Top Things to Do in Dorchester, Dorset

With one foot in the past and one in the present, Dorchester in Dorset is one of the most historically important towns in the country and boasts many fascinating things to do.

The county town of Dorset since 1305, Dorchester’s long and varied history is inextricably linked with its identity today. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes bold and sometimes bloody, its plethora of stories and tales are woven into the fabric of the town and can be explored through many heritage sites and attractions. For the best insight into the town’s history and for the best things to do during your stay, we have put together a list of the must-see attractions in Dorchester, all within a couple of miles of the town. 

Maumbury Rings 

Maumbury Rings in Dorchester is the site of a large Neolithic henge created around 5,000 years ago. While its origins are unclear, historians have discovered that it was later repurposed by the Romans as an amphitheatre. Hosting 10,000 strong, the henge was used for Roman ‘entertainment’ – namely gladiator fights and executions. Unfortunately, this gory theme somewhat set the tone for the amphitheatre’s ensuing years too. It was even used by the infamous Judge Jeffreys in the 1600s to hang, draw and quarter dozens of men, and in the 1700s to publicly burn 19-year-old Mary Channing at the stake after she was found guilty of poisoning her husband.

The Keep Military Museum

The Keep Military Museum is a family-friendly museum in Dorchester that welcomes visitors of all ages to learn about the town’s military history. Set within a 19th century Portland-stone replica of a Medieval castle, it makes for both a striking landmark in the town and a great activity for all ages. One of the top things to do in Dorchester on a rainy day, you can head inside and cover the museum’s four floors, taking a journey through 300 years of history. You can also head to the keep’s roof on sunny days for superb panoramas across Dorchester and the surrounding countryside.

Roman Town House 

The Romans first settled in Dorchester (which they knew as Durnovaria) in 43AD. After conquering the local Celtic people who had been in the areas since 3,500BC and who had established the nearby Maiden Castle, the Romans quickly established themselves and set to work making their mark on the area. One of the best examples of Roman architecture from this time is Dorchester’s Roman town house, the only fully exposed Roman house in Britain. A top attraction in Dorchester, the full layout of the house, outbuildings, wells and more are still visible and the site can be visited year-round.

The Haunt of the Hanging Judge

Judge Jeffreys is an infamous figure in Dorchester history. Dubbed the Hanging Judge, Jeffreys earnt his reputation after being sent to the town in 1685 to deal with the subjects of a failed uprising, the Monmouth Rebellion. The Protestant rebels, who had wished to overthrow the Catholic King James II, were met with no mercy by Jeffreys. Ultimately, he sentenced 74 rebels to death by hanging and ordered that their bodies be drawn and quartered, and their heads paraded on spikes around Dorchester. To this day, you can still the judge’s old lodgings at 6 High West Street, which still has exteriors closely resembling the façade that Jeffreys would have seen. 

Hardy’s Cottage Walk

The 6-mile walk to Thomas Hardy’s cottage provides a great way to see more of Dorchester and retrace the steps of one of the town’s most famous figures. Fictionalized as Casterbridge, Dorchester was at the heart of the region Hardy called “Wessex” and features in many of his poems and novels, including The Mayor of Casterbridge. To follow in his footsteps, pick up the circular walk from High East Street and head out of the town towards tranquil green pastures. The walk features beautiful water meadows, Hardy’s Cottage (open from March to October), Higher and Lower Bockhampton and Stinsford Church, Hardy’s childhood church.

Maiden Castle

Less than 2 miles from the town centre, Maiden Castle near Dorchester is one of Europe’s largest and most complex Iron Age hillforts – though evidence has found human activity on the site goes back at least 6,000 years. The size of 50 football pitches, the enormous fort was once home to a small, self-sufficient community, but from 800BC onwards it expanded to become the most significant settlement in southern Dorset. Today, you can visit this dog-friendly attraction year-round, following the paths created by thousands of years of footsteps. 

The Dorset County Museum 

The award-winning Dorset County Museum is one of the town’s must-visit attractions for history-lovers. Allowing you to discover 250 million years of Dorset’s history, it boasts a wide array of interesting galleries and exhibits, including everything from the first raptor dinosaur fossil to be found in Britain, to rare Bronze Age jewellery, to Thomas Hardy memorabilia. You can even see fossil evidence of giant crocodiles that once lurked in Purbeck’s Early Cretaceous lagoons. The museum is open daily and you can look forward to temporary as well as permanent exhibitions.  

Dorchester Farmers’ Market

Dorchester benefits from a wealth of restaurants, pubs and cafés, served by superb local suppliers and Dorset’s plentiful natural larder. During a holiday in Dorchester, you should definitely consider booking yourself a table at one of these establishments to enjoy the fresh tastes and full flavours of the South West. That said, if you want to make the most of your self-catering cottage’s facilities and meet the suppliers, you should visit the lively market held every Wednesday at Poundbury in the town. Here, you will find all sorts of stalls selling local farm produce, as well as crafts and antiques.

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