What to do in south Dorset, from visiting castles to coastal walks

Castles, cottages and bracing coastal walks await on an escape to this literary landscape.

Ruins of the 11th-century Corfe Castle, which draw over 250,000 visitors a year.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Pat Riddell
Published 9 Jan 2023, 09:00 GMT

It’s not hard to see why the writer Thomas Hardy was so inspired by his home county of Dorset. The rolling hills, winding rivers and market towns of south Dorset formed the lyrical landscapes of his fictional Wessex, and travellers today will find much the same charm that inspired some of his best-known works, along with country pubs, hiking trails through ancient landscapes and crumbling castles.

The coast, too, is a large part of the county’s southern stretch: running from the Isle of Portland all the way to Poole Harbour, this largely undeveloped shoreline is dominated by rugged cliffs, sandy beaches and quiet bays. It forms the eastern end of the Jurassic Coast — 95 miles long and etched with millions of years of history, offering prehistoric remains and fossils in abundance; the dinosaur footprints at Spyway are a highlight, while the limestone arch of Durdle Door is one of the most photographed landmarks in the county — if not the country.

What to do

Above the cliffs of Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove, you’ll find 17th-century Lulworth Castle & Park — originally built as a hunting lodge, for centuries it’s been the family seat of the Weld family, the current owners. Explore its rambling parkland and woodland walks and stop for a slice of cake at the Castle Tearoom. 

Further inland, closer to Dorchester, is Maiden Castle, one of the largest Iron Age hillforts in Europe, dating as far back as 3500 BC. Equivalent in size to 50 football pitches, its chalk paths offer ample opportunity for bracing countryside walks. 

For the traditional Victorian seaside experience, Swanage remains a popular town with a steam railway, pier and family-friendly beach, while anyone with an interest in the county’s military history should head for the Tank Museum at Bovington Camp, where around 300 armoured vehicles from around the world are on display. 

Where to eat

Village pubs, either by the coast or in the country, offer the best way to experience south Dorset’s culinary offering, straight from the sea or farm. The ever-popular Sailor’s Return, in Chaldon Herring, is a thatched traditional pub just a few miles from the coast that features local ales and the likes of pork and chorizo burgers and seafood pie.

For traditional fish and chips, The Fish Plaice, in Swanage, is particularly good quality, with cod and haddock from named fishing vessels and each day’s variety of potato on display. 

We like

Built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, Corfe Castle has been largely in ruins since the English Civil War, but it remains one of the county’s best-loved landmarks. Over 250,000 people a year visit the site, so expect busy car parks and queues just to drive through the pretty village the castle looms over. Arrive early to beat the crowds and head up to West Hill or East Hill for the classic misty morning photograph that’s graced countless postcards.

Don’t miss

While the entire South West Coast Path runs for a gruelling 630 miles, the dramatic south Dorset stretch — between Weymouth and South Haven Point, at the mouth of Poole Harbour — offers plenty of shorter, more manageable hikes. Check out the South West Coast Path’s website for advice on day walks and trail runs, as well as the best spots to eat and drink. 

Where to stay

The Silverlake eco-estate, which opened in 2017, comprises three ‘villages’ of houses constructed around lakes formed from a former quarry. The energy-efficient luxury properties are available as holiday lets and there’s a range of activities on offer — including watersports, cycling, tennis and walking — as well as a restaurant, spa and gym all set in hundreds of acres of nature reserve. Habitat Escapes offers the self-catering Sunbird Cottage at Silverlake, starting from £539 for three nights, sleeping up to six.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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