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Bindon hill from the east.jpg
Bindon Hill from Flowers Barrow
Flag of Dorset
Who's Afear'd
[Interactive map]
Area: 980 square miles
Population: 543,296
County town: Dorchester
County flower: Dorset heath [1]

The County of Dorset is a shire in the West Country lying on the English Channel coast. The county town is Dorchester in the south of Dorset. It has borders with Devon to the west, Somerset to the north-west, Wiltshire to the north-east, and Hampshire to the east. Outside the “South East Dorset conurbation”, most of the county is largely rural and agricultural.

Dorset's long coast stretches from Poole in the east, and the great gulf of Poole Harbour, around the Isle of Purbeck and along a coast marked with bays and coves to sweep southward at Weymouth and the Isle of Portland. From here the remarkable Chesil Beach stretches for 18 miles to the cliffs of the “Jurassic Coast” as far as Lyme Regis, close to the border with Devon.

The county bears to marks of many ages of man and of earlier aeons. It has Iron Age hill forts of Maiden Castle and Hod Hill and the great defensive ditch, Bokerley Dyke, said to have delayed the English from advancing for up to 150 years. Along the Jurassic Coast the cliffs have revealed countless fossils from the age of the dinosaurs.

Initially agricultural, tourism is now the primary industry with the county receiving 18 million visitors a year. Over half the county is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Dorset is famous for the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. It has holiday resorts at Poole, Weymouth, Swanage, and Lyme Regis. Dorset's largest ports at Poole, Weymouth and Portland, and its international airport at Hurn, play an important part in the local economy generating a substantial amount of international trade and tourism. Many towns and villages along the coast have harbours.

Dorset is the principal setting of the novels of Thomas Hardy, who was born in the county, as was William Barnes, whose poetry celebrates and preserves the ancient Dorset dialect.


Fields near Whitchurch Canonicorum

Dorset contains an enormous variety of landscapes determined by the underlying geology.[1][2] It has produced a county of grassy, sweeping hills and gentle valleys and coastal cliffs. The downlands provide rich grazing and the Dorset farmer, characterised so well in the works of Thomas Hardy and William Barnes, has much to bless his creator for.

The county provides much of the building stone used for facing and beautifying the great buildings of the land: Portland Stone is quarried on the Isle of Portland, which has for centuries been wholly given up to that labour, and Purbeck Marble comes from the Isle of Purbeck.

The South West Coast Path, a National Trail, runs along the Dorset coast from the Devon border to South Haven Point near Poole.[3]


Some 66% of the county's ground is made up of chalk, clay and mixed sand and gravels but the remainder is much more complex and contains the hard rock of Portland and Purbeck and other limestones, calcareous clays and shales.[4] Both Portland and Purbeck stone are of national importance. Almost every type of rock from early Jurassic to the mid-Tertiary period can be found within the county.[5] Here too is the beginning of the oil-bearing strata which sweep through Britain and into the North Sea; oil is extracted from shale on the Dorset coast.

Dorset has a large number of limestone downland ridges, mostly covered in either arable fields or calcareous grassland supporting sheep.[6] These limestone areas include a band of chalk which crosses the county from south-west to north-east incorporating Cranborne Chase, the Dorset Downs and Purbeck Hills.[7][8] Between the areas of downland are large, wide clay vales (primarily Oxford Clay with some Weald Clay and London Clay) with wide flood plains.[9] These vales are primarily used for dairy agriculture, dotted with small villages, farms and coppices.[10] They include the Blackmore Vale (Stour valley) and Frome valley.[8][9] South-east Dorset, around Poole, lies on very non-resistant Eocene clays (mainly London Clay and Gault Clay), sands and gravels.[9]

Heathland and conservation

These thin soils support a heathland habitat which sustains all six native British reptile species.[11] In the west of the county the chalk and clay formations, which are typical of much of south-east England, give way to older and more chaotically-arranged strata,[12] and a landscape more akin to that of neighbouring Devon.[13] Marshwood Vale, a valley of lower lias clay at the western tip of the county, lies to the south of the two highest points in Dorset; Lewesdon Hill (915 feet) and Pilsdon Pen (909 feet).[14]

The county has the highest proportion of conservation areas in England, including an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty covering close to half of the whole county, a World Heritage Site, two Heritage Coasts and Sites of Special Scientific interest.


The Piddle floods watermeadows near Puddleton

Dorset's varied geography also ensures it has a variety of rivers, although a modest annual rainfall averaging around 35 inches, coupled with rolling hills, means most are characteristically lowland in nature.[15] Much of the county drains into three rivers, the Frome, Piddle and Stour which all flow to the sea in a south-easterly direction.[16] The Frome and Piddle are chalk streams but the Stour, which rises in Wiltshire to the north, has its origins in clay soil.[17] The rivers Axe and Yeo, which principally drain the counties of Devon and Somerset respectively, have their sources in the north-west of the county, while in the south-west, a large number of small rivers run into the sea along the Dorset coastline; most notable of these are the Char, Brit, Bride and Wey.[18]

Coastal features

Lulworth Cove
Durlston Bay

A former river valley flooded by rising sea levels 6,000 years ago, Poole Harbour is one of the largest natural harbours in the world.[19][20] The harbour is very shallow in places and contains a number of islands, notably Brownsea Island, the birthplace of the Scouting movement and one of the few remaining sanctuaries for indigenous red squirrels in England.[21] The harbour, and the chalk and limestone hills of the Isle of Purbeck to the south, lie atop Western Europe's largest onshore oil field. The field, operated by BP from Wytch Farm, has the world's oldest continuously pumping well (Kimmeridge, since the early 1960s) and longest horizontal drill (five miles ending underneath Bournemouth pier in Hampshire).[22][23]

Most of Dorset's coastline is part of the "Jurassic Coast", a World Heritage Site noted for its geological landforms.[24] The coast documents the entire Mesozoic era, from Triassic to Cretaceous, and has yielded important fossils, including the first complete ichthyosaur and fossilised Jurassic trees.[24]

The coast also features notable coastal landforms, including textbook examples of a cove (Lulworth Cove) and natural arch (Durdle Door).[25] At the most easterly part of the Jurassic Coast stand the chalk stacks known as Old Harry Rocks, formed over 65 million years ago.[26]

Jutting out into the English Channel at roughly the midpoint of the coastline is the Isle of Portland, a limestone island that is connected to the mainland by Chesil Beach, a 17-mile-long tombolo protecting Britain's largest tidal lagoon.[27][28]

Durdle Door natural arch near Lulworth Cove


Traces of Mesolithic hunters and Neolithic settlers have been found at several points along the coast and Stour valley. Dorset's high chalk hills have provided a location for defensive settlements for millennia. There are Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds on almost every chalk hill in the county along with a number of Iron Age hill forts.[29] Probably the most famous of these structures is Maiden Castle, which was built around 600 BC and is one of the largest in Europe,[30][31] and where the men or Dorset stood fast against the Romans in a siege recorded with respect even in the chronicles of the invaders.

Roman artefacts are found particularly around the Roman town Dorchester, where Maiden Castle was captured from the Durotriges by a Legion in AD 43 under the command of Vespasian, early in the Roman occupation.[32][33] Roman roads radiated from Dorchester and from the hillfort at Badbury, following the tops of the chalk ridges to the many small Roman villages around the county.[34] The Romans also had a presence on the Isle of Portland, constructing - or adapting - hilltop defensive earthworks on Verne Hill.[35] A large defensive ditch, Bokerley Dyke, delayed the Saxon conquest of Dorset for up to 150 years.[36] By the end of the 7th century however, Dorset had become part of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex.[37][38]

The Domesday Book documents many villages corresponding to modern towns and villages and there have been few changes to the parishes since.[37][39] Over the next few centuries the settlers established the pattern of farmland which prevailed into the nineteenth century.[30][40] Many monasteries were also established, which were important landowners and centres of power.[41]

In the 12th-century civil war, Dorset was fortified by the construction of the defensive castles at Corfe Castle, Powerstock, Wareham and Shaftesbury, and the strengthening of the monasteries such as at Abbotsbury.[42] The 12th and 13th centuries saw much prosperity in Dorset and the population grew substantially as a result.[43] In order to provide the extra food required, additional land was enclosed for farming during this time.[43] The quarrying of Purbeck Marble, a limestone that can be polished, brought wealth into the county and provided employment for stonecutters and masons. The trade continued until the 15th century when alabaster from Derbyshire became popular.[44] During the Middle Ages, Dorset was used by the king and nobility for hunting and the county still retains a number of deer parks.[45][46] Melcombe Regis, now part of Weymouth, was a busy port at this time and contributed much to the county's prosperity but ultimately to the nation's despair.

In July 1348, a ship from Europe sailed into Melcombe and brought with it the bubonic plague. The residents of Melcombe were the first casualties of a disease which went on to wipe out a third of the population of the country.[47]

The Tudor period and the dissolution of the monasteries saw the end of many of Dorset's abbeys including Shaftesbury, Cerne and Milton.[48] In 1588, eight ships from Dorset assisted in the destruction of the Spanish Armada.[49] The flagship San Salvador still lies at the bottom of Studland bay.[49] Sir Walter Raleigh later settled in Sherborne and served in the House of Commons as a member for Dorset.[50]

In the 17th-century English Civil War, Dorset had a number of royalist strongholds, such as Portland Castle, Sherborne Castle and Corfe Castle,[51] the latter two being ruined by Parliamentarian forces in the war.[52] Corfe had already been successfully defended against an attack in 1643 but an act of betrayal during a second siege in 1646 led to its capture and subsequent slighting.[53] The residents of Lyme Regis were staunch Parliamentarians who, in 1644, repelled three attacks by a Royalist army under King Charles's nephew, Prince Maurice. Maurice lost 2,000 men in the assaults and his reputation was severely damaged as a result.[54] In 1645 some 5,000 angry civilians, annoyed by the disruption caused by the war, gathered to do battle with Cromwell's forces. Armed only with clubs and farming tools, they were easily chased off. A smaller force of around 2,000 regrouped on Hambledon Hill and were again routed. This final humiliation effectively put an end to the organisation.[55]

In 1685, James Scott Monmouth, the bastard son of Charles II, and 150 supporters landed at Lyme Regis.[56] After the failed Monmouth Rebellion, the 'Bloody Assizes' took place in Dorchester where over a five-day period, Judge Jeffreys presided over 312 cases. 74 were executed; 29 were hanged, drawn and quartered; 175 were deported and many were publicly whipped.[57] In 1686, at Charborough Park, a meeting took place to plot the downfall of James II. This meeting was effectively the start of the Glorious Revolution, which swiftly succeeded in its aims in 1688.[58]

During the 18th century the Dorset coast saw much smuggling activity; its coves, caves and sandy beaches provided ample opportunities to slip smuggled goods ashore.[59] The production of cloth was a profitable business in Dorset during the 17th and 18th centuries.[60] The absence of coal however meant that during the Industrial Revolution Dorset was unable to compete and so remained largely rural.[61][62][63] The Tolpuddle Martyrs lived in Dorset, and the farming economy of Dorset was central in the formation of the trade union movement.[64]

From the early 19th century, when George III took holidays in Weymouth, Dorset's tourism industry grew and towns were reinvented as resorts, a process speeded on by the coming of the railway in the nineteenth century.

During First World War and Second World War, Dorset, located on the English Channel, was important to the Royal Navy. Portland Harbour was for many years the largest of Royal Navy bases.[65] Portland, Weymouth and Poole harbours were the main embarkation points on D-Day, 6 June 1944.[66] Training for the landings also took place in Dorset, on the long sandy beach at Studland which was chosen because of its similarities to the beaches of Northern France.[67]

Towns and villages

Bere Regis

Dorset is largely rural with many small villages, few large towns and no cities. The only major urban area is the conurbation in the south-east of the county which is not typical of the county as a whole. It consists of the historic port of Poole and several surrounding towns absorbed into it, and spreads over into Hampshire, where Bournemouth joins overall the clump of towns. Poole adjoins Bournemouth to the west and contains the suburb of Sandbanks which has some of the highest land values by area in the world.[68]

The other two major towns in the county are Dorchester, which has been the county town since at least 1305,[69] and Weymouth, a major seaside resort since the 18th century.[70][71] Blandford Forum, Sherborne, Gillingham, Shaftesbury and Sturminster Newton are historic market towns which serve the farms and villages of the Blackmore Vale in north Dorset.[72]

Beaminster and Bridport are in the west of the county; Verwood and the historic Anglo-Saxon market towns of Wareham and Wimborne Minster are located to the east.[72] Lyme Regis and Swanage are small coastal towns popular with tourists.[73] Still in construction on the western edge of Dorchester is the experimental new town of Poundbury commissioned and co-designed by Prince Charles.[74] The suburb, which is expected to be fully completed by 2025, was designed to integrate residential and retail buildings and counter the growth of dormitory towns and car-oriented development.[75]

Economy and industry

The principal industry in Dorset was once agriculture. It has not, however, been the largest employer for many decades as mechanisation has substantially reduced the number of workers required. Agriculture has become less profitable and the industry has declined further.

In 2009 there were 3,190 armed forces personnel stationed in Dorset including, the Royal Armoured Corps at Bovington, Royal Signals at Blandford and the Royal Marines at Poole. The military presence has had a mixed effect on the local economy bringing additional employment for civilians but on occasion having a negative impact on the tourist trade. There are plans to relocate the Royal School of Signals by 2012.

Other major employers in county work in military equipment (such as BAE Systems), luxury yachts (Sunseeker International) and countless tourism-related businesses.

Dorset's three large ports, Poole, Weymouth and Portland, play an important part in the local economy generating a substantial amount of international trade and tourism. The waters around Weymouth and Portland will be used for the sailing events in the 2012 Olympic Games and as a result the area has already benefitted from an increased investment in infrastructure and a noticeable growth in the marine leisure sector. It is expected that this in turn will have a positive effect on local businesses and tourism.

Tourism has grown in Dorset since the late 18th century and is now the predominant industry.


Traction engines at the Great Dorset Steam Fair

Dorset hosts a number of annual festivals, fairs and events including the Great Dorset Steam Fair near Blandford, one of the largest events of its kind in Europe.[76]

The Spirit of the Seas is a maritime festival held in Weymouth and Portland. Launched in 2008, the festival features sporting activities, cultural events and local entertainers.[77]

The Dorset County Show, which was first held in 1841, is a celebration of Dorset's relationship with agriculture.[78] The two day event showcases local produce and livestock and attracts some 55,000 people.[78]

In addition to the smaller folk festivals held in towns such as Wimborne,[79] Dorset holds several larger musical events.

Thomas Hardy

Dorset is famed in literature for being the native county of author and poet Thomas Hardy, and many of the places he describes in his novels in the fictional Wessex are in Dorset, which he renamed South Wessex.[80][81] The National Trust owns Thomas Hardy's Cottage, in woodland east of Dorchester, and Max Gate, his former house in Dorchester.[82]

The 19th-century poet William Barnes was born in Bagber and wrote many poems in his native Dorset dialect.[81] Originating from the language spoken here since the Anglo-Saxon period, the dialect has been disappearing since the arrival of the railways and Barnes's poetry is considered an important, historical record.[83]

Remarkably, given its legacy, Dorset does not hold a festival of literature.

Several other writers have called Dorset home, including Douglas Adams who wrote much of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy while he lived in Stalbridge;[84] Ian Fleming (James Bond) boarded at Durnford School;[85] John le Carré, author of espionage novels;[86] Tom Sharpe of Wilt (novel)|Wilt fame lived in Bridport;[87] John Fowles (The French Lieutenant's Woman) lived in Lyme Regis before he died in late 2005;[88] TF Powys lived in Chaldon Herring for over 20 years and used it as inspiration for the fictitious village of Folly Down in his novel Mr. Weston's Good Wine;[89] John Cowper Powys, his elder brother also set a number of his novels in Dorset.[90]

County flag

Dorset's flag, which is known as the St Wite's Cross, was adopted in 2008 following a public competition.[91] The winning design, which features a white cross with a red border on a golden background, attracted 54% of the vote.[92] The red and white was used in recognition of the English St George cross.[93] The golden colour represents Dorset's sandy beaches and the Dorset landmarks of Golden Cap and Gold Hill, Shaftesbury. It is also a reference to the Wessex Dragon, a symbol of the West Saxon Kingdom to which Dorset belonged, and the gold wreath featured on the badge of the Dorset Regiment.[93] The flag was named St Wite's Cross after a Saxon holy woman buried in Whitchurch Canonicorum who was believed to have been martyred by invading Danes in the 9th century.[93]

Dorset's motto is 'Who's Afear'd'.[94]


Dorset is one of the few counties in England not to have a single mile of motorway. The A303, A35 and A31 trunk roads run through the county, the A303, connecting the West Country to London, just clipping the north-west of the county. The A35 is the main east-west route through southern Dorset, running from Honiton in Devon, by way of Dorchester towards the coastal towns at Poole and out into Hampshire as far as Southampton.

There are two passenger sea ports and an international airport in the county. Two ferry services operate out of Poole Harbour, sailing for Cherbourg in France and to Jersey and Guernsey respectively. A service sails for St Malo in Brittany during the season.[95] Ferries also operate services from Weymouth harbour to Guernsey, Jersey and St Malo; throughout the year.[96] Both Poole, since the dredging of the main channel in 2008, and Portland harbours are capable of taking cruise liners.[97]


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