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Dorset's Top 5 Historical Attractions

July 21st, 2020 | By: Matthew Williams


Dorset is a fascinating part of the UK to visit. It is packed full of ancient landmarks, crumbling ruins, striking architecture and most importantly, remarkable stories waiting to be discovered. It is home to Thomas Hardy and the towns, landscapes and monuments that inspired his work. If that wasn’t enough, the county has some of the prettiest chocolate box villages in the country. With so many historical attractions to be explored, as well as all the other things to do in Dorset, it can feel overwhelming to choose where to visit. Luckily for you dear reader, we have put together a list of our 5 favourite historical places to visit in Dorset, ensuring you have the pick of the crop.

Explore Beautiful Athelhampton in Dorset

#1 Athelhampton House and Gardens

Athelhampton House is a glorious Grade I listed Tudor manor with a remarkably intact Great Hall dating from 1485, one of the most impressive gardens in England and some intriguing links to Thomas Hardy.

Much of the original house with its fortified stone walls and crenelated towers was built in the early 15th century by Sir William Martyn, who in 1492 was Lord Mayor of London. He had the house enclosed in 160 acres of land and chose a beautiful setting near the River Piddle. Martyn’s enduring legacy is the handsome Great Hall. It is the house’s most notable feature with its hammer-beam roof, original stained-glass windows and late medieval stone carvings. Over the centuries the different owners of the property have added and demolished elements of the house. In 1595 the estate was split between four heiresses and was only reunited in 1848 by George Wood!  Visitors today can explore parts of the house and see how the various architectural styles combine.

During the ownership of George Wood, a certain Thomas Hardy visits the house with his father who is employed as a stone mason for new renovations. The house made an impression on Hardy, who made a painting of it and included it in his works. Visitors to the house can enjoy “Hardy at Athelhampton”, a short film to showing how Hardy was involved with Athelhampton from when he was a teenager until his 70s. The film explains how Hardy’s experiences at Athelhampton mirror his life story, shape aspects of his characters and inspire Bethsheba’s Weatherbury Farm in Far from the Madding Crowd amongst others. It is a fascinating insight into Hardy’s life and influences.

Finally, you cannot visit Athelhampton without exploring its magnificent gardens, which are also Grade I listed. They were created at the end of the 19th century by renowned garden designer Inigo Thomas for then owner, Alfred Cart De Fontaine. You can explore the many outdoor rooms, with statues, obelisks and surprising vistas inspired by the Renaissance and marvel at the beautiful mature plants. The extensive kitchen gardens are great fun to explore and you can even try the fresh produce in the Restaurant!

Athelhampton is undergoing exciting changes with a new owner and exciting new projects, so now is a brilliant time to visit. There are even plans to ensure the estate has a small as possible impact on the environment with Athelhampton 0%. The estate already uses renewable electricity and there are plans to become even more environmentally friendly in the next year.

Marvel at the wonders of fan vaulting

#2 Sherborne Abbey

A former Saxon cathedral, then a Benedictine Abbey and now a parish church, this spectacular building has a long and turbulent history.

The See of Sherborne was created in 705 when the large See of Winchester was split in two. The first bishop, St. Aldhelm of the West Saxons, chose Sherborne as the site of his cathedral, the remains of which can still be seen in the northwest corner of the current building. This small cathedral was the seat for 26 bishops until the time of the Norman Conquest when the seat was moved to Old Sarum. With the departure of the bishop, the cathedral became a Benedictine Abbey and during the 12th century much of the original Saxon cathedral was demolished and replaced with the current Norman building. It remained an abbey until the Reformation when in 1539 it was surrendered to King Henry VIII, who sold it to Sir John Horsey. Horsey decided to sell the abbey to the town and it became and remains the parish church.

The most impressive feature of the abbey is its incredible fan-vaulted roof. It is one of the earliest and best examples of its kind in the country and is worth visiting the abbey just to see it! Walk the length of the nave and gaze up at this wonder of medieval stone work. Other notable features include the red coloured walls of the quire and the crossing, a remnant of the great fire that broke out during a riot against the abbey in 1437 and the tombs of several notable figures, including two kings of Wessex, Tudor poet Thomas Wyatt and Baroque edifices to the Digby family.

The abbey is open to visitors all year round, both for sightseeing and prayer, and there are guided tours offered between April and October. Tours are free and take place on Tuesdays at 10am and Fridays at 2:30pm and can be joined without having to book. Entrance to the abbey is also free, but a donation is encouraged to help with the upkeep of the building.

Explore Beautiful Kingston Lacy

#3 Kingston Lacy

This elegant 17th century mansion modelled on a Venetian palace offers striking interiors, world renowned collections of art and Egyptian artefacts and a colossal 8500-acre estate to explore.

The property is now owned by the National Trust, but was constructed by the Bankes family in the 1660s after the Restoration. The Bankes’ former seat, Corfe Castle, was destroyed by Parliamentarian forces during the Civil War and instead of rebuilding it, they built their extravagant mansion at Kingston Lacy. The building has seen many changes over the centuries with the changes made during the 19th century by William John Bankes having had the most impact. He commissioned his friend Charles Barry (builder of the Houses of Parliament) to clad the original red brick house in stone and had the interiors redesigned to their current grandeur by a pupil of the renowned Inigo Jones. Visitors today can marvel at the white marble staircase and its ornamented ceiling, the impressive library with its ceiling painting by Guido Reni and its grand barrel-vaulted hall.

Thanks to Kingston Lacy’s founder, Sir Ralph Bankes and his descendent William John Bankes, the house contains an impressive collection of art. This includes works by Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, Van Dyck and Velasquez and more than 1400 pre-1801 antique books. William John Bankes collected many of these great works during his extensive travels in Europe and during his time in the Middle East also amassed the UK’s largest private collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts which still remain at the house. William John Bankes was a fascinating character. He was a friend to some of the most well-known men of the period including Byron, Charles Barry, and the Duke of Wellington, an MP four times, a collector, an explorer and an Egyptologist making significant discoveries, such as the Philae obelisk which today stands in the grounds of Kingston Lacy. In 1841 he was sadly exiled from the country after being caught in gay affair which was illegal at the time and punishable by death. Nevertheless, even from exile in Venice he continued to make changes to Kingston Lacy and make additions to its collections. The magnificent house today is largely shaped by his ownership and is worth a day out to explore during your trip!  

Explore Maiden Castle Hill Fort

#4 Maiden Castle Hill Fort

This enormous Iron Age hill fort to the southwest of Dorchester is one of the largest and most complex in Europe. Human activity on the site began around 6000 years ago during the Neolithic period when forests were cleared and the first aspects of the defensive structure were created. From 800 BC the fort began to take on its current form with carved rampart defences and ditches created to defend a growing permanent community. The fort is the size of 50 football pitches and at its height was the main settlement in Dorset with organised streets, wooden houses and a large population. This all changed with the invasion of the Romans in 43 AD when there seems to have been an attack on the sight. In the following decades the fort is gradually abandoned and the Roman settlement of Durnovaria (Dorchester) succeeds it as the main regional settlement. Evidence of a Roman temple has been found at the fort suggesting the site gained a new purpose.

You can explore the intriguing history of this mammoth construction by climbing to the top and listening to the English Heritage audio guide. This can be downloaded to your phone and takes you on a 40-minute tour of the site. As well as the ancient history you will learn how the site influenced more recent culture, including the writings of Thomas Hardy, John Ireland and John Cowper Powys.

Discover Thomas Hardy's Casterbridge at Dorchester

#5 Dorchester

While you are nearby, make sure to spend some time exploring handsome market town of Dorchester with its Roman origins, Thomas Hardy links and some great places to eat and drink.

The town was founded by the Romans in 70 AD and became an important market town. It was fortified with a stone wall and parts of it can still be found around Dorchester today. At the county hall you can see parts of the wall and the foundations of a Roman town house. Near the centre of the town you will also find Maumbury Rings, an ancient henge earthwork which was used by the Romans as an amphitheatre. The town gradually diminished in significance with the departure of the Romans and did not prosper again until the late medieval period when a profitable textile trading and manufacturing industry was born.

Famous incidents in Dorchester’s history include the Monmouth Rebellion and the Bloody Assizes in 1685. 300 men were sentenced to either death of transportation. Again in 1833 an infamous trial took place in the town. The trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs saw six agricultural labourers sentenced to transportation to Australia for their involvement in setting up a union to fight the cutting of wages. You can find out more about these trials in the Historic Courthouse Museum and more about the town’s Roman past at the County Museum.

Dorchester is also well-known for being the setting for the town of Casterbridge in Thomas Hardy’s, The Mayor of Casterbridge. Fans of the author can take the Hardy Trail to explore his connections to the town and even visit sights that appear in the book, such as the Maumbury Rings. You can also visit the house where Hardy was born in nearby High Bockhampton.

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Hi there! 

We are Jacob and Taylor. Travel is our passion and we love sharing our experiences here at The Travelling Souk. Our hope is that you would be inspired by this little blog to try something new, embrace an adventure, and live life to the fullest. 

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