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Trackside: Dorchester

Stories about people and places from across the South Western Railway network.

Dorchester is located in the picturesque county of Dorset. It’s a historic market town on the banks of the River Frome, situated between coastal cities Weymouth and Poole.

Dorchester’s bustling high street is full of historically significant buildings, each telling tales of the town’s rich heritage.

Early Dorchester 

Dorchester is on the banks of the River Frome and is AWASH with history… see what we did there?

People have been living around here for thousands of years.

There’s an Iron Age hill fort at Maiden Castle and a giant Henge monument at Maumbury Rings, and then the Romans established a garrison here in the year 40 AD after defeating the local Durotriges tribe. 

They called the settlement ‘Durnovaria’ which relates to the fist sized pebbles on the nearby beaches!

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Like many Roman towns, Durnovaria would have been walled. 

You can still make out the original line of those walls, and there’s even a fragment of the wall that’s been incorporated into a garden wall. It’s near the Top ‘o Town roundabout. 

Take a look:

Dorchester brims with Roman history! In fact, there’s more Roman mosaics here than any other place in the UK.

You can see this one at the Dorset Museum.


Dorchester has had weekly markets since medieval times, as well as several big annual fairs. 

However, they didn’t have rides and attractions. Back in those days it was mainly trade and that was mostly wool, but other things too.

It was quite the spectacle with folk coming from far and wide to buy and sell their wares!

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There’s been fire after fire here!

One in 1613 was caused by a tallow chandler’s cauldron getting too hot; another in 1622 was started by a maltster. A 1725 fire began in a brewhouse, and another in 1775 from a soap boiler. 

The 1613 fire was the worst. It was a long hot summer, and there wasn’t enough hands to man the buckets as most were in the fields for the harvest. They had to release prisoners to fight the flames. Whilst only one person died, half the town was destroyed. 

You would think people would have learned their lesson to be careful but back in those days, with many buildings made of wood and thatch, it just wasn’t safe.  

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You won’t find many houses and buildings from the 1600’s and 1700’s. They ALL went up in smoke! 

There’s lots of fancy Georgian buildings, many built in Portland stone. They give the town a very elegant feel.

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Did you know that Dorchester boasts the most listed buildings in any high street? There’s only 2 building on High East and High West Street that aren’t listed!

Eldridge Pope Brewery

For over 100 years, the imposing Eldridge Pope Brewery was one of the most important buildings in Dorchester, at the centre of the town’s economy. 

Founded in 1833, by 1881 the brewery covered a four acre site close to the railway and was the biggest employer in the town. 

It was also wine supplier to Queen Victoria and one of the first companies to be awarded a Royal Warrant. 

The brewery closed in 2003 and was derelict until re-visioned into Brewery Square.  

Places to visit

Roman Town House

Dorchester has a big Roman past, and where better to experience Roman life than in a Roman town house?!

In 1937, archaeologists discovered the remains of a 4th century Roman town house at Colliton Park, then the heart of the Roman settlement. They were able to uncover the full layout of the house and its outbuildings.

It’s thought the house belonged to a wealthy family as it has a beautifully preserved mosaic floor. Intricate mosaics were common in affluent Roman homes and often depicted mythological scenes and floral designs.

Another fascinating detail is that the town house, like many Roman buildings, had a hypocaust heating system. This underfloor heating system allowed the inhabitants to enjoy a more comfortable living environment, particularly during colder months.  

That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it – having central heating over 1,600 years ago?!

While the original structure of the town house is not fully intact, the site has been carefully preserved and interpreted. Visitors can explore the remains of the building, view the mosaics, and learn about its history through informational displays.

Dorset Museum

Dorset Museum’s Victorian Hall has two spectacular floor mosaics – the Durngate Street and Olga Road mosaics. 

Definitely check them out if you can.

Iron Age Maiden Castle

The Iron Age Maiden Castle is south west of the town.

It’s one of the largest and most complex hillforts in Europe. It’s the size of 50 football pitches!

The castle is surrounded by a series of ramparts and ditches, which would have been really formidable defensive structures. When built in the 1st century BC, its gleaming white chalk ramparts would have towered over the surrounding landscape. 

Today, they give visitors spectacular, windswept views over Dorchester and Poundbury. 

Archaeologists have found valuable insights into the lives of its inhabitants. They’ve uncovered evidence of roundhouses and storage pits within the hillfort, shedding light on the daily activities of its residents.

Maumbury Rings

Want to go even further back in time? Check out Maumbury Rings, to the south of the town. 

85 metres wide, with a single bank and internal ditch, it’s a giant Neolithic henge that was built at least 4,500 years ago. 

During the Roman occupation, it was adapted as an amphitheatre. The Romans being big fans of spectacular public events! Whilst in the Civil War it was an artillery fort guarding the southern approach to Dorchester.

Cerne Abbas Giant

Perhaps the most famous landmark in Dorchester… it’s the Cerne Abbas Giant!

You can’t miss it. The giant is an ancient hill figure, 55 metres high the outline of a man and 55 metres high! He’s also not wearing any clothes and is holding a club!

No one seems to know quite why he’s there. Historians and archaeologists are still debating it to this day.

It’s believed to be a prehistoric chalk figure, but the specific purpose and age remain uncertain. Some say the giant is a symbol of fertility and virility! 

He was created by removing the turf to reveal the underlying white chalk bedrock.

It’s a fascinating glimpse into ancient history and cultural heritage of the region.

What you like

We caught up with you to find out your favourite places to visit in and around Dorchester…

  • “I like going to the Falconry Park because you can see all sorts of birds of prey like eagles and owls and obviously falcons too.”
  • “My family likes going to the Walled Garden at Moreton as it’s a really nice place to go for a picnic and there’s a cool dinosaur trail too.”
  • “We visited The Keep Military Museum which had lot of things to look at like rifles, uniforms and medals.”

Famous People from Dorchester

Judge George Jeffries

Judge George Jeffries was a member of a travelling court of senior judges called an Assize, which looked after offences that were beyond the jurisdiction of local magistrates.

In 1685, Jeffries presided over the ‘Bloody Assizes’ – a mass trial of men captured after the Monmouth Rebellion was defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor.

315 men and women were martyred and hundreds more were transported to the West Indies.

It’s clear to see how the famous judge earned his nickname of the ‘Hanging Judge’!

George Loveless

Another famous gruesome story was the Tolpuddle Martyrs

In 1834, George Loveless and five other Dorset farmworkers were sent to Australia to pay for their crimes.

You must be wondering what the crime was… they simply formed a trade union to fight for fair wages! 

With the French Revolution fresh in people’s minds, landowners were determined to stamp out any form of organised protests. So when a local squire caught wind that a group of his workers had formed a union, he sought to stamp it out – they were arrested and sentenced to 7 years’ transportation.

Thomas Hardy

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Probably the most famous Dorchester resident was renowned British author, Thomas Hardy, who spent most of his life in Dorset. Hardy was born in 1840 at Higher Bockhampton, near Dorchester and was the eldest of four children. 

As a child he was shy and reflective and was encouraged by his mother to read. When he turned sixteen he was apprenticed to an architect practise in Dorchester. He then practised as an architect in London for five years but returned to Dorchester after deciding he wanted to write. 

However, writing wasn’t plain sailing and his first attempt at a novel was rejected. With the help of Emma Gifford, who he later married, his second attempt was successful.  

In 1885, Emma and Thomas Hardly moved into Max Gate, the house he had designed on the edge of Dorchester. After Emma died in 1912, he married again – to Florence Dugdale.  

You can see his affection for Dorchester in his writing. The raw materials for his novels came from his life here – and the country folk and landscapes of Dorset. The great majority of locations in his novels are set within the rural landscapes – the grassy vales, pebble-strewn beaches and furze-flattened heaths. With florid farmers and caddish aristocrats flirting with doomed maidens, you can see that it’s the county and its people that are the leading characters!

Find out more

The Hardy Trail will help you explore the area that inspired him throughout his life. Discover his birthplace at Hardy’s Cottage, where you can see the beautiful cob and thatch cottage and gardens where Hardy wrote some of his most famous novels including ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ and ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’.

You can also visit Max Gate, the stunning redbrick Victorian home which Hardy designed and built, and where he spent 40 years writing some of his most well-known works until his death in 1927.

Whilst Hardy’s body is buried in Westminster Abbey, his heart is buried in a grave beside his two wives at St Michael’s Church, Stinsford – which Hardy used as the model for Mellstock Church in ‘Under the Greenwood Tree‘.

Getting to Dorchester

Hop on a South Western Railway train to Dorchester South station to explore!



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Stories about people and places from across the railway network

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