Dorchester as you see it today has been forged over a long and fascinating history. One of the great pleasures of wandering around the town is the chance to trace portions of that history by visiting sites of Neolithic, Roman, medieval and more recent importance.
The Dorchester area has been inhabited since Neolithic times, c4000BC, with settlements based around what later became the Iron Age hillfort of Maiden Castle to the southwest of the town. When the Romans arrived in AD70 they laid out what is now the town of Dorchester, which they called Durnovaria, in their usual cruciform manner, surrounded by a wall.
The basic structure of the town remains unchanged. Today, pleasant avenues lined with lime, chestnut and sycamore trees trace the town walls. Known as The Walks, the avenues were laid down in the 18th century and to wander along them is an enjoyable way to get a feel for the town. As you explore, it may strike you that Dorchester does not look as old as you may expect. That is because much of medieval Dorchester was lost in five devastating fires between 1613 and 1775 – though thankfully the rebuilding left streets of handsome 18th-century houses.
Dorchester has a surprisingly long and varied list of museums, some devoted to themes that have little to do with the area, such as the Tutankhamun Exhibition on West Street, a recreation of the treasures, and the Terracotta Warriors Museum on High East Street. Of the town’s museums, two really stand out as worth visiting: the Dorset County Museum and the Keep Military Museum of Devon and Dorset.
The clues pointing to Dorchester’s Roman origins were certainly not lost on Thomas Hardy. In his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy based the fictional town on Dorchester, which he knew well, being born and raised in the area. His description of Casterbridge may as easily have been a description of Dorchester: ‘Casterbridge announced old Rome in every street, alley and precinct. It looked Roman, bespoke the art of Rome, concealed the dead men of Rome.’
Dorchester’s Roman origins are even more evident today than they were in Hardy’s time, for Hardy would not have seen the most striking proof of Roman occupation, the Roman Town House. The house, which dates from the 4th century, was found in 1937 during the building of a new county hall and is the only fully exposed Roman townhouse in the country.
Dorchester’s High Street is inviting, brimming with character, points of interest and some decent shops. On the south side of High West Street are the only timber-framed buildings surviving in anything like their original state.
The black-and-white building at 6 High West Street is where Judge Jeffreys (‘The Hanging Judge’) lodged during the trials of those who took part in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685. The trials, known as the Bloody Assizes, were held in the Oak Room (now a tea room) of the Antelope Hotel. Judge Jeffreys, whose deadly zero-tolerance policy made him highly unpopular, is said to have had a secret passage leading there from his lodgings.