Hot Spot: Dorchester

This Dorset town offers everything from Hardy-esque cottages to the 'new vernacular'of Poundbury, says Robert Liebman

Dorchester gives you two towns for the price of one: the venerable county town commemorated by Thomas Hardy, and the Prince of Wales's Poundbury village. Framing the original town - and illustrating its rich and varied history - are Thomas Hardy's cottage in Higher Bockhampton and his final home Max Gate, the huge hill fort Maiden Castle and, to its north, Poundbury hill fort and Roman aqueduct. The former Poundbury Farm on Duchy of Cornwall land is the site of the new "vernacular" village.

The town is less than 10 miles from the fossil-rich Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. "Dorset remains a particularly popular area for those wishing to retire or seeking peace and quiet in beautiful, unspoilt countryside," says Julian Bunkall of Jackson-Stops & Staff. "Dorchester has excellent shopping facilities, a main line railway station to London Waterloo, the county hospital and an increasing number of good restaurants. Poundbury village is now well established and is rapidly expanding." In at least one respect, it has been too successful: "The original idea was to attract first-time buyers, but minimum prices now are about £230,000 - out of their range."

Sue Burden of Connells confirms that in Dorchester generally, there are virtually no first-time buyers: "The majority of people moving into the town are over-50s, often buying a second home with the view to retiring here." But young families find Dorchester prices congenial: "Many people commute to Poole and Bournemouth because our property prices compare favourably with those towns. We have several sought-after schools, and buyers pay higher prices to be in certain catchment areas, for example, in Manor Park."

Area residents include comedian Martin Clunes, Gosford Park's Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellows, and Eric Clapton. "Sailing on the coast, golf on one of the many courses and hunting with one of the two local packs tempt many newcomers," says Peter Lewis of Stacks Property Search.

Polly Talbot of Goadsby & Harding says that despite rumours of a slow-down, she continues to receive many enquiries from London and the Home Counties. "Second homes are popular with investors, and new country-style properties appeal to retirees. Prince Charles has highlighted the popularity of the vernacular style, and new-build homes are no longer a poor relation. Using thatch and slate is authentic and traditional, and building a home that looks old is as good as old."

THE LOW-DOWN

Getting there

Dorchester East station serves Eastleigh, Bristol, Exeter and Bournemouth international airport. Dorchester South station serves London Waterloo, two and a half hours away.

Shopping

Waitrose, Somerfield, Tesco and Goulds department store are in the town. The traditional Wednesday market has hundreds of stalls, and there is also a farmers' market.

Sport and leisure

Thomas Hardye [sic] Leisure Centre has a pool, gym, aerobics and badminton. Borough Gardens offers tennis and bowls.

Entertainment

The multi-screen Plaza Cinema and Dorchester Arts Centre offer film, drama, dance, music, literature and other events. Line dancers queue at the Corn Exchange, which also hosts art exhibitions. St Mary's Church hosts concerts, and the Dorchester Festival is held every two years.

Museums and attractions

Dorset County Museum contains the contents Hardy's study. Other attractions include the Dinosaur Museum, Tutankhamun Exhibition, Teddy Bear House, the Keep Military Museum and the Grade I-listed Wolfeton House. The Hardy trail includes his birthplace at Higher Bockhampton, the family home Max Gate, and Stinsford Churchyard, which contains only his heart (his ashes are in Westminster Abbey).

Prices

Connells is selling a three-bed first-floor flat with mezzanine floor, triple-aspect living room and parking near the town centre for £250,000, and a newly converted two-bed flat in Herrison House, with communal grounds, tennis courts and cricket pitch in Charlton Down for £169,950.

Family homes

A five-bed three-storey period terrace near the town centre is £299,950 at Goadsby & Harding. A four-bed listed cottage with thatched roof in Charminster is £345,000 at Jackson-Stops & Staff.

Bargain thatch

A Grade II-listed thatched terrace in Tolpuddle, Dorchester with an L-shaped double bedroom (two single bedrooms merged) is £175,000 at Connells.

Detached

A new detached three-bed chalet bungalow with open fireplace in Puncknowle is £310,000, at Humberts. A Scandinavian-style two-bed timber lodge home overlooking open countryside in Corscombe is £139,950 at Humberts; tenure is "freehold share and held on a long lease".

Big spenders

Crockway House, a six-bed 10-acre home with a lake and River Frome frontage, c.£825,000 at Humberts. Birkin House is arranged as a B&B and flat; £1m at Knight Frank.

New

Bellway has converted the Grade II-listed former Herrison Hospital into flats and new-build houses; from £180,000 for a three-bed semi (01305 259472). Morrish Builders is selling flats and houses in Dorchester, Poundbury, Stratton, Drimpton and Maiden Newton. The agent is Connells.

Estate agents

Connells, 01305 266755; Goadsby & Harding, 01305 213213; Humberts, 01308 422215; Jackson-Stops, 01305 262123; Knight Frank, 01935 812236; Stacks, 01300 320480.

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