Dorset History & Heritage

Dorset is well known for its history, primarily due to the Jurassic Coast’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the coastline acting as a timeline of geological history and a window back to the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

What is perhaps lesser known is the role the county has played over the centuries in other areas of history and heritage. Not only has Dorset provided the backdrop to many famous novels, films and TV shows, but it has a wealth of historic houses, museums, castles, hill forts, monuments and connections to important historical figures. The beautiful dramatic and countryside has inspired, and continues to inspire, some incredible works of art.

Literature

Thomas Hardy used Dorset as the backdrop in his tales of love and tragedy and few authors have such strong links with the landscapes of their local area as him. There are many locations around Dorchester that he used in his semi-fictional ‘Wessex’ and some of these places can be visited, such as Hardy’s Cottage, the Hardy’s Birthplace Visitor Centre and Max Gate, a red brick villa in Dorchester designed by Hardy himself. The 1967 and 2015 film adaptations of ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ were filmed across Dorset, including at Mapperton House, West Bay and Eype next to our Highlands End Holiday Park.

 

The 17 mile Chesil Beach, one of the finest examples of a barrier beach anywhere in the world, was used as the setting of Ian McEwan’s novel ‘On Chesil Beach.’ Based around a young couple’s idyllic courtship, marriage and fateful wedding night, a 2018 film adaptation heavily featured the famous beach.

Purbeck is the spiritual home of the Famous Five, an area loved by their creator Enid Blyton, who regularly holidayed in Dorset for over 20 years and was inspired by many places in the county including Durdle Door, Swanage, the Isle of Purbeck Golf Club, Swanage Railway Station, Corfe Castle and Arne Nature Reserve. Follow in Enid’s footsteps and discover some of the places that motivated her.

English novelist Jane Austin was a regular visitor to Lyme Regis and parts of her novel ‘Persuasion’ was set in the town. “A very strange stranger is must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better.” A film adaptation was filmed in 1995 in Lyme regis.

Historical Figures

There are locations around the county with important historical connections. The National Trust owned Clouds Hill, which is open to visitors, was the home of T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), a writer, warrior and friend of Thomas Hardy. Another National Trust owned location, Hardy’s Monument,is a 72ft monument built in 1844 in memory of Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy who was Flag Captain of HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

 

Lyme Regis was once home to Mary Anning, one of the most pioneering palaeontologists and fossil collectors. Born in 1799, she discovered the first complete Ichthyosaur in 1810 and a Pterodactylus in 1828. Today, the Natural History Museum showcases several of her spectacular finds and the fossils on the coast here continue to captivate visitors from around the world.

Museums

If you are interested in finding out more about the history and heritage of the county, there are plenty of museums to be discovered, such as Bridport Town Museum (free entry), Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum in Dorchester, Gold Hill Museum in Shaftesbury, The Etches Collection (a museum of Jurassic Marine Life), Kingston Lacy House (with famous artworks and the largest private collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts in the UK), Dorset County Museum, Tolpuddle Martyr’s Museum, Lyme Regis Museum, Dinosaurland Fossil Museum, the West Bay Discovery Centre and the Keep Military Museum.

Castles

One of the most visited and famous castles in Dorset has to be Corfe Castle. Built in 1086, it was one of the county’s great strongholds and one of Britain’s most iconic survivors of the English Civil War. The romantic castle ruins are owned by the National Trust, allowing you to explore the history as a royal palace and fortress, with breathtaking views across Purbeck. You can’t miss the steam engines of the Swanage Railway as they pass by below!

Not too far away, you will find Lulworth Castle & Gardens. Originally built as a hunting lodge to entertain aristocracy and royalty, the castle, garden, parkland and woodland walks can now be explored as part of Lulworth Estate. Further north in quieter areas of Dorset, you will find Sherborne Castle & Gardens, built by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1594 and now home to the Wingfield Digby Family. Visitors from all over the world are attracted to the outstanding collections or art and furniture and the Grade 1 listed Garden and lake. Also worth a visit are Portland Castle, Sandsfoot Castle and Highcliffe Castle.

 

Hill Forts

As well as many of the castles being used to defend against enemies, Dorset is home to a number of iron and bronze age hillforts, many enjoying stunning views due to their raises elevations and prominent locations. One of our favourites, close to Highlands End, Golden Cap and Graston Copse Holiday Parks is Eggardon Hill, with views across Lyme Bay all the way to Start Point in Devon on a clear day. At the opposite end of the Marshwood Vale, on the border with Devon, is Lambert’s Castle, with superb views across miles of countryside and farmland, looking almost like a jigsaw of fields stretching into the distance.

Close to Lambert’s Castle is Pilsdon Pen, Dorset’s second highest point at 277 metres, and similar views across the Marshwood Vale towards the coast. Romantic poet William Wordsworth, lived just 2 miles away and would regularly walk at Pilsdon. For a hillfort with incredible views, Flower’s Barrow, built over 2,500 years ago, is perched at metres overlooking Worbarrow Bay in a relatively remote area of the Lulworth Ranges. Due to it’s cliff-edge location, Flower’s Barrow has a precarious future.

Other prominent hill forts in the county include Badbury Rings near Kingston Lacy House & Gardens, Hambledon Hill situated in the Blackmore Vale in North Dorset and Maiden Castle near Dorchester and Sandyholme Holiday Park – one of the finest and largest Iron Age hill forts in Europe, with enormous earthworks and complicated entrances. 

 

Houses & Gardens

For a beautiful Dorset hideaway, you can visit the beautiful stately homes & gardens dotted around the county. Kingston Lacy is a lavish family home re-imagined as a Venetian Palace with beautifully detailed carvings, Egyptian artefacts, artworks from Rubens, Van Dyck, Titian and Brueghel and beautiful gardens. Mapperton House & Gardens near Beaminster is a magnificent Jacobean menor house and Italianate valley garden deep in the Dorset countryside, lost among tumbling hills, while Forde Abbey has a beautiful garden with water being the central theme and the property featured in the 2015 film ‘Far From the Madding Crowd.’

The Sub-tropical gardens in Abbotsbury is a 30 acre garden by the coast, filled with rare and exotic plants from around the world. There is a fantastic view over Chesil Beach from the viewpoint and we highly recommend the enchanted illuminations in October. Possibly the most spectacular stately home in Dorset can be found at Athelhampton near Sandyholme Holiday Park. The building has stood for over 5 centuries and there are river walks through the gardens, wallet courts, striking pyramid hedges, canals and ponds.

Other Historical Locations

Other historic and important locations we recommend visiting include the Cerne Abbas Giant. A 180 foot chalk hill figure was created as far back as the late 17th Century and there are many theories surrounding his origin and identity. A great time to visit is during the Cerne Giant Festival in April. One of the best preserved forts of its kind, Nothe Fort is a museum of coastal defence and a journey through history. Located right on the seafront in Weymouth, you don’t have to be a military enthusiast to enjoy a visit. Close to Worbarrow Bay, is the small historic village of Tyneham, which was evacuated during World War II and the village has been abandoned ever since with residents never allowed to return. It’s a fascinating throwback to live in the 1930s with just a few buildings and exhibitions remaining in tact. St Catherine’s Chapel in Abbotsbury, is a 14th Century building set high on the hilltop overlooking Chesil Beach. Built as a place of pilgrimage and retreat by the monks of Abbotsbury Abbey, this is a great place to take a walk and enjoy the views.

 

TV & Film

Dorset has been used as the backdrop for many films and TV programs, most recently the 2020 film ‘Ammonite’ about the life and work of Lyme Regis-based fossil hunter Mary Anning, staring Kate Winslet. Further east along the coast, West Bay was the setting of the hugely popular ITV crime drama Broadchurch, which had 3 series between 2013 and 2017. Starring Olivia Coleman and David Tennant, the series was written by local resident Chris Chibnall and is not the first time West Bay has been in the spotlight – from 1998 to 1999 it was the setting of BBC drama Harbour Lights over 16 episodes. In 1968, a few coastal scenes around Abbotsbury were used in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, written by Ian Fleming and starring Dick Van Dyke, and a few years later in 1973, the steep cottage-lined Gold Hill in Shaftesbury was used in a Hovis Advert, a remake of which was made in 2019. In 1969, John Fowles wrote the novel ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman,’ which was adapted to a film in 1981. Many of the scenes were filmed in Lyme Regis, including the iconic image of the film with a woman walking along the Cobb Harbour Wall. It had an immeasurable effect on Lyme Regis.

 

Famous Faces

Dorset is a beautiful place that a number of famous faces call home. Actor Martin Clunes and his TV producer wife Philippa, live on a 130 acre farm in West Dorset and hold the annual vintage dog and pony festival called Buckham Fair, which takes place near Beaminster every August. Former football manager Harry Redknapp lives in the millionaire’s playground of Sandbanks and his son Jamie redknapp nearby in Christchurch. Billy Bragg, the alternative rock musician, lives on the clifftop overlooking Hive Beach in Burton Bradstock, while actor, novelist, film director and creator of Downton Abbey Julian Fellowes calls West Stafford his home.

Comedian Alan Carr was born in Weymouth, Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan lives in Lyme Regis and Coldplay singer Chris Martin went to school in Sherborne. PJ Harvey was born in Bridport and grew up on the family’s farm in Corscombe. She attended school in Beaminster before she shot to fame as a musician, singer-songwriter, composer and artist. Kate Adie live in Cerne Abbas and became well-known for reporting from war zones all around the world in her most high profile role as chief news correspondent for the BBC.

Dorset is home to a number of celebrity chefs. Mark Hix the celebrity chef owns and runs the HIX Oyster & Fish House Restaurant in Lyme Regis, with beautiful views along the coastline. Another celebrity chef, Hugh Fernley Whittingstall owns and runs River Cottage HQ on the Dorset/Devon border where he runs cookery courses and bespoke events while he also had 3 River Cottage Kitchens, which are award-winning restaurants, one of which can be found in Axminster.  Leslie Waters lives in Evershot and Rick Stein runs a seafood restaurant in Sandbanks.

 

David Beckham, who regularly holidays in Dorset and is rumoured to have bought a house in the countryside near Bridport, has recently been spotted filming a TV advert at Portland Bill. Another star who was involved in filming near Weymouth back in 2016, was former One Direction singer Harry Styles for the film ‘Dunkirk,’ alongside Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh and Cillian Murphy. Scenes in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince were filmed at Abbotsbury Swannery in 2007 and Studland Bay was the setting of Coldplays video for the song ‘Yellow.’

If you wish to follow in the footsteps of your favourite authors or celebrities or come and discover the history and heritage of Dorset, we have a choice of 4 Holiday Parks with a range of accommodation and facilities, which are the perfect base for your trip and close to many of the locations used.

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