage Site status by UNESCO for its outstanding geology, an accolade that ranks it alongside the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef. The glorious coastal scenery includes beautiful Lulworth Cove, the strange natural formations of Durdle Door and the 10-mile long stretch of pebbles known as Chesil Beach. South of Weymouth, the Isle of Purbeck – famous for the marble that has been quarried here since Roman times – falls like a tear-drop into the English Channel. To the west is the charming resort town of Lyme Regis, famous for its curved harbour wall, The Cobb, its associations with Jane Austen and for the remarkable fossils discovered in what is now known as the Jurassic Coast.
Inland, gently rolling hills, woodlands and gentle river valleys epitomise the charms of unspoilt rural England.
Delightful old market towns like Shaftesbury, Bridport, Blandford Forum and Sherborne have a settled graciousness, while villages such as Milton Abbas, Cranborne and Breamore are almost impossibly picturesque.
The county has more than its fair share of historic castles. Corfe Castle, set high on a hill, is one of the most impressive man- made sights in the southwest; Sherborne Castle was the home of Sir Walter Raleigh and Portland Castle is the best-preserved of Henry VIII’s coastal fortresses. Stately homes range from the Tudor gem of Athelhampton House, to the splendour of Kingston Lacy House with its outstanding collection of Old Masters. Then there are the magnificent abbeys of Wimborne Minster, Forde and Sherborne, and the fine church at Bere Regis, famed for its superbly carved and painted roof, and the priory at Christchurch with its imposing Norman exterior and wealth of tombs and chantries.
Dorchester, one of England’s most appealing county towns, stands at the heart of ‘Hardy Country’ – most of the scenes in Thomas Hardy’s novels are set within a dozen or so miles of the town. Hardy was born in the nearby village of Higher Bockhampton; the humble house where he grew up is open to the public. He spent the last four decades of his life in Dorchester at Max Gate, a modest villa he designed himself, which is now a National Trust property. Many of Dorset’s most striking features – the Cerne Abbas hill carving of a naked giant, for example – feature in Hardy’s novels, either as themselves or lightly disguised.