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Dorchester & the Piddle & Frome Valleys - A view from our expert author
Strings of villages huddle along the River Frome © SusaZoom, Shutterstock
At the heart of Dorset is a captivating landscape of rolling chalk downland, wooded hills and river valleys. The area is sparsely populated, its chalk hills with their short springy grass being relatively inhospitable farmland compared with the fertile, neighbouring Blackmore Vale. Visitors tend to bypass the area in favour of the Dorset coast, yet it has much to offer those who want to slow down and really get to know what lies at the centre of the county.
Strings of villages huddle in clusters along the river valleys, like those along the River Frome and the evocatively named River Piddle. In the east the Frome and Piddle valleys lead into water meadows and from there to an area of heathland, which spreads towards the Isle of Purbeck and Poole Harbour. The chalk hills hold a large water table, which means there are many seasonal rivers that flow depending on the level of the water. The area has 15 villages with names prefixed by ‘Winterborne’, indicating they lie on a stream which only runs in winter.
Cerne Abbas, where the chalk carving of a naked, club-wielding, 180-foot giant dominates the landscape.
Dorchester, the county town, and the surrounding area have a strong sense of history, having been settled since around 4,000BC. Dorchester still bears the imprint of Roman occupation, including the only fully exposed and best-preserved Roman town house in Britain. It also has arguably the most comprehensive museum in Dorset, the Dorset County Museum.
Thomas Hardy's cottage is a Dorchester icon © DavidYoung, Shutterstock
Just outside Dorchester is Maiden Castle, the largest Iron Age hillfort in Britain. It is one of several prehistoric sites in this area, along with Maumbury Rings and Badbury Rings. Dorset’s past inhabitants have left their mark all over this part of the county. It seems chalk hills do have their uses – you can make enormous carvings in them which last for centuries and glisten white for all to see. That is precisely what someone (no-one knows quite who or when) has done at Cerne Abbas, where the chalk carving of a naked, club-wielding, 180-foot giant dominates the landscape.
Dorchester and the surrounding countryside inspired one of Dorset’s most famous sons, author Thomas Hardy, who was born in a tiny hamlet near Dorchester in 1840 and later moved into the town. In this part of the county are innumerable reminders of Hardy’s work and thankfully much of the landscape has changed little since his day. The various sites for aficionados to visit include the cottage where he was born.