Things To Do In Dorset England When Visiting the UK
Dorset is an English county which will always have a special place in my heart. In addition to the wide choice of things to do in Dorset throughout the year, my father’s family have lived in this beautiful part of southwest England for generations. Dorset travel has been a big feature of my upbringing and I have been a frequent visitor here throughout my childhood and adult life.
A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to introduce Olivier to some of my favourite parts of Dorset over the space of one weekend. In this blog post, I want to share where we went and what we did and highlight other must-see places to visit in Dorset.
Where Is Dorset, England?
Dorset is a county in the southwest of England which is found along the English Channel coast. It borders the neighbouring counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Somerset and Devon and is an ideal gateway to the southwestern corner of England. Once you’ve finished visiting Dorset, be sure to continue exploring the English Channel coast to discover the delights of Devon and Cornwall.
How To Get To Dorset, England?
Bournemouth International Airport is the closest international airport and is in the seaside town of Bournemouth in Dorset. Alternatively, London Gatwick Airport is roughly a 2 ¼ hour drive away from Dorset via the M25, M3 and M27. From London Heathrow, it’s an approximate 2-hour drive. If you are a visitor from the US, it is most likely that you will land at either London Gatwick Airport or London Heathrow Airport. So, if you’re planning a trip to England soon, check out the best flight prices here
Dorset is also easily accessible by road using a combination of Motorways and main A roads. We live about 20-minutes from London Gatwick Airport and drive to Dorset on a regular basis via the M27. If you’re visiting from another country, it’s easy to hire a car at both London Gatwick Airport and London Heathrow Airport. Both are extremely well served by all the major car rental companies and you can click here to find the best deals on renting a car for your trip.
Best of Dorset in Video
Why Visit Dorset?
In my experience, Dorset has a lot to offer as a travel destination, whether you are a tourist visiting the United Kingdom from around the world or whether you are simply looking to discover new places to explore in England. For many years, I have visited Dorset as a child and, in later life, I have continued to bring my own children here. I know that Dorset also has something for everyone, whatever your age and whether you are travelling alone, as a couple or with children.
Stunning Scenery of the Jurassic Coast
Firstly, Dorset’s scenery offers stunning contrasts from the rugged, historic Jurassic coastline with quaint seafront towns to the rolling green countryside which provided the rural Wessex setting for Thomas Hardy’s famous novels. The English county of Dorset is in fact known as Hardy country and many of the towns and villages feature in his writing, including Dorchester which was referred to as Casterbridge in his book written in 1886, ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’.
130 years’ later, Dorset continues to inspire writers, artists and film-makers. This stunning county has provided the backdrop for many recent movies and TV programmes such as the international war blockbuster, ‘Dunkirk’, and the popular British police drama, ‘Broadchurch’. Read on to find out more about other famous film locations found in Dorset.
The Dorset beaches are also beautiful and, arguably the best Dorset beach is Weymouth Beach or Weymouth Sands. Maybe, I’m a little biased because this is where my relations live! However, the beach is a glorious sweep of fine, golden sand which is ideal for enjoying an English summer’s day and you can swim safely in the shallow waters protected by the bay.
Another reason for visiting Dorset is that it is steeped in history. The geological formations and fossils of the Jurassic coast Dorset are proof of its history, including Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door and Chesil Beach to name a few. In addition to its interesting geology, there are also many historical sites to explore in Dorset, including Maiden Castle near Dorchester which is the largest Iron-Age hill fort in Europe. Close by at Cerne Abbas is also one of the UK’s best-known chalk hill figures, the Cerne Abbas Giant. Who can also resist discovering Dorset’s charming thatched roofs in curiously named places such as Piddlehinton, Tincleton or Poxwell or savouring a traditional Dorset tea in quaint tea rooms decorated with vintage bunting and fairy lights?
Things to Do in Dorset
Lastly, Dorset is packed full of interesting and fun things to do and see on your vacation. Finding days out in Dorset will never be hard and, as I’ve said, there is something for everyone. There are so many things to keep you entertained in this county from family attractions to historical sites, from coastal and countryside walks bursting with nature to bustling towns and villages, from geological formations to subtropical gardens. Deciding to visit Dorset won’t disappoint!
Places To Visit in Dorset
Now that you’ve decided to visit Dorset, how are you going to spend your time here? My aim is to give you plenty of options to choose from so that you can tailor make your own itinerary depending on the amount of time you have to spend in this area. As a guide, I’m going to start by outlining the itinerary Olivier and I followed over one short weekend.
As our base for the weekend, Olivier and I chose to stay at the Brace of Pheasants in the tiny hamlet of Plush which was about 15 minutes’ north of the market town of Dorchester. The Brace of Pheasants is a picturesque pub with thatched roof and low beams. Our room was warm and cosy and was ideal for a quiet getaway in the middle of nowhere. All the pub staff were very welcoming and were very helpful. The pub has also won The Good Pub Guide County Dining Pub Award. If you are looking to try out traditional British food, the restaurant menu featured lots of local game (eg. Wood Pigeon and Pheasant) and a hearty, traditional English breakfast was included in the cost of the overnight stay. We got a very good price through Booking.com.
However, if you are looking to stay in Dorset for longer, perhaps renting a cottage is for you. For Dorset lettings, check out the beautiful properties available at Dorset Hideaways for your stay which feature Dorset coastal cottages, Dorset holiday cottages by the sea and dog friendly cottages Dorset. Alternatively, if you are looking for a one-stop-shop to get the best deal on your flights, car rental and accommodation in Dorset, Expedia is always a good option.
The Cerne Giant, Cerne Abbas
To the west of Plush is the small village of Cerne Abbas. The main draw here is the mysterious chalk figure which is carved into the Dorset Downs above the village. Locals, including my 96-year old Grandmother, believe that the 180ft naked Cerne Giant is an ancient fertility symbol. Legend has it that local people lay on the 11m long phallus to aid conception.
The best view of the giant is from the Cerne Abbas Giant Viewpoint on the A352. After taking some photographs here, we parked the car near the Village Hall and followed the signposts up to the giant. It was a lovely walk to the top of the hill and the view of the Cerne Valley (part of the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) was breath-taking. Be warned that the climb is fairly steep with well-trodden foot holes and the giant is fenced off by the National Trust to protect this ancient landmark.
Things To Do In Portland, Dorset
Portland is always a favourite place of mine to visit when visiting family. It forms part of the World Heritage Site of the Dorset and East Devon coast and is a wild, rugged and harsh island which is a contrast to other parts of Dorset. It’s a unique place made of limestone which is connected to the mainland by the famous pebble banks of Chesil Beach. Thomas Hardy described Portland as ‘the peninsular carved by Time out of a single stone’. Indeed, Portland stone quarried from the island will leave a long-lasting legacy around the world as it was used to build St Paul’s Cathedral and parts of Buckingham Palace in London and the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.
To visit Portland, head south from Cerne Abbas towards Weymouth and take the road through Wyke Regis across the Fleet Lagoon to Portland (A354). Follow the road and stop at the Portland Heights Viewpoint. From here, there is an unrivalled view of Chesil Beach and Portland Harbour which is one of the largest man-made harbours in the world. The harbour played an important role in the First and Second World Wars as a Royal Navy Base. Most recently, the harbour was home to sailing events hosted by the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy during the London 2012 Olympics. At the Portland Heights Viewpoint, you will find a stunning Portland stone structure of the Olympic Rings built to celebrate the 2012 Olympic Games.
If you are looking for somewhere to swim and relax on your day out, Church Ope Cove is a small, secluded beach on the eastern side of Portland. To access the beach, you must climb down steps down the steep cliff. It’s a great place for a picnic on a summer’s day. As a child, I loved to explore the rockpools here when the tide went out. In the past, the beach was a susceptible landing point for enemy raiders, including the Vikings. Fortunately, the only raiders nowadays will be seagulls seeking out your leftover picnic!
One of the main things to visit on Portland is the red and white lighthouse and Pulpit Rock at Portland Bill. The waters around Portland Bill are extremely dangerous owing to its rugged coastline and a tidal race known as the Portland Race caused by clashing tides. The lighthouse at Portland Bill has long warned sailors of these dangers. Enjoy clambering over the exposed rocky surface leading to Pulpit Rock. Known as ‘Snail Shore’, the surface contains snail, oyster and mollusc shells from the Jurassic seabed millions of years’ ago. Pulpit Rock is a stack of rock detached from Portland Bill with a large slab of rock leaning against it. It’s a much-photographed feature and is known as Pulpit Rock because it looks like an open bible leaning on a pulpit. Check it out and see what you think.
If you’re hungry after the bracing sea air at Portland Bill, head to the village of Chiswell at the base of Portland where you will find an 18th Century pub called The Cove House Inn. It’s a popular place to eat with the locals because the pub serves local freshly caught fish, so it’s best to book in advance. The Portland Crab linguine was excellent. What’s more, the pub is situated right on the esplanade of Chesil Beach and you get a great view of the Portland cliffs from the pub and tables outside.
Things To Do In Weymouth, Dorset
Weymouth is a popular seaside town in Dorset with a wide-sweeping golden sandy beach nestled in a bay with safe, shallow waters. The beach is regularly recognised as one of the top 10 beach destinations in Europe. The seafront is lined with Georgian houses and has a broad esplanade which leads to the Old Harbour. If the weather is wet, the town has a large shopping area and a covered arcade area for kids and adults alike with some fairground rides.
Make sure you take a stroll around Weymouth’s Old Harbour which is lined with plenty of pubs and restaurants. As you stroll along the harbour, you are bound to see working fishing boats coming back with their catches and can admire the leisure boats which are moored here. Did you know that film footage for ‘Dunkirk’ was filmed in the Old Harbour? Perhaps you will recognise scenes from the beginning of the film. If you are in the area for a while, you could also take a ferry from the end of the harbour quay to northern France or the Channel Islands. Alternatively, you could just cross from one side of the harbour to the other on the old ferry boat which has been running for over 60 years! This was always a favourite treat for me when I was a child! The fare is cheap, but the excitement of crossing the harbour and dodging big boats in a small rowing boat was always a simple thrill. Once you are on the other side of the harbour, you can visit the Nothe Fort which was built by the Victorians to protect Portland Harbour. The fort is in excellent condition and is filled with military displays. You can also explore underground passageways and admire the Jurassic Coast from a completely different vantage point.
From Weymouth’s esplanade, will can’t fail to miss the Jurassic Skyline viewing tower which is 53 m (174 ft) high. Once you reach the top, the fully enclosed gondola rotates twice offering you the opportunity to gain a bird’s eye view of the Jurassic Coast, Nothe Fort, Weymouth Harbour and Portland Harbour.
At the far end of the town, a 15-minute walk from the centre, you will find Lodmoor Country Park which covers 350 acres. In addition to play areas, miniature railway and pitch and putt, you will find the Sealife Centre and Sandworld. For about 90 years, sand sculptures have been a feature of Weymouth Beach. As a little girl, I used to stare and wonder at the marvels that were created in sand by Fred Durrington. Today, his grandson, Mark Anderson, still creates sand sculptures on the original site on Weymouth Sands, but he has also opened Sandworld where he creates larger pieces of sand art and commissions other sand sculptors. At first, we thought Sandworld may be for kids, but we paid our admission fee and enjoyed walking around the creations on display. The attention to detail and size of the sculptures is impressive and the Game of Thrones sculpture was my favourite. We couldn’t leave without having a go at our own sand creations by following Mark’s instructions in the enormous sand pit! It’s not easy!
If you enjoy nature, make sure you visit Radipole Lake which is an RSPB nature reserve nestled in the centre of Weymouth. Perhaps surprisingly, given its urban location, Radipole Lake is home to many Dorset birds including Bearded Tits, Kingfishers, Cetti’s Warblers and other water-dwelling animals like otters and water voles. There is a visitor centre and you can try your hand at pond dipping and watch nest cams at certain times of the year. You can also follow a trail around Radipole Lake which has plenty of seats along the route and firm flat paths suitable for mobility scooters and pushchairs.
What To Eat In Dorset
Once you’ve finished at the nature reserve, you might need some Dorset tea and cake. If you are heading out of Weymouth on the Dorchester road, take a small detour and visit the small village of Upwey. Here you will find quaint stone houses and The Wishing Well Tea Rooms and Water Gardens. This vintage tea room is adorned with bunting and fairy lights and serves great cake. Behind the tea room is a hidden ornamental garden. Running along the back of the garden is a freshwater natural spring and wishing well. For many years, visitors took part in a ‘wishing ritual’ of sipping well water from a glass and then throwing the rest of the well water backwards whilst making a wish. Have a go! Who knows? Your wish may come true. The spring is also said to have healing properties, especially for sore eyes, and George III is reputed to have been a regular visitor. Local legend has it that the gold cup he used to drink from the spring later became the Ascot Gold Cup!
Best Sunday Roast
If you are looking for a traditional English Sunday Roast, head out of Weymouth on the B3155 and A353 and visit the tiny village of Sutton Poyntz. Head to the centre of the old village (Sutton Road North), the birthplace of my Great Grandmother, and you will find Sutton Mill which runs alongside a stream. Behind the stream and duck pond is an old row of thatched cottages and opposite there is a pub called the Springhead which offers a delicious Sunday carvery. Take your pick from roast cuts of beef, pork, turkey and gammon with all the trimmings including roast potatoes and parsnips. From the pub car park, you can get a good view of another chalk hill figure – the Osmington White Horse which is an in image of George III riding out of Weymouth on his grey charger dating back to 1808.
In this post, I have concentrated on the points of interest in an around Weymouth and Portland because this is where my paternal family lives and I have spent many years visiting this area. However, there are so many other attractions and things to see and do in Dorset.
Other Dorset Attractions
To the north of Weymouth, on the outskirts of the market town of Dorchester, you will find the English Heritage site of Maiden Castle which is an Iron Age hill fort.
To the west of Weymouth, Abbotsbury Sub-Tropical Gardens, Abbotsbury Swannery and Abbotsbury Children’s Farm are all great days out. Further west is the attractive and lively market town of Bridport and West Bay Dorset which is known as the Golden Gateway to the Jurassic Coast and the historic resort of Lyme Regis.
Jurassic Coast At Its Best - Durdle Door, Lulworth Cove, Swanage and Corfe Castle
To the east of Weymouth, the Jurassic Coast is arguably at its best. One of the most iconic landmarks of this coast is the limestone arch known as Durdle Door. Further east is the horseshoe bay of Lulworth Cove with beautiful blue waters and a white pebble beach. On the Isle of Purbeck, the coastal town of Swanage Dorset is the most easterly town on the Jurassic Coast and is a popular destination owing to its relaxed seaside charm compared to the bustle of nearby Poole and Bournemouth. Swanage Bay and beach are family friendly with gently sloping, golden sand and clear unpolluted water. Other things to do in Swanage include a visit to the white chalk stacks called Old Harry Rocks which are another iconic landmark of the Jurassic Coast. Swanage also has a steam railway and you can take a 6-mile journey through beautiful scenery which includes the ruins of Corfe Castle. Who can resist the charm of a steam train? At the end of the line, Corfe Castle is a National Trust property which was once a Saxon stronghold, Norman fortress, a royal palace and a family home. Even though the castle is now in ruins, it is still a striking structure and it’s fun to climb the steep mound, wander round the ruins and view the surrounding countryside from up high.
Bovington Tank Museum, Blue Pool and Monkey World
Away from the coast, but still to the east of Weymouth, you will also find Bovington Tank Museum outside of the village of Wool Dorset. The Tank Museum Dorset boasts the world’s largest collection of tanks and tells the story of armoured warfare from World War I to the present day. For wildlife and conservation fans, Monkey World Dorset is a popular ape rescue centre situated near Wareham. Also close to Wareham, is the Blue Pool Dorset at Furzebrook. This is a peaceful beauty spot set in 25 acres of English woodland, heath and gorse full of wildlife. The pool is set in a deep clay bowl which is reached by steps. From the top or from the water’s edge, you will see that the pool constantly changes colour from blue to green to turquoise because the fine clay suspensions in the water diffract the light. There are two different trails depending on your mobility and benches along the routes.
By now, I hope I have persuaded you to visit Dorset but if you need another reason to visit this beautiful county, perhaps I can tempt you with the fact that many films have been filmed on location in Dorset. Indeed, Hollywood has long had a love affair with Dorset as the stunning scenery and historic buildings are a perfect backdrop for movies.
Things To See In Dorset Film Locations
As mentioned at the start of my post, scenes for the wartime blockbuster ‘Dunkirk’ were filmed in Weymouth Harbour and Swanage Railway.
Nanny McPhee Movie
The beach at Durdle Door featured in the film ‘Nanny McPhee’ starring Emma Thompson and Colin Firth.
On Chesil Beach Movie
The film adaptation of Ian McKewan’s book ‘On Chesil Beach’ was filmed on the 17-mile shingle spit of the same name which stretches from Portland to West Bay.
Broadchurch TV Show
West Bay was also the location for some of the scenes filmed for the popular British TV series ‘Broadchurch’ which starred David Tennant and Olivia Coleman.
Harbour Lights TV Show
Another TV series, ‘Harbour Lights’, featuring Nick Berry was also filmed in West Bay back in the late ‘90s.
World War Z movie
Lulworth Cove served as the film location of a refugee station in Nova Scotia in the zombie apocalypse film, ‘World War Z’, where Brad Pitt was taken by boat to meet his family on the beach.
A French Lieutenant’s Woman Movie
Furthermore, the classic film, ‘A French Lieutenant’s Woman’, starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons was filmed in Lyme Regis. In one unforgettable scene, Meryl Streep stands in her hooded cape at the end of The Cobb looking out to sea.
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince Movie
Last but not least, the swampy reed beds at Abbotsbury Swannery served as the entrance to the Weasley family home in ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’..