Dorset - When and where to visit


Suggested places to base yourself
Getting there and around

Suggested places to base yourself

Gold Hill Shaftesbury Dorset England by ian woolcock, ShutterstockGold Hill is an undisputed Dorset icon © ian woolcock, Shutterstock 

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.

Wimborne Minster

An appealing riverside town close to the National Trust Kingston Lacy Estate, Cranborne Chase and Poole Harbour.

Christchurch

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.

Poole Harbour

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.

Dorchester

Dorset’s historic county town lies at the heart of Thomas Hardy country near Maiden Castle, England’s largest Iron Age hillfort.

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.

Lyme Regis

An ancient seaside town at the heart of the Jurassic Coast and prime fossil-hunting territory.

Cerne Abbas

A tiny village showcasing a jumble of architectural styles, while naked and proud on a nearby hillside is the iconic Giant chalk carving.

Sherborne

Two castles, an abbey and an historic town centre perfect for pottering huddle at the edge of the Blackmore Vale.

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Getting there and around

Swanage Railways Steam Gala Dorset England UK by i4lcocl2 ShutterstockSwanage Railway is one of the county's finest steam railways © i4lcocl2m, Shutterstock

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 Coaster bus is handy; it runs regularly along the coastline between Axminster and Poole, and stops at all the key places en route. 

Walking

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.

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