Dorset is a fascinating land filled with a rich history, illustrated via its many many historical sites. There is truly an abundance of places to see and locations to visit for a slice of Dorset history – from ancient castles and Victorian forts, to stunning 12th century abbeys.
Visit Dorset, an invaluable resource for those looking to visit the area, spoke to us about the wonderful history the county has to offer:
“Dorset offers more than just stunning scenery and fabulous coastline; you’ll feel a real connection with our ancient past in Dorset. There aren’t many areas that can claim a huge naked chalk giant, a coastline where you can follow in the footsteps of dinosaurs and the largest hillfort in Europe. “Dorset also offers an intriguing literary heritage, providing the inspiration and setting for many celebrated authors and their most famous works, including Thomas Hardy, Enid Blyton and Jane Austen. Dorset’s wealth of museums enable visitors to delve into this rich and diverse heritage; discover life-size reconstructions of dinosaurs, experience live action in military vehicles or delve into the history of some of Dorset’s amazing towns.”
Visiting Dorset truly is a treat, and with all of this in mind, we’ve put together a guide for discovering just some of what is on offer.
Nothe Fort in Weymouth was built by Victorians between 1860 and 1872 with the goal of protecting Portland Harbour. The fort is one of the best preserved of its kind anywhere around and its labyrinth-like underground passageways provide an incredible sight.
Boasting some incredible views of the Jurassic Coast, the fort has been built on three levels that are easily accessible to the public by use of a lift. Lined with some monstrous guns and packed with displays, exhibits and cinema areas, the fascinating history of this site is just waiting to be discovered.
Abandoned in 1956, the fort is now one of the area’s major attractions after being purchased in 1961 by the local council. The museum receives thousands of visitors a year and is a must for all those soon to be staying at a Dorset holiday cottage.
Dorset’s Corfe Castle, situated in the village of the same name, is a picture of ancient English history. Perched on a hilltop, this dramatic ruin was once the guardian of Purbeck, meaning that anything that wanted to get through had to pass under the castle’s gaze.
With its first buildings being constructed from wood, the castle was rebuilt in stone by William the Conqueror, and became a royal fortress for the following six hundred years. The castle was sold by Queen Elizabeth in 1572 after its military use had since diminished.
History isn’t the only thing on offer at the castle, with regular events put on by The National Trust for both children and adults to enjoy. These include zip wires for teddy bears, archery, medieval costumes, and medieval encampments.
And for those really interested in exploring all this site has to offer, Treasure Trails offer a fantastic experience that takes visitors around Corfe Castle and the village. Their trails provide a number of hidden clues in existing buildings, putting you on a self-guided treasure hunt.
The Corfe Castle Treasure Hunt Trail starts at the pay and display National Trust car park by the castle. For more information, visit Treasure Trails online.
Forde Abbey is an enthralling medieval monastery that has to be seen to be believed. Located in Chard, the abbey is home to a vast history that spans 900 years. Built between 1141 and 1148, the monastery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, coming to be known as ‘Forde’ due to its proximity to an old river crossing.
Caroline Duval of Forde Abbey was on hand to tell us a little more about this incredible building:
“From 1141 to the present day, Forde Abbey is a stunning example of history preserved but not petrified. Home to the stunning Mortlake tapestries, woven from the internationally famous Raphael cartoons, now housed in the V&A, the Abbey has a rich and varied history spanning 900 years.”
Forde Abbey also told us that throughout the ages, the house has been home to Cistercian monks, 19th century philosophers, and politicians who were implicated in the Monmouth Rebellion, and has even been the backdrop to the Hollywood movie ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’.
Caroline added: “With the highest powered fountain in the country, the award-winning gardens include topiary lined vistas, colourful herbaceous borders, an arboretum, and a bog garden, which together with swathes of early spring bulbs and camellias provide all year round interest. Designed to incorporate both the formal and informal aspects of garden design, the straight lines give way to meandering pathways the further you head away from the house, with plenty of benches and seating from which to admire the views along the way.”
The Historic Houses Association, a representative of independently owned historic houses, have said, “Forde Abbey is one of Dorset’s finest treasures. It manages to be both a busy tourist attraction and a lived-in family home.
“The house is surrounded by 30 acres of beautiful gardens which welcome thousands of visitors every year. Historic Houses Association Friends can visit Forde Abbey for free, as well as over 300 other independently owned historic houses, castles and gardens.”
Gold Hill Museum
Gold Hill Museum in Shaftesbury is situated at the top of Gold Hill which is beautifully dotted with steeply inclined cottages and cobbled paths. You may remember the location for its part in the classic Hovis ‘Boy on a Bike’ advert.
Set in two historic buildings – one formerly a priest’s house and the other once lodgings for traders at Gold Hill market – eight galleries provide a wonderful depiction of rural life, telling a story that stretches back even before Shaftesbury’s founding by Alfred the Great.
There are many fascinating highlights to be found in this history-rich location, including Dorset’s oldest fire engine from 1744, a mummified cat, lacework, costumes, and the unique Byzant which was carried during annual celebrations after the securing of the town’s water supply.
Managed these days by volunteers of The Shaftesbury & District Historical Society, the museum is actively collecting new pieces for their collection, further enhancing their already captivating accounts of local history.
Shaftesbury Abbey Museum and Gardens
Staying for now in the historic location of Shaftesbury comes our next site – Shaftesbury Abbey Museum and Gardens.
“Shaftesbury Abbey Museum lies at the heart of Shaftesbury,” said the charity which runs the Abbey and museum, “a charming market town, famous for its picturesque Gold Hill with stunning views across the Blackmore Vale. The Abbey was founded by King Alfred the Great in 888AD and then flourished as a Benedictine nunnery for hundreds of years, until destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII.”
Today the Abbey’s foundations are located in a beautiful garden full of traditional roses and herbs like the ones the nuns would have once cultivated. Luckily for us lovers of history, a museum is now available ready to tell the fascinating story of the Abbey, including displays of medieval stonework, interactive and audio tours, and even a gift shop to remember it by.
Shaftesbury Abbey often hosts events to entertain and inform its visitors, such as open-air theatre performances and family activities.
Located in Wareham, Lulworth Castle was built in the 17th-century and was originally intended as a hunting lodge in order to entertain aristocrats and royalty. For many centuries the castle was the family seat of the Weld family who are the current owners of Lulworth estate.
The foundations for Lulworth Castle were laid in 1588, with the building itself completed in 1609 by Thomas Howard, the 3rd Viscount Howard of Bindon, from the design of Inigo Jones. The castle was eventually seized during the English Civil War where it was used as a garrison.
There have been many interesting residents and visitors to this historic castle, including the surviving members of the French Royal Family after the revolution, and also Charles X of France in 1830.
Today the lavish parkland and woodland walks are yours to enjoy, including a children’s playground, a tearoom serving homemade cakes, and the opportunity to explore the historically rich Roman Catholic Chapel.
Knowlton Church and Earthworks
The final stop in our guide to Dorset’s historical locations is Knowlton Church and Earthworks, an ancient and mysterious site.
We spoke to English Heritage about Knowlton who were able to tell us a little about this historic church and surrounding environment:
“This Norman church, which was built in the 12th century, is situated at the centre of a Neolithic ritual henge earthwork. The unusual pairing of the henge and the church symbolises the transition from pagan to Christian worship. The 12th century church is built of stone and flint, and the line of the roof remains clearly visible on its eastern face.
“It’s a great location for people to visit as not many parish churches stand in ruins, and fewer still occupy sites associated with prehistoric rituals. Four thousand years separate the main late Neolithic earthwork at Knowlton and the Norman church that stands at its centre. The earthwork itself is just one part of a landscape which is one of the great Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial complexes in southern England.”