Hands up who can name the English county where Thomas Hardy set his novels? Yes, Wessex. Only thing is, check the atlas and you’ll find that Wessex doesn’t actually exist. Nor does the town of “Casterbridge” (as depicted in his famous book ‘ The Mayor of Casterbridge’) BUT what does exist, and is well worth seeing is Dorchester, on which Casterbridge is 100 per cent based. It is located in the attractive southern English county of Dorset which oozes history and is full of pretty thatched roof cottages, wonderful old inns, all set in a green rolling landscape.
A core of 17th and 18th century buildings make up the heart of this attractive small town.
Worth seeing is the County Museum on High West Street where Hardy’s study is evocatively recreated. (In reality, Hardy lived on the edge of town, in an ugly, dark Gothic villa called Max Gate where he lived from 1885 till his death in 1928).
The “Mayor’s House” is now a bank on the main shopping street of South Street Cornhill. Napier’s Almshouses have also survived, but as a restaurant and tea shop with a courtyard.
Hardy fans should pick up the free leaflet at the Tourist information Centre which describes a “Thomas Hardy Walk” round all the places in his novels.
Dorchester’s shopping streets may be much like any others, except that a surprising number of Victorian shopfronts survive, but the High Street proper is something else. This long, broad spine runs, Roman-straight, from East to West, the length of the entire town. Hardy sits in bronze, dressed for a walk, at one end; at the other end of the street Dorchester peters out into open country. From the top of High West Street, you can see right to the far end of this surprisingly compact county town.
The best of Dorchester can be enjoyed in a stroll along this splendid High Street of tall grey-stone frontages, many Georgian, with elaborate wrought-iron balconies, and humbler, older buildings. There are few antique shops; this is an authentic town that works for its living.
At the focal point of the High Street, stands St Peter’s Church, pinnacled and embattled and with bold gargoyles. Outside, more commandingly placed than Hardy’s, is the statue of William Barnes, “Dorset’s other poet’, still seriously underrated. You can buy a booklet of his poems, produced by the novelist and publisher, J. L. Carr, in the County Museum next door.
Dorchester houses two permanent exhibitions: a Dinosaur Museum (on Icen Way) and a Tutankhamun Exhibition (High West Street). And there is also the impressive Dorset Military Museum, housed in the Keep, the old barracks gatehouse.
“The Poacher’s Inn” is a great place to stay and also serves good local food. Beautifully positioned in the little neighbouring village of Piddletrenthide, the inn has 21 rooms. In the summer, you can also enjoy the beautiful riverside garden and heated pool.
A great place to eat dinner is the neighbouring “European Inn” – a small country pub located in the middle of the beautiful Piddle Valley between Piddlehinton and Piddletrenthide. This is the type of English inn you dream about, with great food, lots of atmosphere and friendly locals.
Cerne Abbas (seven miles North of Dorchester on the A352) is a stunning village with 16th century houses. It’s a great place to stroll and admire the quiet lanes and wonderful buildings and old trees. As well as rare medieval frescoes in the 14th century church of St Mary, there’s the Cerne Giant – one of the UK’s best-known chalk figures.
The giant stands 55m tall, weilds a 37m club and is estimated to be anything from a few hundred years old to a couple of thousand.
However old the guy is, he certainly needed no Viagra! (Interestingly the prudish Victorian grassed over his raging manhood last century, but he’s now back in all his glory)!
Stop for a meal at the Royal Oak on Long Street. It’s one of Dorset’s character pubs and serves traditional English pub food and good ales.