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Episode 15: Dorset

Where is Dorset?

In our fifteenth episode, we referred to loads of interesting Cumberland-based things - and promised links and photos, so here they are:

Lyme Regis

Lyme Regis is a pretty seaside resort, boasting beautiful beaches, breathtaking scenery, a fascinating history and picturesque harbour as well as plenty of activities, attractions and a varied programme of events to keep you entertained all year round.

Situated on the world-famous Jurassic Coast, Lyme Regis is the perfect destination for a family holiday by the sea, an active break, a romantic getaway or simply a few days away to relax and recharge!

The Jurassic Coast

The Dorset and East Devon Coast, known as ‘The Jurassic Coast’, lies on the South Coast of England in the United Kingdom. It is a hugely diverse and beautiful landscape underpinned by incredible geology of global importance.

In 2001 the Jurassic Coast was inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for the Outstanding Universal Value of its rocks, fossils, and landforms. It remains England’s only natural World Heritage Site.

The World Heritage Site extends from Orcombe Point in Exmouth, Devon, and continues for 95 miles until Old Harry Rocks, near Swanage in Dorset. Between these two points, the World Heritage Site's boundaries are broadly defined as the average low tide mark to the top of the cliffs, or to the back of the beach where there are no cliffs.

The Jurassic Coast's 95-mile span includes the distinct geographic regions of East Devon, West Dorset, Weymouth & Portland and Purbeck – each containing their own iconic towns and villages, and natural landscapes.


Dorchester is not only Dorset’s county town but also the birthplace of famous author and poet Thomas Hardy.

The town enjoys a rich history dating back as far as the Iron Age and is home to the Roman Town House, the finest example of its kind in Britain.

Dorchester provides the location for many of the county’s leading museums, including the Dorset Museum and the Keep Military Museum.

Dorset Museum has recently undergone a £16.4 million redevelopment and the magnificent museum is now established as the major cultural destination within Dorset - a place for people to connect with 250 million years of Dorset's history.

Corfe Castle

Corfe Castle was built shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066.

Since then, it has seen its fair share of battles, murders and miracles, and been home to kings, knights and a princess.

Corfe Castle’s position, dominating a gap in the Purbeck Hills, means it was probably a fortified site long before the Norman conquest of 1066. But it was William the Conqueror who founded the castle we know today when he made Corfe a key element in a network of fortifications built to cement his power over the defeated English.

The keep at Corfe Castle was built in the early 12th century for King Henry I, William the Conqueror’s son. It was designed to be impressive – and it certainly was.

After six centuries of keeping enemies at bay, an Act of Parliament was passed at Wareham to destroy Corfe Castle. Captain Hughes of Lulworth was given the job of demolishing it.

His sappers dug deep holes packed with gunpowder to bring the towers and ramparts crashing down, resulting in the yawning gaps and crazy angles we see today.

The Dorset Clubmen

The Clubmen were countrymen protesting against the plundering on both sides, Royalist and Parliamentarian, during the English Civil War. They banded together into local associations under the leadership of local gentry and clergy. They took up arms in an attempt to keep the war out of their regions.

They wore white ribands as a sign that they were a neutral third party. Their demands differed according to the association concerned but generally they wanted an end to plundering, and a return to the days before the war – as this meant a return to the King and Anglicanism, the Clubmen were seen to be Royalist in sympathy. However, most of the Clubmen uprisings were against Royalist troops.

It is not clear when or why they became known as Clubmen. Most sources believe that they derived their name because of their rudimentary weapons (clubs, pitchforks, bills and scythes etc). It seems that it was not until after the Civil War, that the word ‘club’ meant an association or collection of people with a common interest. So it appears that the Clubmen gave a new meaning to the word ‘club’.

Monmouth's Rebellion

On the death of King Charles II on 6 February, 1685, his Catholic brother James, Duke of York succeeded to the throne as King James II. Charles II left no legitimate offspring but a large family of illegitimate sons and daughters by his many mistresses, the eldest of these was the Protestant James Scott, Duke of Monmouth.

Monmouth had toured the South West of England in 1680, unlike his reserved uncle James II, the handsome Monmouth cut a popular figure and was enthusiastically received. The Duke planned his ill-fated uprising in Holland, it was to coincide with another rebellion in Scotland which was to be led by the exiled Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll. Monmouth's rebellion had been long-planned but was ill-prepared.

It failed after six weeks, and included the Battle of Sedgemoor - the last pitched battle on open ground between two military forces fought on English soil.

Monmouth's execution was hideously bungled. As he mounted the scaffold at Tower Hill, he handed a gold toothpick-case to one of the witnesses, asking him to give it back to Lady Henrietta, he tipped the headsman with the words, "Here are six guineas for you and do not hack me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard you struck him four or five times; If you strike me twice, I cannot promise you not to stir."

Unfortunately, the executioner took five strokes at his neck and even then the head was not completely severed and had to be finished off with a knife!

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

In 1834, farm workers in west Dorset formed a trade union.

Unions were lawful and growing fast but six leaders of the union were arrested and sentenced to seven years’ transportation for taking an oath of secrecy.

Dorset's Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum tells the harrowing tale of the Martyrs arrest, trial and punishment, leading to the foundation of modern day trade unionism.

Sherborne Old Castle

Originally a fortified 12th-century bishop’s palace, Sherborne Old Castle became the home of Sir Walter Ralegh. Later a powerful Royalist base, it saw fierce fighting during the civil war, Described by Sir Oliver Crowmwell as ‘Malicious and Mischievous’ it finally fell in 1645.

The castle grounds today with its picturesque views across the surrounding countryside is a haven for wildlife and flowers,. Keep an eye out for 'Lady Betty's Pinks' flowering in the grounds during July and August, locally named after Sir Walter Ralegh's wife, Elizabeth

Sherborne New Castle

Sir Walter Raleigh acquired the Old Castle in 1592. At first he tried to modernise it, but then he built a new house in 1594 in the deer park.

In 1600 he added hexagonal turrets to the four corners of his house, topped with heraldic beasts. The house was rendered from the outset, in the latest fashion.

In 1617 the diplomat Sir John Digby acquired Sherborne Castle and he added four wings to Raleigh’s building, giving the house its present H-shape. He copied the style adopted by Raleigh, of square-headed windows, and balustraded roofs with heraldic beasts, and added hexagonal turrets at the end of each wing, so the house looks of one piece.

In the Civil War the Digbys fought for the Royalist cause and the Old Castle was garrisoned and suffered two sieges.

In the eighteenth century later generations of the Digby family modernised the Tudor house, adding Georgian sash windows, panelled doors and white marble fireplaces and filling the house with fine furniture.

Maiden Castle

Maiden Castle in Dorset is one of the largest and most complex Iron Age hillforts in Europe – the size of 50 football pitches.

Its huge multiple ramparts, mostly built in the 1st century BC, once protected hundreds of residents. When it was first built, the gleaming white chalk ramparts would have towered over the surrounding landscape.

Excavations here have revealed much about Maiden Castle’s history, such as a Neolithic enclosure from about 3500 BC and a Roman temple built in the 4th century AD.

The archaeologists also found evidence of a late Iron Age cemetery, where many of those buried had suffered horrific injuries.

Portland Castle

Portland Castle was built in 1539–40 on the orders of Henry VIII.

It was one of two forts equipped with heavy guns to defend the important anchorage of Portland Roads, on the Dorset coast, at a time of national emergency.

It served as a coastal defence until 1816 and saw fighting during the First English Civil War (1642–6).

After 1816 it became a private residence for over 50 years, before returning to military roles, notably during both world wars.

Ruined Abbeys


Cerne Abbey, a Benedictine institution, was one of the largest of the ancient English monasteries, and was founded relatively early, probably around 987, by a nobleman named Aethelmaer, a junior member of the Wessex Royal house.

The abbey flourished for over five centuries, suffering only one major upheaval, early in the 11th century, when it was partly destroyed by Canute from Denmark, though upon obtaining in the English crown (in 1016) he was moved to become a benefactor, and assisted in its rebuilding.

The subsequent years were largely uneventful, until the abbey was closed in 1539 by order of Henry VIII, as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The subsequent years were largely uneventful, until the abbey was closed in 1539 by order of Henry VIII, as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.


In AD 888, King Alfred the Great founded in Shaftesbury the first great abbey just for women.

His second daughter was installed as the first Abbess, and for six and a half centuries the community and buildings grew and flourished.

By the time of Henry VIII this had become the wealthiest and most important Benedictine nunnery in England, dominating and serving the town and lands around.

It was the last abbey to be destroyed by Henry VIII in 1539. Only the foundations survive and items recovered in archaeological excavations are now displayed in the museum, alongside a digital representation of how the Abbey may have looked.


The pretty Dorset village of Abbotsbury was once home to a great abbey, founded in 1044 by a thegn of King Cnut, and richly endowed.

The remains now visible - part of a building which may have been the abbot's lodging - date from the 13th and 14th centuries.

Nearby is the abbey's vast tithe barn, built about 1400, and there are further abbey remains in the churchyard of St Nicholas Church, including two medieval sarcophagi.

Thomas Hardy's Birthplace and Max Gate

Few authors have such strong associations with the natural and cultural heritage of their local area as Thomas Hardy.

This cottage, where Hardy was born in 1840, was built of cob and thatch by his great-grandfather.

Despite training as an architect, writing was Hardy's first love, and it was from here that he wrote several of his early short stories, poetry and novels including 'Under the Greenwood Tree' and 'Far from the Madding Crowd'.

The garden reflects most people's idea of a typical cottage garden, with roses around the door, and the sound of birdsong. Once inside you will discover, with its open hearths, small windows and stone floors.

Max Gate, an austere but sophisticated town house a short walk from the town centre of Dorchester, was Hardy's home.

Hardy, who designed the house in 1885, wanted to show that he was part of the wealthy middle classes of the area, to reflect his position as a successful writer, and to enable him to enter polite society.

The house was named after a nearby tollgate keeper called Henry Mack. The tollgate was known locally as ‘Mack’s Gate’, which Hardy then used with a different spelling when he named his house, ‘Max Gate’.

He wrote some of his most famous novels here, including Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, as well as much of his poetry.

Dorset Knobs

Dorset Knob Biscuits are made from a traditionally fermented dough and are given three separate bakings to give a unique flavour and crisp texture.

Traditionally they were a cupboard staple for "farming folk" who would pour hot tea and sugar over them and eat them for breakfast.

Nowadays they are more often split open and eaten with a little salted butter or mature cheese.

The Dorset Ooser

This strange tale of long lost folklore starts over a thousand years ago, probably in the years after the Roman exit from Britain.

During this time, it is thought that local pagan priests often performed fertility rituals on local couples looking to conceive. To boost their ‘power’, these priests would wear masks representing pagan gods, although the appearance of these masks would often have been rather grotesque and sometimes even made out of the heads of local animals!

Little is known about these strange and ancient rituals, and by the 19th century the Ooser’s original meaning had long been forgotten.

In some Dorset towns such as Shillingstone, the Ooser mask had become the ‘Christmas Bull’, representing a terrifying creature that roamed through the streets of Dorset villages at the end of the year demanding food and drink from the local populace.

As a further disregard for this once treasured piece of lore, the mask was even used for frightening children or taunting unfaithful husbands!

The Portland Mer-Chicken

The year is 1457, and, as recorded in The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland:

‘In the month of November, in the Ile of Portland not farre from the towne of Weimouth, was seene a cocke coming out of the sea, hauing a great crest upon his head, and a great red beard, and legs of halfe a yard long:

'he stood on the water & crowed foure times, and euerie time turned him about, and beckoned with his head, toward the north, the south and the west, and was of colour like fesant, & when he had crowed three times, he vanished awaie.

'And shortlie after were taken at Erith within twelve miles of London, four great and wonderful fishes whereof one was called Mors marina, the second a sword fish, the other two were whales.’

The Shapwick Crab

On October 12th 1706, in the parish of Shapwick, a travelling fishmonger from Poole bound for Bere Regis dropped a crab on the outskirts of the village (a farm nearby commemorates this event adeptly named "Crab Farm").

The villages, who had never seen a crab before and believed it was some kind of Devil or monster, armed themselves with sticks and pitchforks in attempt to drive away the creature.

The fishmonger eventually returned in search of his lost crab saw the commotion caused by the villagers. Amused by their ignorance he casually picked up the crab, put it back in his basket, and continued on his journey, spreading the word of the dim-witted villagers of Shapwick.

Since then, the villagers of Shapwick were looked upon as a bit simple and daft. That no one from the famed village dare visit a fishmonger stall at the local markets in fear of being ridiculed. Therefore, the stigma remains today - at least that is what some may like to believe.

The Black Dog of Lyme Regis

Near the town of Lyme Regis in Dorset stood a farmhouse that was haunted by a black dog.

This dog never caused any harm, but one night the master of the house in a drunken rage tried to attack it with an iron poker.

The dog fled to the attic where it leaped out through the ceiling, and when the master struck the spot where the dog vanished he discovered a hidden cache of gold and silver.

The dog was never again seen indoors, but to this day it continues to haunt at midnight a lane which leads to the house called Haye Lane (or Dog Lane).

The Cerne Abbas Giant

The Cerne Giant is an ancient naked figure sculpted into the chalk hillside above Cerne Abbas in Dorset. Standing at 180ft tall the Cerne Giant is Britain’s largest chalk hill figure and perhaps the best known.

Many theories have surrounded the giant’s identity and origins, including ancient symbol of spirituality, likeness of the Greco-Roman hero Hercules, mockery of Oliver Cromwell and fertility aid. In 2021, after extensive scientific analysis, National Trust archaeologists concluded the giant was probably first constructed in the late Saxon period.

Above the giant is a rectangular earthwork enclosure, known as the Trendle, which is believed to date back to the Iron Age. It is still used today by local Morris Dancers as a site for May Day celebrations. The chalk grassland where the giant lies is of national and European importance for the many rare chalk downland plants and invertebrates that thrive here.

William Doggett the Vampire Ghost

Tarrant Gunville can boast of a vivid ghost legend recorded in the 1880s, the modern versions of which have developed hints of vampirism.

The ghost is that of a certain William Doggett who in the eighteenth century was the steward of Eastbury House, the seat of Lord Melcombe.

According to the traditions recorded by John H. Ingram in 1884, Doggett had long been defrauding his employer, and when this was found out he shot himself in one of the rooms of the mansion, leaving an indelible bloodstain on its marble floor.

His ghost continues to haunt the area, headless, driving round the park in a phantom coach – which some said was drawn by headless horses and driven by a headless coachman.

When this arrived at the mansion, Doggett would dismount and re-enter the house, where he would shoot himself once again, in the same room as before.

And, lastly, as promised, a full performance of The Ballad of St Kenelm!

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