Towns in Dorset
BH1 BH2 BH3 BH4 BH5 BH6 BH7 BH8 BH9 BH10 BH11
BH12, BH13, BH14, BH15, BH17, BH18
Dorset or archaically, Dorsetshire is a county in South West England on the English Channel coast. The ceremonial county comprises the non-metropolitan county, which is governed by Dorset County Council, and the unitary authority areas of Poole and Bournemouth. Covering an area of 2,653 square kilometres (1,024 sq mi), Dorset borders Devon to the west, Somerset to the north-west, Wiltshire to the north-east, and Hampshire to the east. The county town is Dorchester which is in the south. After the reorganisation of local government in 1974 the county’s border was extended eastward to incorporate the Hampshire towns of Bournemouth and Christchurch. Around half of the population lives in the South East Dorset conurbation, while the rest of the county is largely rural with a low population density.
The county has a long history of human settlement stretching back to the Neolithic era. The Romans conquered Dorset’s indigenous Celtic tribe, and during the early Middle Ages, the Saxons settled the area and made Dorset a shire in the 7th century. The first recorded Viking raid on the British Isles occurred in Dorset during the eighth century, and the Black Death entered England at Melcombe Regis in 1348. Dorset has seen much civil unrest: during the English Civil War an uprising of vigilantes was crushed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in a pitched battle near Shaftesbury; the doomed Monmouth Rebellion began at Lyme Regis; and a group of farm labourers from Tolpuddle were instrumental in the formation of the trade union movement. During the Second World War, Dorset was heavily involved in the preparations for the invasion of Normandy, and the large harbours of Portland and Poole were two of the main embarkation points. The former was the sailing venue in the 2012 Summer Olympics, and both have clubs or hire venues for sailing, Cornish pilot gig rowing, sea kayaking and powerboating.
Dorset has a varied landscape featuring broad elevated chalk downs, steep limestone ridges and low-lying clay valleys. Over half the county is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Three-quarters of its coastline is part of the Jurassic Coast Natural World Heritage Site due to its geological and palaeontologic significance. It features notable landforms such as Lulworth Cove, the Isle of Portland, Chesil Beach and Durdle Door. Agriculture was traditionally the major industry of Dorset but is now in decline and tourism has become increasingly important to the economy. There are no motorways in Dorset but a network of A roads cross the county and two railway main lines connect to London. Dorset has ports at Poole, Weymouth and Portland, and an international airport. The county has a variety of museums, theatres and festivals, and is host to one of Europe’s largest outdoor shows. It is the birthplace of Thomas Hardy, who used the county as the principal setting of his novels, and William Barnes, whose poetry celebrates the ancient Dorset dialect.
Dorset derives its name from the county town of Dorchester. The Romans established the settlement in the 1st century and named it Durnovaria which was a Latinised version of a Common Brittonic word possibly meaning “place with fist-sized pebbles”. The Saxons named the town Dornwaraceaster (the suffix “ceaster” being the Old English name for a Roman town) and Dornsæte came into use as the name for the inhabitants of the area from “Dorn”—a reduced form of Dornwaraceaster—and the Old English word “sæte” meaning people. It is first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in AD 845 and in the 10th century the county’s archaic name, “Dorseteschyre” (Dorsetshire), was first recorded.
The first human visitors to Dorset were Mesolithic hunters, from around 8000 BC. The first permanent Neolithic settlers appeared around 3000 BC and were responsible for the creation of the Dorset Cursus, a 10.5-kilometre (6.5 mi) monument for ritual or ceremonial purposes. From 2800 BC onwards Bronze Age farmers cleared Dorset’s woodlands for agricultural use and Dorset’s high chalk hills provided a location for numerous round barrows. During the Iron Age, the British tribe known as the Durotriges established a series of hill forts across the county—most notably Maiden Castle which is one of the largest in Europe.
The Romans arrived in Dorset during their conquest of Britain in AD 43. Maiden Castle was captured by a Roman legion under the command of Vespasian, and the Roman settlement of Durnovaria was established nearby. Bokerley Dyke, a large defensive ditch built by the county’s post-Roman inhabitants near the border with modern-day Hampshire, delayed the advance of the Saxons into Dorset for almost 150 years. However, by the end of the 7th century Dorset had fallen under Saxon control and been incorporated into the Kingdom of Wessex. The Saxons established a diocese at Sherborne and Dorset was made a shire—an administrative district of Wessex and predecessor to the English county system—with borders that have changed little since. In 789 the first recorded Viking attack on the British Isles took place in Dorset on the Portland coast, and they continued to raid into the county for the next two centuries.
After the Norman Conquest in 1066, feudal rule was established in Dorset and the bulk of the land was divided between the Crown and ecclesiastical institutions. The Normans consolidated their control over the area by constructing castles at Corfe, Wareham and Dorchester in the early part of the 12th century. Over the next 200 years Dorset’s population grew substantially and additional land was enclosed for farming to provide the extra food required. The wool trade, the quarrying of Purbeck Marble and the busy ports of Weymouth, Melcombe Regis, Lyme Regis and Bridport brought prosperity to the county. However, Dorset was devastated by the bubonic plague in 1348 which arrived in Melcombe Regis on a ship from Gascony. The disease, more commonly known as the Black Death, created an epidemic that spread rapidly and wiped out a third of the population of the country.
The dissolution of the monasteries (1536–1541)
Corfe Castle, captured and destroyed by Cromwell’s army in 1646
The dissolution of the monasteries (1536–1541) met little resistance in Dorset and many of the county’s abbeys, including Shaftesbury, Cerne and Milton, were sold to private owners. In 1642, at the commencement of the English Civil War, the Royalists took control of the entire county apart from Poole and Lyme Regis. However, within three years their gains had been almost entirely reversed by the Parliamentarians. An uprising of Clubmen—vigilantes weary of the depredations of the war—took place in Dorset in 1645. Some 2,000 of these rebels offered battle to Lord Fairfax’s Parliamentary army at Hambledon Hill but they were easily routed. Sherborne Castle was taken by Fairfax that same year and in 1646 Corfe Castle, the last remaining Royalist stronghold in Dorset, was captured after an act of betrayal: both were subsequently slighted. The Duke of Monmouth’s unsuccessful attempt to overthrow James II began when he landed at Lyme Regis in 1685. A series of trials known as the Bloody Assizes took place to punish the rebels. Over a five-day period in Dorchester, Judge Jeffreys presided over 312 cases: 74 of the accused were executed, 175 were transported, and nine were publicly whipped. In 1686, at Charborough Park, a meeting took place to plot the downfall of James II of England. This meeting was effectively the start of the Glorious Revolution.
During the 18th century, much smuggling took place along the Dorset coast; its coves, caves and sandy beaches provided opportunities for gangs such as the Hawkhursts to stealthily bring smuggled goods ashore. Poole became Dorset’s busiest port and established prosperous trade links with the fisheries of Newfoundland which supported cloth, rope and net manufacturing industries in the surrounding towns and villages. However, the industrial revolution largely bypassed Dorset which lacked coal resources and as a consequence the county remained predominantly agricultural. Farming has always been central to the economy of Dorset and the county became the birthplace of the modern trade union movement when, in 1834, six farm labourers formed a union to protest against falling wages. The labourers, who are now known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, were subsequently arrested for administering “unlawful oaths” and sentenced to transportation but they were pardoned following massive protests by the working classes.
The Dorsetshire Regiment were the first British unit to face a gas attack during the First World War (1914–1918) and they sustained particularly heavy losses at the Battle of the Somme. In total some 4,500 Dorset servicemen died in the war and of the county’s towns and villages, only one, Langton Herring, known as a Thankful Village, had no residents killed. During the Second World War (1939–1945) Dorset was heavily involved in the preparations for the invasion of Normandy: beach landing exercises were carried out at Studland and Weymouth and the village of Tyneham was requisitioned for army training. Tens-of-thousands of troops departed Weymouth, Portland and Poole harbours during D-Day and gliders from RAF Tarrant Rushton dropped troops near Caen to begin Operation Tonga. Dorset experienced an increase in holiday-makers after the war. First popularised as a tourist destination by George III’s frequent visits to Weymouth, the county’s coastline, seaside resorts and its sparsely populated rural areas attract millions of visitors each year. With farming declining across the country, tourism has edged ahead as the primary revenue-earning sector.