Dorset is a county of great beauty, a land of contrast and breathtaking scenery. It is one of the maritime counties of southern England, fronting the English Channel which separates the United Kingdom from mainland Europe. Its coastline extends some 140 kilometers from Lyme Regis in the west to Christchurch in the east, and offers a selection of the finest sandy beaches to be found in the British Isles.
The award winning heritage coast begins in Poole Harbour (experts debate whether this is actually the world's largest natural harbour), and includes the Purbeck coastline which is the site of special nature reserves and countryside/marine parks. Traveling westwards, equally spectacular is the Chesil Bank, a barren pebbled beach, stretching 25 kilometers from Weymouth to Bridport. This, with the internationally famous Abbotsbury Swannery, is a photographer's paradise, and a sea captain's nightmare!
Dorset is frequently described as 'The Best of Both Worlds', for behind the varied coastline lies a county rich in archaeology, unspoilt rural villages and countryside, and a history to be proud of. From before Roman times, Dorset has been a jewel in England's crown, and the evidence of forefathers is plentiful.
Dorset's topography is varied. In the east, most land is low lying, with extensive heathlands. The centre of Dorset is chalk downland, with extensive rivers and streams, leading to the west of Dorset which is more hilly, with a rich landscape of woodland and small fields.
The north of Dorset is dominated by a plain, known as the Blackmore Vale. As in Hardy's day its chief agricultural pursuit is dairying, which has preserved a landscape on intimate scale - often tiny fields defined by ancient hedgerows and winding lanes. There has been no great pressure here for the removal of hedges and hedgerow trees which has been so damaging in other parts of the country. In summer this is a lush pastoral landscape and the visitor can spend days wandering in the maze of small roads, footpaths and bridleways.
Further to the south and east lie the Dorset Downs and Cranborne Chase - both officially recognised as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty - this is the country of high chalkland with hills approaching 1,000 ft. an expansive landscape with panoramic views from the Isle of Wight and the Purbeck Hills in the south to the Mendips in the north. Fine country for walking, riding or just picnicking and admiring the view from one of the many grassy areas to which the public have access. The downs are not all open chalkland, however, and there are fine ancient oak and beech woods particularly in the area south of Bulbarrow and on the Chase.
The Chase was formerly a royal hunting forest and has a fascinating history of smuggling and deer poaching, the latter being punishable by death. The deer remain and can often be seen grazing at the edge of the stands of hazel coppice which are a feature of this area. The wildlife of the downs is a fascinating study in itself - there are still areas of unimproved downland on which native flowers and butterflies flourish and the rare Stone Curlew still visits the Chase every spring. The views from the rim of this great ridge of chalk are superb - it is said that on a fine day seven counties may be seen from the top of Bulbarrow, with the green vale stretching from the foot of the downs until it is lost in the blue mist of the Somerset hills in the distance.
Rolling hillsides, dramatic cliffs, sweeping beaches, sleepy villages, bustling towns, quiet countryside - West Dorset's charms are there for all to see... there are also great pubs to discover, good food to savour and 25 miles of peaceful paths to ramble. Indeed, walkers are spoilt for choice.
The region owes much of its charm to its villages - over 150 of them - and they are well worth exploring. Drive through Abbotsbury's long and winding main street and you will see sandstone cottages, tempting tea rooms and glimpse an old coaching inn. Other villages have quaint names like Toller Porcorum, Plush & Piddlehinton, each has its history, character and charm. Many - like Evershot, Nettlecombe or Cerne Abbas - lie hidden in quiet inland valleys. In Cerne Abbas, for instance, you'll find houses dating from the 15th century, the ruins of an Abbey and the famous Giant - a striking 180-foot high figure cut into the chalk downs overlooking the village.
A major part of Dorset is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and it boasts outstanding beaches, scenery, and historic links. Tourism is an important industry supporting some 25,000 people. Dorset is the third highest ranked county in England in terms of nights spent by visitors, and second for visitor spending.
From the aspect of land use most of the County's land is devoted to agriculture, with dairy farming being predominant. However much of the downland is arable, and steeper land accommodates large flocks of sheep. On the coast, small fishing fleets operate out of harbours such as Poole, Weymouth and West Bay.
While agriculture is the major land use, it accounts for only about 3 per cent of the County's employment. A variety of manufacturing industries are located in Dorset, some old-established such as rope and net making (though now among the world's leading supplier of netting for aircraft cargo holds and military camouflage), others in tune with the modern world and at the cutting edge of electronics developments.
Dorset is comparatively rich in minerals such as gravel, sand and stone. Purbeck Marble and Portland stone are used in major buildings across the world. Deeper underground is western Europe's largest on-shore oilfield at Wytch Farm. Some of the reserves are under the English Channel, and the oilfield is the world leader in the technique of long reach drilling from land based sites, sideways to remote oil reserves.
It's this county which was home to authors such as Jane Austen, William Barnes, and Thomas Hardy. The latter, probably Dorset's most famous son, immortalized the County town of Dorchester as 'Casterbridge'. His novels still attract thousands of visitors each year keen to see the real life settings for 'Far from the Madding Crowd', 'Jude the Obscure', the 'Return of the Native', and of course 'The Mayor of Casterbridge'.
There is much more to see and do for the visitor and resident alike. Dorset boasts several new leisure centers, and two dry-ski slopes. Sporting activity is available everywhere including sailing, diving and wind-surfing, golf, cricket, soccer, tennis, bowls, rugby and fishing, to name a few. More informal leisure pursuits which take advantage of the scenery are walking, horse-riding and rambling.
The main towns of Bournemouth and Poole, and to a lesser extent smaller resorts, are a hive of night-time activity. Poole Arts Centre is the home of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Nearby Tower Park is the largest leisure complex in Europe with facilities ranging from a swimming pool and ice-rink to an eight screen cinema and ten pin bowling. This one centre also has a night-club, and restaurants, and bars. Theatres include the Pavilion and Pier in Bournemouth, the Pavilion in Weymouth, the Regent Centre in Christchurch and the Tivoli in Wimborne. In addition the Bournemouth International Centre is one of England's leading venues for appearances by international stars, and conferences and exhibitions.
Dorset features some excellent museums, with world leading centers at Bovington (The Tank Museum, telling the history of military vehicles), and the Russell Cotes Museum and Art Gallery in Bournemouth. Other museums include the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester, The Red House in Christchurch, the Royal Signals Museum at Blandford, and the award winning Brewers Quay in Weymouth. Many smaller towns have their own local museums.
Dorset has many country houses and other historic sites to visit. Kingston Lacy near Wimborne is run by the National Trust, as is both Hardy's Cottage (the birthplace of the author) and Max Gate (the author's later home) near Dorchester.