For those who don’t know, Dorset is a county of South West England. I have spent so much time there I consider this part of the world as my second home. Having family there, when I was growing up, we used to visit frequently (every couple of years) and my English born dad used to drag, I mean, drive, me and my sister around Dorset to show us all the local sights and landmarks that he used to roam around in his youth. Now as a parent and married to another Dorset native, I do the same with our kids.
These are my top ten favourite places to visit in Dorset.
1. Corfe Castle
This place has it all – a cute village with pubs, teahouses, shops, views and best of all, a grand old castle in ruins that you can explore and climb (the hill, not the ruins – the Trust won’t appreciate you climbing on the ruins). I don’t think there has ever been a trip back to England when I have not visited my number 1 favourite place, it’s now become a tradition for our family.
A couple of interesting facts: (1) Built by William the Conquerer around AD 1090 and used by many kings and queens including Henry 1, it stood until 1645 when it was blown up during civil war; and (2) you might notice all the little houses in the village look the same and are built from the same local Purbeck stone. Rumour has it that some of the stone may have come from the castle itself after it was destroyed.
The castle is open mostly all year round, although opening hours are shorter in the winter months. The views from the top across the purbecks and local village are spectacular and on a clear day you can see for miles. If you’re lucky, you may even see the local steam train go past.
2. Lulworth Cove & Durdle Door
At Lulworth you will find a tiny cove with a pebbled beach which smugglers used to access in 18th century times to bring their goods ashore. There’s a small pub and some tearooms nearby (of course) and you can also walk up over the hill and on a clear day admire views up and down the Jurassic coastline.
On the other side of the hill as you climb back down a steep path you will eventually find Durdle Door, a natural limestone arch, along with another beach, only accessible from the holiday caravan park nearby.
It’s not an easy walk and is quite a steep hill up and down, almost a couple of kilometers. So if you’re not fit, take it easy and bring some water, especially if you are there on a hot summer day. The climate is kinder in summer, especially if you are heading over the hill to see Durdle Door and the views but in the warmer weather and summer holidays be prepared for crowds on the cove side and difficulty with parking.
You can of course visit any time of year. It’s much quieter in winter and if there’s a misty, cold air, the cove has an eerie, mysterious atmosphere which is hard to describe. If you plan to climb the hill during winter you will need warm clothes as the wind up the cliffs is bitterly cold.
3. Bournemouth Town Centre, Pier and gardens
I confess I’m a shopaholic and usually do at least one trip around the Bournemouth town centre to check out how the stores have changed from my last visit. I especially like Christmas time, with all the festive lights. Also, this time of year they usually set up a German beer garden in the Square and sometimes there’s live entertainment on a nearby stage.
No matter what time of year, I also like to stroll through the gardens down to the Pier to check out the seaside. The dedication of the local surfers out there in all conditions amazes me. I love the colourful beach huts too – a site we don’t have in Sydney, Australia. The gardens are always worth a look, even when the flowers aren’t in bloom, as there is usually some nice lighting displays and activities set up for kids, like mini-golf and you are sure to come across some cheeky squirrels.
4. Poole Quay and old town
I can’t recall visiting here as a child but certainly spent a lot of time here in my adulthood. Steve’s family are from Hamworthy, just the other side of the Poole Quay bridge and I also lived in Hamworthy for a few years. Poole town is a mixture of old and new. My favourite part is the old section at the Quay, with its historic pubs, buildings and cobbled, narrow streets. Apparently the smugglers used to get their goods into the pubs through tunnels accessible from their boats when the tide was low. I wonder if the tunnels are still there now?
I like taking a stroll around the old town and seeing the old buildings, like Customs House, Poole Pottery (now closed) and the old pubs and old Poole lifting bridge. The Quay is also home to Sunseeker so you can usually spot some nice yachts in the area (some under construction) and this is also the place to pick up a boat tour around Poole Harbour or ferry across to Brownsea Island.
Sadly, the last few years the town hasn’t faired too well from the recession and there are quite a few shop vacancies. Wintertime is a little gloomy, as its quieter. In summer there is a bit more vibe around the Quay partly due to visiting tourists and mooring boats & yachts. There is also a motorcycle meet every Tuesday evening during summer which has become very popular in recent years, so much so they are talking about scaling it back because too many bikes come (up to 2000), with limited parking and marshalls.
5. Sandbanks ferry to Studland and Swanage
We usually drive a round trip, from Poole, past Upton, through Wareham, and head to the Bankes Arms at Studland for some lunch. In winter it’s a quiet pub with a cosy fireplace and typical pub food. In summer on a nice sunny day, the beer garden across the road is also welcoming with its sea views.
If you have the time & inclination, there is walking track near the Bankes Arms. It is about a mile long (30 minutes) to Old Harry Rocks. Beware on a windy day though or if you are afraid of heights. The cliff tops offer a long drop down and there are no fences! But the views are amazing! You can keep walking much further, the coastal walk goes all the way to Swanage.
Sometimes we swing by Swanage (in the car) while in the area. You can get some fish & chips and sit on the pier or if it’s cold, park up next to the beach and from the warmth of your car watch the locals walking and playing with their dogs along the beach.
Then we drive back to Studland and take the car on the chain ferry across the harbour opening to Sandbanks, one of the most expensive suburbs in the world, before driving back to Poole. During the summer months, the ferry and nearby roads get very clogged and busy with holidaymakers and you may have to wait a while for the ferry. We prefer to do this drive in the winter months for that reason.
6. Lyme Regis
The last couple of times we visited Lyme Regis was in winter. Once there was snow on the ground and it was a little nerve-wracking driving down the hill towards the village but beautiful scenery across the fields and countryside on the drive there. It was also quite strange seeing snow on the beach. We always go for a walk on the Cobb and look for fossils along the beach. The town is famous for being on the Jurassic Coast and a location where many important fossils and dinosaur remains have been discovered.
We also like to find a cafe or pub for a meal or a hot drink. We can recommend the Harbour Inn opposite the Cobb.
In the town centre by the water, there’s a Dinosaur/fossil museum which the kids love. It’s in a small beautiful old building and offers a lot to see, including many fossils and historic items from the area, as well as a steep winding stair case up to the old bell tower. Entry costs GBP4.95 for adults and it’s free for children under 18 – but check their opening times during winter – one time we drove all the way there (from Poole) and disappointingly found the museum was closed that day. Some nice little shops and pubs are also found in the village. We came across an old fashioned sweet shop time and bought lots of fudge and traditional sweets for the hour long drive back to Poole.
7. Cerne Abbas Giant
Cerne Abbas is a village just north of Dorchester off the A352. The village has a lovely abbey and a few pubs, tearooms and shops but the Giant is the real attraction. The Giant is an ancient chalk figure carved out into the steep sloping hillside above the village. Be prepared with some explanations if you have young children with you!
8. Kingston Lacy house
I haven’t been here for many years and plan to take the children when we go back to England next time. Now they are older I think they may find more enjoyment and interest in visiting this historic country mansion, which was once home to the Bankes family.
Situated in Wimborne Minster in the Dorset countryside, this elegant house made history in 1986 as the most generous bequest the National Trust had ever received. It was from the late Ralph Bankes, the last in his family’s line, the same family that owned Corfe Castle which was also left to the National Trust.
Full of history, artworks and treasures, including one of the largest privately owned Egyptian collections in the UK, this is a great place to visit on a rainy day (and let’s face it, England has a few of those) but even better on a beautiful day as you can wander around and appreciate the expansive grounds and sculptured gardens.
It is advisable to check their website for opening hours and book tickets in advance to avoid disappointment.
Steve always reminds me this is the place of the Hovis television ad from the 1970’s. Of course, not growing up in England I’m not sure what he means but it is a gorgeous village with lots of surrounding rolling hills and some beautiful countryside. It lies west of Salisbury not far from the Wiltshire border and is situated on a hill top overlooking Blackmore Vale. Its village has lovely shops to browse and a steep cobbled street. If you are in the area or just on your way somewhere nearby it is worth taking a detour here and stopping for an hour or two.
10. Adventure Wonderland
Ok so this isn’t really my favourite place but the kids loved it. In winter the amusement park is closed but at Christmas time their indoor playground is open and they have a Santa’s grotto (you need to book grotto tickets in advance). Sadly, the kids are getting a bit too old to enjoy this. Come summertime, the park is alive, with roller coasters and other themed scary rides and some not-so-scary more aimed for younger children. When we were there they had pony rides (though, one dropped & rolled my daughter off – watch video) and another enclosure with cute bunnies and little animals for your children to pet in their laps. There is also a fantastic ‘Alice in Wonderland’ maze to get lost in (believe me, we almost did get lost!)
Adventure Wonderland is not too far from Bournemouth’s Hurn airport and is a great day out if you are with children.
But wait there’s more….
There are so many more places to visit in Dorset: like Monkey World, Tank Museum, Portland Bill, Chesil Beach, Weymouth Harbour and white horse, Sherborne Castle and Abbey, Farmer Palmer’s Farm Park, Christchurch Priory, Upton Country Park, Hardy’s Cottage and much more. I’d also like to include the New Forest near the top of my list but technically this is not Dorset as most of the Forest is situated in Hampshire. If you are looking for more information on activities or places to visit, try the following websites: