Dorchester was an important town in Roman times (when it was called Durnovaria), then became a thriving Saxon mint during the 10th century, before becoming a Roundhead stronghold during the English Civil War. Much of the town was destroyed by fire in the 17th and 18th centuries and most of the buildings visible today date from Georgian times.
Dorchester played a significant part in the Monmouthshire Rebellion and many of those arrested were executed in the town in 1685 following the infamous Bloody Assizes, which was presided over by 'Hanging' Judge Jeffreys.
In 1834, the Tolpuddle Martyrs who started the trade union movement in England were tried in the Old Crown Court in Dorchester and sentenced to seven years transportation. As they were tried by the same landowners who had had them arrested, their guilty verdict and their transportation to the colonies was guaranteed. You can still visit the Old Crown Court via an entrance in Stratton House, which is next door.
Maiden Castle, one of the largest and most impressive Iron Age hill forts in Europe, is located just 2km to the south west of Dorchester. The first settlement here was some time around 4000 BC and over the following 3000 years the settlement grew, and with it came a succession of larger and grander earthworks. The fort defences that are visible today date from around 800 BC when the Iron Age Celtic tribe, the Durotriges, were at the height of their power. Maiden Castle was almost certainly their capital until the Roman conquest of around 60 AD.
Dorchester lies at the heart of Thomas Hardy's Wessex. Thomas Hardy lived in Dorset for most of his life and the county was the inspiration for much of his work. He was born at Higher Bockhampton just a few miles outside Dorchester (known to Hardy enthusiasts as Upper Mellstock) in a cottage built by his great-grandfather. The cottage was acquired by the National Trust in 1947 and is now open to the public. Hardy later made his home in Dorchester and in 1885 he moved to Max Gate, a house that he designed and that was built for him by his brother on the outskirts of the town. Max Gate is also owned by the National Trust and is open to the public. Many buildings that were featured in Hardy's novels can be seen in Dorchester, including St Peter's Church, The King's Arms Hotel, The White Hart Hotel, The Corn Exchange, Barclays Bank (Henchard's house) and Grey's Bridge. When Thomas Hardy died, he was interred at Westminster Abbey in London but his heart is buried in Stinsford churchyard just outside Dorchester.
Dorchester is lucky enough to have a large number of museums covering a wide range of topics - something for everyone.
The Dorset County Museum contains interesting historical facts and features that help to bring the story of Dorchester to life. There is also the award-winning Writers Gallery, including Thomas Hardy's study, some of the best Roman mosaics in England in the Victoria Gallery, as well as detailed local archaeology featuring Maiden Castle, local henges and barrows.
The Keep Military Museum, which was built in 1879, tells stories of courage and humour as it recreates the traditions of those who served in the regiments of Devon and Dorset for over 300 years. The award-winning Dinosaur Museum includes fossils, skeletons and life-size reconstructions, while the Teddy Bear House has some of the earliest teddies right through to today's TV favourites. The Terracotta Warriors Museum houses life-size replicas of these unique Chinese statues, while the Tutankhamun Exhibition recreates the sights, sounds and smell of Tutankhamun's ancient Egyptian tomb and treasure.
One of the best ways to discover the real Dorchester is by following one of the four town trails:
The original site of Dorchester's market was at the heart of the town around the Town Pump. Today there are still a few stalls here on most days. In the 19th century the Market Place moved to the south of the old town and there is still a thriving market to be found here every Wednesday morning. You can also purchase local produce at Dorchester's monthly Farmers' Markets in the Corn Exchange and at Poundbury.
On the western side of Dorchester lies the town of Poundbury, a rather radical development based on the vision and views of HRH Prince Charles. Poundbury was designed to integrate social and private housing and commercial and residential buildings in a series of high quality, high density, interlinked urban quarters. Its aim is to create an attractive, modern and pleasing place in which people can live, work, play and shop.
Dorchester Tourist Information Centre
Antelope Walk, Dorchester, Dorset DT1 1BE
Tel: 01305 267992
How to reach Dorchester by public transport
Dorchester has two train stations. Dorchester West is on the Bristol Temple Meads to Weymouth line and Dorchester South is on the London Waterloo to Weymouth line. National Express run a limited coach service to Dorchester.