John Payne, Author.


John Payne, author of The West Country: a cultural history gives us A Window Into Dorset

A window into Dorset

The river Stour runs right through Dorset – from the glorious National Trust gardens of Stourhead to the lovely harbour town of Christchurch. On the way it passes through the tranquil landscape of Blackmoor Vale, past the grand eighteenth century town of Blandford Forum, past Wimborne with its medieval Minster. A landscape of water meadows, sleepy villages and peaceful cows where change comes slowly.

Much of Dorset is hill country, from the high chalk ridges in the north to the mighty cliff facing out onto the English Channel. The northern fringe includes Saxon Shaftesbury, sitting on its hill looking out over the fields and rivers of Blackmoor Vale. And Sherborne, with its abbey, perhaps the finest building in the whole county. Here St Aldhelm, Bishop of Wessex, held court as early as 705AD.

The county town of Dorchester lies on the River Frome and is still a busy market town. Its museum is one of the best in the country, and there are many memories here of Thomas Hardy whose ‘Wessex’ novels are of the essence of historical Dorset. Close by are vast prehistoric hill forts such as Maiden Castle and Badbury Rings.

Beyond Dorchester, the Frome meanders across water meadows towards the delightful port of Wareham, and Poole Harbour. The river Piddle also emerges at Wareham. It is said that Queen Victoria, en route for the polite pleasures of Weymouth, was not amused by the River Piddle. Which is why the villages along the lower stretches of the river are now called Puddle instead.

Chief among them is Tolpuddle where a Museum and an annual Festival remember the first Martyrs of the trade union movement in England. Hardy’s birthplace – a humble cottage at Bockhampton, Lawrence of Arabia’s strange little retreat at Cloud’s Hill and the Bovington Tank Museum are among the varied attractions between Frome and Piddle.

Poole Harbour is a holiday in its own right, a vast expense of water, inlets and reed beds connected to the sea by a narrow neck of water crossed by a regular car-ferry. Like neighbouring Bournemouth, Poole has excellent beaches and a wealth of attractions for young and old alike. Brownsea Island, owned by the National Trust, has a varied and topsy-turvy history, and is always worth a visit. There are regular ferry services from Poole.

West from Poole stretches the Jurassic Coast, England’s only natural World Heritage Site. It includes the high cliffs above the resort of Swanage, Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door, Portland Bill and the long stretch of Chesil Beach, with the lagoon of the Fleet and the Swannery at Abbotsbury on its inland side. At Charmouth near Lyme Regis the cliffs continue to crumble and reveal fresh fossils every winter, while Lyme Regis itself has memories of Jane Austen who used it as the setting for her novel Persuasion.

The more you find out about Dorset, the more you will enjoy your visit. 
This article was compiled by John Payne, author of The West Country: a cultural history. This has two chapters on Dorset packed full of interesting information. The book is on sale at most good bookshops, or on-line from The Bookshop in Bridport. (

Last Updated: 28 Apr 2015