The mythic coastlines, rolling hills and rural villages of Dorset have inspired generations of writers. The most celebrated of these is novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, who wrote tragic novels of shifting rural life, including Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The son of a stonemason, Hardy was born near Dorchester, and his imagined county of Wessex is in part based on Dorset.
You can follow Hardy’s story from his place of birth in Higher Bockhampton, Dorchester, to his home in Max Gate and final resting place at St Michael’s Church in Stinsford. Following the writer’s death in 1928 his body was interred in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, and only his heart was buried in his wife’s grave at Stinsford.
Hardy fans can visit Hardy’s Study and Writer’s Gallery within Dorset County Museum in Dorchester, where you can also see a stunning red bustle gown worn by his sister Kate. With its graceful wrought-iron arches and rose window, the Victorian Gallery of the museum is a must for visitors; there’s a Roman mosaic and displays on rustic life in Wessex, and the natural treasures of Jurassic Dorset. Check with the museum in advance of a visit, as it will be undergoing gradual restoration until 2020.
Other notable authors with local connections are JRR Tolkien and Enid Blyton who lived in Bournemouth, while Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at Skerryvore House in Westbourne. The Powys brothers feature Dorset heavily in their work – including Weymouth Sands and Maiden Castle.
The beautiful seaside town of Lyme Regis provided Jane Austen with a key location for her novel Persuasion, and John Fowles dazzling The French Lieutenant’s Woman is also partly set in the town. Beatrix Potter spent a holiday in Lyme in 1904 and used views of the town for her story, Little Pig Robinson.
Hardy fans can visit Hardy’s Study and Writer’s Gallery within Dorset County Museum in Dorchester, where you can also see a stunning red bustle gown worn by his sister Kate
The Beatles in Bournemouth
Oddly, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley’s dying wish was to be buried in Bournemouth, despite the fact she’d never lived in the town. Her wish was granted – as was her desire for her already deceased parents to be re-buried with her; the family plot also includes the remains of her husband’s heart. People often visit the graves at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth.
Back in the 60s the Beatles loved Bournemouth and played there the most after London and Liverpool. Since then the city has been firmly on the touring circuit; these days bands play at the Bournemouth International Centre. Bridport and Weymouth also have strong reputations for live music.
For opera lovers, the Dorset Opera Festival gives six performances of two fully staged operas every year. Many of the performers are aged 16 to 25 and are trained by a talented team with more than 40 years’ experience. The productions take place in The Coade Theatre in the dramatic neo-Georgian Bryanston School at Blandford Forum, with audiences picnicking in the lovely grounds in the intervals.
One of the main venues for art is the Lighthouse in Poole, where the varied listings include theatre, family shows, comedy and dance productions all year round. National dance companies and touring ballets perform at the Lighthouse, and it is also the home of the acclaimed Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra as well as housing an independent cinema. And don’t miss their visual arts gallery, which features painting, printmaking, design and sculpture. Other prominent exhibition spaces include the commercial Westover Gallery in Bournemouth, which represents artists worldwide and always exhibits a variety of work by modern and graffiti artists.
Another picturesque artistic space in Bournemouth is the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum overlooking the pier. Completed in 1901 – the year that Queen Victoria died – it is one of the last Victorian houses ever built. Wander through the stunning house with its panelling and galleries to soak up the architecture and glamour: a particular treasure is the iconic Venus Verticordia, a Pre-Raphaelite beauty painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Victorian garden with its statues, fountain and stone grotto is well worth exploring.
Back in the 60s the Beatles loved Bournemouth and played there the most after London and Liverpool
Sculptures by lakes
Some seven miles north of the city, Wimbourne is home to a contemporary crafts gallery housed in a beautiful old red-brick mill building. On-site artists work in disciplines ranging from silk weaving to print making.
The more modest but enjoyable Mulberry Tree Gallery in Swanage is always a visual feast and was set up by four friends with a passion for all things beautiful and creative. You can browse and buy crafts, jewellery, homeware and antique pieces as well as vintage-style prints depicting tourist local icons.
One of the main attractions in West Dorset is its historic monuments and natural marvels. In Osmington, Weymouth, there is the famous white horse hill figure sculpted in 1808 into the limestone hill. Depicting King George III and standing at 85m long and 98m high, it can be seen for miles around. The figure was restored on the TV show Challenge Anneka and then again before the Olympics in 2012.
Just 16 miles away is the famous Cerne Abbas giant, which makes a pretty unique destination for a day trip. The ancient naked and priapic man sculpted into the chalk above the picturesque village of Cerne Abbas is Britain’s largest and most controversial chalk hill figure. Many theories surround the giant’s origin, and local folklore has long held it to be an aid for fertility, hence the famous pilgrimages by couples hoping for a child. Whilst there, visit the quaint village and try the award-winning New Inn for its delicious dishes (the not-so-new coaching inn is in fact 16th century).
The iron age hill fort of Maiden Castle, near Dorchester, dates back to 1800 BC and features impressive ridge ramparts covering an area the size of 50 football pitches. Set in 26 acres of the county’s beautiful countryside seven miles west of Dorchester, Sculpture by the Lakes is an oasis for art lovers and collectors created by renowned artist Simon Gudgeon. Meander through the gardens to spot the sculptures in their lovely natural setting: the gallery houses smaller sculpted works and also paintings, drawings and other two-dimensional artwork.
During the summer months outdoor cinemas tour around the county and can be found showing in the grand grounds of Lulworth Castle in August. There is always a truly magical open-air theatre on Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour. The tradition of performing Shakespeare has been going on for 50 years here, in the last few weeks of July and ending in August.
The ancient naked and priapic man sculpted into the chalk above the picturesque village of Cerne Abbas is Britain’s largest and most controversial chalk hill figure
In summer you’ll discover festivals most weekends, with one of the most notable being the Christchurch Food and Wine Festival in May – a weekend of foodie events and tastings all over the delightful riverside town. The Dorset Food and Arts Festival, usually held on the first weekend of August, in Queen Mother Square, Poundbury, is a celebration of everything Dorset. More than 50 food producers from the Dorset Farmers’ Market come together with artists and musicians to put on a fine one-day festival. The most popular festival however is undoubtedly Bestival, an award-winning, four-day boutique music festival set on the Lulworth Estate – an enchanting, wooded country estate on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast.
Artistic Bridport hosts an astonishing variety of festivals and events, including the Bridport Hat Festival, Bridport Open Studios, gig boat racing and the Torchlight Procession. This historic market town and its surrounding villages are home to many artists, craftspeople and writers, and the Bridport Arts Centre is a key destination. Housed in an old Wesleyan church, it comprises a gallery, theatre and cinema; the centre also runs a prestigious annual creative writing competition.
A couple of miles south of town on the coast, Sladers Yard is a private gallery which shows and sells modern British art, alongside elegant hand-made wooden furniture and elegant crafts dedicated to exhibiting and selling contemporary British art, hand-made furniture designed by Petter Southall and cutting-edge ceramics, glassware and leather goods.
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