Dorchester is the administrative centre of Dorset. It is situated on the River Frome, 8 miles north of Weymouth. The town’s roots date back to prehistoric times and early settlements were based around Maiden Castle (www.maiden-castle.co.uk), the largest and most complex example of an Iron Age hill fort in Britain – the ruins of which can be visited today. The castle was first laid out around 600 BC over the remains of a Neolithic settlement. The site was home to several hundred people in the Iron Age. In AD43 the Roman army captured the fort, and its inhabitants moved to the new town of Durnovaria, modern Dorchester.
Dorchester is a bustling town (market day: Wednesday) with many charming old buildings, some of which retain features dating back to the Roman occupation. A gateway to the Jurassic coast, Dorchester has its own life-size dinosaur constructions, fossils and skeletons in the award-wining Dinosaur Museum (www.thedinosaurmuseum.com). It is open all year daily, including Sundays, Jan-March, 10am-4pm; April-Sept,10am-5pm;Oct-Dec, 10am-4pm. Closed 13- 26 Dec inc.
Dorchester is also home to the World Heritage Tutankhamun Exhibition (www.tutankhamun-exhibition.co.uk). The major treasures of Tutankhamun have been successfully recreated in precise detail using original materials wherever possible. In addition, the burial chamber and ante-chamber have been replicated together with all the contents and treasure, thus recreating experience of Howard Carter when he first discovered the tomb in 1922.
The town’s two railway stations provide links to Weymouth, Poole, Bournemouth and London (Dorchester South) and Yeovil, Bath and Bristol (Dorchester West).
Dorchester is in the heart of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. A recreation of his study along with many fascinating artefacts can be found in the County Museum (www.dorsetcountymuseum.org) there, and his cottage in Higher Bockhampton is very nearby. It is a small cob and thatch cottage where Hardy wrote Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd. The cottage is now owned by the National Trust and has a traditional cottage garden that is bursting with colour in the summer months.
Dorset has an abundance of diverse and interesting National Trust sites, including the Cerne Abbas Giant (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/cerne-giant) and TE Lawrence’s (Lawrence of Arabia) cottage, Cloud’s Hill (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/clouds-hill), both near Dorchester. Other ‘musts’ for those interested in history are the Tolpuddle Martyr’s Museum (www.tolpuddlemartyrs.org.uk) and Bovingdon Tank Museum (www.tankmuseum.org).
Naturalists will enjoy visiting Monkey World (www.monkeyworld.org) near Wool, a few miles east of Dorchester; Sealife (www.visitsealife.com/Weymouth) in Weymouth; and Abbotsbury Swannery and Subtropical Gardens (www.abbotsbury-tourism.co.uk).
Weymouth, well known for its maritime heritage and as venue for the 2012 Olympic sailing events, is one of the busiest and most visited tourist towns on the South Coast during the months of July and August. The town is most famous for its extensive esplanade that borders much of the seafront and dates back to Georgian times. Nothe Fort (www.nothefort.org.uk) is located at the entrance to Weymouth Harbour and is a popular family destination with stunning views of the Jurassic coast. The fort is a series of underground passageways set on three levels which are easily accessed by means of a lift. Built in Victorian times, Nothe Fort is now one of Weymouth’s most popular tourist attractions and you don’t need to be a military enthusiast to enjoy it either. But beware…the fort is haunted!
Bennetts Water gardens (www.waterlily.co.uk), spread over eight acres in the Chickerell area of Weymouth, are home to the National & International Plant Collections of Water Lilies, flowering from late spring through to autumn. You’ll find here one of the most outstanding displays of water lilies in Britain, with a Monet-style Japanese Bridge as the centrepiece.
Weymouth Pavillion (www.dorsetforyou.com/weymouthpavilion) is a theatre complex owned and operated by Weymouth & Portland Borough Council and built on Weymouth Pier. It hosts a variety of shows throughout the year. A new cafe opened in the Pavilion Foyer in 2010, named “The Ritz” after the earlier theatre on this site.
The Tudor House Museum (www.weymouthcivicsociety.org/tudorhouse.html), near Brewer’s Quay in the Old Harbour area of Weymouth, is believed to have been a merchant’s house built around 1600, and is furnished as the home of a middle-class family of the time. Brewer’s Quay is also the location of Discovery (www.discoverdiscovery.co.uk), an interactive science museum with over 60 hands-on exhibits for children of all ages to enjoy. The museum is open
seven days a week from March to September. Opening times vary at other times of the year.
Nearby Bridport is an attractive town, with markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays, plus a Farmer’s Market on the 2nd Saturday of the month. It also has a museum (South Street, Bridport, Dorset, DT6 3NR; 01308 422116; www.bridportmuseum.co.uk), which tells the story of the town’s history from its origins to the present day. Artefacts on display include items from a nearby Roman hill-fort and the world famous rope- and net-making industries. Open 10am – 5pm daily, except Sunday, from Easter until the end of October.
West Bay, known as the Golden Gateway to the Jurassic Coast, is situated just south of Bridport . Here you’ll find stunning sandstone cliffs, a working harbour, two beaches (East: sand and shingle extending along Chesil Beach to Portland Bill; and West: suitable for younger children, with a protective cove between the harbour’s west pier and the esplanade’s rock armour), the SW Coastal Path and many countryside walks.
West Bay Diving offer dive boat trips on their fast, 10.5 Vigilante 33 hard boat. They also provide dive training. Contact Keith on 07768 100903 to check availability.
At Lyme Bay Sea School (www.lymebayseaschool.co.uk) there’s also powerboat training, which follows the RYA National Powerboat Scheme.
The Cathedral City of Exeter also makes a fascinating day out with plenty to interest all ages. Easy access by car, train (to Exeter Central, rather than Exeter St. David’s) or bus (which follows a stunning coastal route).
For an overview, a Red Coat Guided Tour (Visitor Information Centre, Dix’s Field, Exeter, Devon, EX1 1GF; 01392 265203) is highly recommended. There are 18 different tours, most of which are completely free of charge, including a ‘Ghosts and Legends’ evening walk. They take place daily and start from outside either the Quay House Visitor Centre or the Royal Clarence Hotel, on the Cathedral Yard.
St. Peter’s Cathedral (1 The Cloisters, Exeter EX1 1HS; 01392 285983; www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk; email@example.com) and Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (Queen Street Exeter EX4 3RX; www.rammuseum.org.uk; 01392 265 858) are both well worth visiting. The latter is especially child-friendly, with a good variety of exhibits – including a life-size model giraffe – featuring local history, archeology, natural history, fine art, costumes and textiles.
Exeter also has a good theatre, The Northcott (Stocker Road, Exeter, Devon, EX4 4QB; 01392 493493; www.exeternorthcott.co.uk; firstname.lastname@example.org).
More energetic leisure activities can be found at Crealy Great Adventure Park (Sidmouth Road, Exeter, Devon, EX5 1DR; 01395 233200; www.crealy.co.uk). Open hours: daily, April-Oct: 10am-6pm; Nov-Mar: 10am-5pm. Pecorama (Beer, Nr. Seaton, Devon, EX12 3NA; 01297 21542; www.pecorama.info) is also a good place for children – and model trains! – to let off steam.