If you are planning on visiting Dorchester, you must head over to Poundbury, which can be found on its western edge, about a mile from the historic town centre. But, before you come and visit Poundbury, there is plenty to do and see in Dorset’s county town.
If you’re looking for a little history, Dorchester doesn’t disappoint as it’s roots stem back to prehistoric times. The earliest settlements were about 2 miles southwest of the town centre in the vicinity of Maiden Castle, a large Iron Age hill fort that was one of the most powerful settlements in pre-Roman Britain. Different tribes lived there from 4000 BC and it’s well worth a visit.
The town’s Roman heritage can still be seen in the town and date back to 70 AD when the Romans founded Durnovaria. The town’s remaining Roman features include part of the town walls and the foundations of a Roman town house near County Hall. Modern building works within the walls have frequently unearthed Roman finds; in 1936 a cache of 22,000 3rd-century Roman coins was discovered in South Street.
In the 17th century, Dorchester was at the centre of Puritan emigration to America, and the local rector, John White, organised the settlement of Dorchester, Massachusetts. The town also played a major role in the English civil war and was heavily defended against the Royalists. In 1685, the Duke of Monmouth failed in his invasion attempt, the Monmouth Rebellion, and almost 300 of his men were condemned to death or transportation in the “Bloody Assizes” presided over by Judge Jeffreys in the Oak Room of the Antelope Hotel in Dorchester.
In 1833, the Tolpuddle Martyrs founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. Trade unions were legal but because the members swore an oath of allegiance, they were arrested and tried in the Shire Hall. Beneath the courtroom are cells where the prisoners were held while awaiting trial.
When you visit Dorchester, you will no doubt be drawn to see the town upon which the author and poet Thomas Hardy based the fictional town of Casterbridge in his novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge. Hardy’s childhood home is to the east of the town, and his town house, Max Gate, is owned by the National Trust and open to the public. Hardy is buried in Westminster Abbey, but his heart was removed and buried in Stinsford.
Modern Dorchester is a beautiful mix of the old and the new and is a great base from which to explore glorious Dorset.