Things to do in Dorchester
There’s so much history in Dorchester, a quaint Dorset town situated just 10km north of the seaside town of Weymouth and our holiday parks at Littlesea, Seaview and Weymouth Bay.
From the birthplace of classic English author Thomas Hardy to 6000-year-old settlements, there’s plenty to explore within the county town. Let's go through some of the best things to do in Dorchester.
1. Visit Thomas Hardy’s homes
Not just one but two of Hardy’s homes are situated in or near Dorchester, a town he featured in his famous book The Mayor of Casterbridge. First, and prettiest, is the author’s birthplace, a lovingly preserved thatched cottage. The National Trust have styled the interior to 1840 when the Tess of the D’Urbervilles author was born. The house can be visited on a pre-booked tour between Tuesday and Sunday, and is three miles north of Dorchester's centre at Higher Bockhampton.
Next, return to Dorchester to tour the home the author built in 1885 at the height of his success. Max Gate is a sprawling brick-built Victorian home with a shady, walled garden and a second-hand bookshop, where you can pick up a copy of one of his books.
2. Investigate a Roman ruin
Address: County Hall, Colliton Pk, Dorchester DT1 1XJ
If Hardy’s homes have whetted your appetite for history, we’re only getting started! There’s the full, surviving foundations of a 3rd- to 4th-century Roman town house close to the local council buildings at Colliton Park. It’s the only intact, above-ground example of its kind in Britain, and has been partly reconstructed to reveal how the complete structure would have looked. Beautifully preserved mosaic floors can be seen inside, and guided tours are available.
3. Go Neolithic
Roman still a bit too modern for the history fanatics in your group? Dorchester has even older remains if you dig a little more deeply.
First you might visit the circular earthworks called the Maumbury Rings, just minutes from the railway station. Initially holding a stone circle, they were later adapted into an amphitheatre by the Romans, who called the town Durnovaria. Further changes occurred when a hill fort was built here during the English Civil War. It’s now a venue for occasional summer concerts and other events. It’s also a great place to relax and read a book or have a picnic.
Next, head out to the remnants of Maiden Castle, southwest of the town. There are few remnants of the 6000-year-old settlement, but it’s a great place to have a country walk steeped in history, and the site is well-preserved and explained with English Heritage signage.
Stepped, defensive dykes lead visitors up to the top of the structure, where you'll be rewarded with panoramic Dorset views.
4. Visit an Art Deco cinema
Dorchester Plaza Cinema address: Trinity St, Dorchester DT1 1TT
The chic Art Deco style of the 1930s extended from the cities to towns across the country and Dorchester’s Plaza Cinema is a fine example. If you need to get out of the rain, what better than to watch a movie in a cinema with 90 years of history. You won’t pay cinema chain prices either!
5. Go shopping for Antiquities
If your enthusiasm for ancient things extends mostly to buying them, you have plenty of choices in Dorchester. The town is full of surprising antique and curiosity shops, selling vintage watches, jewellery, maps, books, prints and more.
While you’re browsing, drop into one of the local eateries. Since Dorchester is only seven miles from the Jurassic Coast, you’ll find plenty of local seafood, including prawns, scallops, and crab. The local farms produce delicious dairy provender, including an award-winning aged goat’s cheese.
6. Check out the museums
For a town of just over 19,000 inhabitants, Dorchester has impressive number of museums. The first two on our list are sure to delight the little ones.
The nearby Jurassic Coast is world-renowned for its fossils and dinosaur skeletons, and many of these are on display in the Dinosaur Museum. Inside you’ll also find life-size reconstructions of the T-Rex and Stegosaurus, interactive displays and a massive fossil collection.
You’ll encounter slightly less fearsome creatures in the Teddy Bear Museum, a pocket-sized exhibit of over 100 toys including vintage Steiff bears, posed and dressed toys, and some famous faces. For collectors, there's of course a shop.
By contrast, the imposing imitation Norman Keep houses a military museum devoted to over 300 years of the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment and older local militia. Here you’ll find weapons, uniforms, documents, and fascinating insights into local history. Don’t miss the great city views you’ll get from the battlements either!
Finally, for more history, and impressive Georgian architecture, head to the Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum, built in 1797. The imposing building was the site of the trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six agricultural labourers who were early champions of workers’ rights. You can learn more about them, in the nearby town of Tolpuddle, where there’s a dedicated museum.
7. Stroll the Jurassic Coast
No list of things to do in Dorchester would be complete without a visit to the Jurassic Coast, with its golden beaches, ancient fossil hordes and stunning clifftop views. As well as West Bay there’s bustling Weymouth, historic Lyme Regis, the perfect crescent of Lulworth Cove and of course, Durdle Door’s fabulous stone archway, through which the sea surges and crashes.
All in all, Dorset isn’t short of drama!
8. Relax with Sculpture by the Lakes
Address: Pallington Lakes, Dorchester DT2 8QU
If you’re visiting Tolpuddle, drive southeast along Milom Lane to discover the picturesque Pallington Lakes and a sculpture park and gallery. Beautiful and surprising works nestle amongst 26 acres of wonderful water and groves of trees. There’s a café, occasional musical recitals, and an opportunity to unwind and recharge those batteries before you hit the shops or the seaside.