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Dorset - When and where to visit
The places listed below make ideal bases for exploring Dorset.
The Blackmore Vale
An unspoilt agricultural area ideal for farm stays, near Shaftesbury with its abbey ruins and photogenic Gold Hill.
An appealing riverside town close to the National Trust Kingston Lacy Estate, Cranborne Chase and Poole Harbour.
Take a boat up the River Stour, and stride out across the wild Hengistbury Head from this delightful town with its magnificent medieval priory church.
Beach polo in summer on Sandbanks, one of Britain’s finest stretches of sand, and Brownsea Island – a boat ride from Poole.
Isle of Purbeck
Stroll the peninsula’s heaths, enjoy an exhilarating horseride along Studland Beach, soak up the atmosphere of ruined Corfe Castle and take a nostalgic trip on the Swanage Railway.
Dorset’s historic county town lies at the heart of Thomas Hardy country near Maiden Castle, England’s largest Iron Age hillfort.
Abbotsbury is just one of the many villages you can base yourself in Dorset © David Hughes, Shutterstock
The Bride Valley
Idyllic rolling hills, woodland and thatched villages on the River Bride’s route to the sea; visit charming Abbotsbury and extraordinary Chesil Beach.
An ancient seaside town at the heart of the Jurassic Coast and prime fossil-hunting territory.
A tiny village showcasing a jumble of architectural styles, while naked and proud on a nearby hillside is the iconic Giant chalk carving.
Two castles, an abbey and an historic town centre perfect for pottering huddle at the edge of the Blackmore Vale.
For some parts of Dorset car-free is not feasible as public transport is limited and the little-known, distinctive places I have tried to highlight are often, by their nature, out of the way and harder to reach than the usual tourist haunts. General travel information is available at Visit Dorset, and Traveline is useful for journey planning; bus timetables are online at Dorset For You. Bournemouth International Airport links Dorset to other domestic and European airports, while ferries operate between Poole and Cherbourg. Coaches and trains connect Dorset to other English cities. South West Trains is the main rail operator servicing the area, with regular trains from London Waterloo to Gillingham, Sherborne, Dorchester, Axminster (for Lyme Regis), Weymouth, Poole and Bournemouth. Local buses can be helpful, although services are limited in rural areas and may only operate on certain days of the week; timetables and Dorset-wide maps are available at Dorset For You and the tourist information centres in each area. The Jurassic CoastLinX53 bus is handy; it runs every two hours along the coastline between Exeter and Poole, and stops at all the key places en route. Getting the bus means you can safely look out of the window and admire the views of the coast, rather than trying to do so while driving.
Swanage Railway is one of the county's finest steam railways © i4lcocl2m, Shutterstock
Information on walking is available at tourist information centres and online at Dorset For You from where you can download guides to some of the most popular trails, including the Wessex Ridgeway and the Stour Valley Way. The standout piece in Dorset’s repertoire of walks is the hugely popular South West Coast Path, which combines heritage, flora, fauna, geology and spectacular coastal scenery. The UK’s longest national trail, it runs for 630 miles from Minehead in Somerset to Poole in Dorset’s east, tracing the coastlines of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset on the way.
The South West Coast Path website is extremely helpful for planning and its walk-finder tool can help you choose the right route for you. You can download a range of themed walks of varying lengths and levels of difficulty, including information about where to eat and drink en route. The path is easy to find from most coastal towns and villages or from the beach, and is waymarked by an acorn symbol.
Horseriding & cycling
Horseriders and cyclists can feel vulnerable on Dorset’s narrow hedgelined lanes but there are usually plenty of passing places to pull into out of anyone’s way. A network of bridleways provides interesting off-road options and is complemented by the Wessex Ridgeway, the North Dorset Trailway and the Castleman Trailway in the east of the county.
Suggestions for cycling routes and cycle hire are given in each chapter, and suggested horserides and stables are mentioned where applicable. The British Horse Society (BHS) is the best resource for horseriders and provides a list of riding establishments offering trekking, instruction, etc. The BHS and www.dorsetforyou.com provide lists of accommodation where both you and your horse can stay. On a second BHS website you will find suggested rides and more lists of equestrian establishments.
Some Dorset beaches are ideal for memorable horserides along the sand, in particular Studland, and also certain beaches around Christchurch. From the east of the county you can ride into the New Forest, while North Dorset offers excellent riding through woodland and open countryside, including in remarkable spots like the Iron Age hillfort on Hod Hill.
In recent years electric bikes have become all the rage in Dorset. Jurassic Electric offers guided electric bike tours of the south and west of the county, and you can also hire an electric bike from them.