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Dorset's cultural landscape: Hardy country and Broadchurch breaks

With a new Hollywood take on 'Far from the Madding Crowd' about to show the world its charms, now is the time to escape to this stunning coastal county, says Lucy Gillmore

Lucy Gillmore
Friday 24 April 2015 14:25 BST
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Natural wonder: the magnificent Durdle Door limestone arch
Natural wonder: the magnificent Durdle Door limestone arch

The postcard-pretty county of Dorset, for years in the shadow of bolder, blowsier summer hotspots Devon and Cornwall, is currently basking in the spotlight. And it's largely down to a television show. Those in the know, of course, have been summering here for years, but for others, cult crime drama Broadchurch – set on the Dorset coast – was an eye-opener.

Now, keeping the momentum going, is a new film adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, which hits cinema screens next Friday. Starring Carey Mulligan and with a script by David Nicholls (of One Day fame), it highlights the county's bucolic interior.

Hardy, Dorset's most renowned writer, showcases his home county's charms in many of his novels. However, he chooses to disguise place names, or in some cases use ancient nomenclature: Dorset becomes Wessex, while Casterbridge is a thinly disguised Dorchester. In 1913, he worked on a Hardy's Wessex guidebook, which revealed the real sites on which the locations in his novels are based.

The Dorset tourist board (visit-dorset.com) has helpfully jumped on the bandwagons of both Broadchurch and Far from the Madding Crowd. To tie in with the film release, it has updated the Hardy Trail leaflet (bit.ly/HardyDorset). It features picturesque Sherborne in the north-west, with its clutch of medieval buildings and abbey, and the glorious Elizabethan manor, Mapperton House (01308 862 645; mapperton.com; entry £6) near Beaminster – where Carey Mulligan and Tom Sturridge spent time filming.

There is also a downloadable Broadchurch Trail leaflet (bit.ly/BroadchurchTrail), which will direct you to filming locations around the county's spectacular coastline – in particular West Bay, with its soaring cliffs.

In February, when Series 2 aired, Parkdean Holidays (0344 335 3450; parkdeanholidays .co.uk) experienced a 45 per cent rise in bookings for its West Bay Holiday Park in Bridport, which features in the programme – the "Broadchurch effect" in action.

Of course, Dorset has far more to offer than sights based on works of fiction. Sprawling across an area of 946 square miles, it's cradled by Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire, with the English Channel to the south. Three quarters of Dorset's coastline is a Unesco World Heritage Site – the Jurassic Coast – while more than half of the county is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Towns sprinkled along the shore include the traditional seaside resort Weymouth, Regency gem Lyme Regis (for film buffs forever synonymous with The French Lieutenant's Woman), and the little market town of Bridport.

Inland the clutch of historic towns includes Dorchester (the county town), Wimborne and Shaftesbury, while the pretty village of Corfe Castle is home to fascinating medieval ruins of the same name (nationaltrust.org.uk/corfe-castle; admission from £7.72).

Dorset's rolling countryside is threaded with walking trails across chalky downs and through lush river valleys and ancient woodland. The 630-mile South West Coast Path (southwest coastpath.com) starts from Poole harbour, while the Rodwell Trail, a two-mile yomp along the old Weymouth to Portland Railway, is a good option for families.

Gourmets should be sure to visit the area during May, when the Christchurch Food and Wine Festival (christchurchfoodfest.co.uk) takes place. Throughout the whole month, many of the town's cafés, pubs, bars and hotels will be offering special menus, deals and events, while on 9-10 May there will be food stalls and cooking demonstrations by Levi Roots among others. And from 11-12 July, the Pommery Dorset Seafood Festival (dorset seafood.co.uk) takes place in Weymouth's historic harbour.

Eat up

From whelks in Weymouth to oysters in Wyke Regis, it's no surprise that seafood is on the menu. Mark Hix's restaurant, Hix Oyster and Fish House (01297 446 910; hixoysterandfish house.co.uk) overlooking the harbour in Lyme Regis, is all bare wood and panoramic picture windows – with sustainable seafood on your plate.

You can also bed down in the Hix Townhouse (01297 442499; hixtownhouse.co.uk), an eight-bedroom boutique hotel just a short stroll away, which has doubles from £120 including breakfast. Alternatively, book it out as a group for a Hook and Catch break which includes a day's fishing out at sea and a three-course dinner at Hix Oyster & Fish House that uses the fish you've caught. The price is £1,750 for a group of up to 18 including one night's stay with breakfast.

Elsewhere, the Crab House Café (01305 788 867; crabhousecafe.co.uk), looking out over Chesil Beach in Wyke Regis, has its own oyster beds just a pebble's throw from the restaurant. They also specialise in crab – served with a hammer and a bib.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage empire (01297 630 300; rivercottage.net) was originally established in Dorset, and is now located on the border with Devon, offering courses from cookery and preserve-making to beekeeping and mushroom foraging.

Hardy times

Thomas Hardy was born in the village of Higher Bockhampton in 1840, and you can visit the little cob and thatch cottage where he grew up, now known as Hardy's Cottage (01305 262 366; nationaltrust.org.uk/hardys-cottage; £6).

Hardy trained as an architect, and after the success of Far from the Madding Crowd in 1874, he built Max Gate (01305 262 538; nationaltrust.org.uk; £6) in Dorchester, where he lived for the rest of his life. The National Trust now owns the house and organises special events here, including Tea with Mr Hardy on 18 June (free with regular admission), which will feature readings from the author's works by the Hardy Players. Another highlight will be several open-air performances of Return of the Native from 9-18 July (£12).

At the Dorset County Museum (01305 262 735; dorsetcountymuseum.org; £6.35) you can see a reconstruction of Hardy's study and, until 8 June, an exhibition of Madding Crowd film costumes.

Shingle all the way

Geological showstopper the Jurassic Coast (jurassiccoast.org) stretches 95 miles from Exmouth in Devon to Studland Bay in Dorset, and was the UK's first Unesco World Heritage Site. Landmarks include 18-mile Chesil Beach, Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door, a natural limestone arch, recently made accessible to walkers again after the steps leading down to it were restored.

Parts of this stretch of coast date back 185 million years, and fossil hunting is popular. Geologist and one-time advisor for the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, Chris Pamplin leads private family fossil-hunting walks at Charmouth (fossilwalks.com). Three-hour excursions cost from £80 for up to four people. There are also scheduled walks in the school holidays for £5pp, with a maximum of 30 walkers per group.

The Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre (01297 560 772; charmouth.org) runs two-hour fossil hunts (adults £7.50, children £3) as well as Rockpool Rambles and Plankton Trawls.

Take a stroll

There are several long-distance walking routes in Dorset besides the South West Coast Path. The Wessex Ridgeway crosses 137 miles from Marlborough in Wiltshire to Lyme Regis, while the Stour Valley Way (stourvalleyway.co.uk), is a 64-mile path along the River Stour, from its source at Stourhead in Wiltshire to the sea at Christchurch in Dorset.

You can also follow in the footsteps of Hardy's tragic heroine, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, with Foottrails (01747 820 626; foottrails.co.uk) on a four-night, self-guided walking break. The route takes you from north Dorset near Gillingham over the chalk downs on the border with Wiltshire, near the Saxon hilltop town of Shaftesbury (which Hardy called Shaston).

Other highlights include the village of Marnhull, the Stour Valley and the ancient mill at Sturminster Newton. The trip costs £565pp including maps, walking notes, B&B accommodation and luggage transfers.

Where to stay

The Pig on the Beach (01929 450 288; thepighotel.com) launched last summer, overlooking the sandy sweep of Studland Bay. Part of the Pig mini-chain, this restaurant with rooms offers shabby-chic style, spa treatments in shepherds' huts and a menu using ingredients straight from the kitchen garden. Doubles from £139, room only.

This spring saw the opening of Mary-Lou Sturridge's (ex-MD of London's Groucho Club) Seaside Boarding House (01308 897 205; theseasideboardinghouse.com) in Burton Bradstock, perched on the cliffs overlooking Chesil Beach. There's a cosy library, open fire, cocktail bar and just eight bedrooms, some with sea views (from £200 B&B).

Glamping options abound. Knaveswell Farm (01929 422918; knaveswellfarmcottage.co.uk), a 156-acre dairy farm in the bucolic Purbeck countryside, now offers four safari tents just minutes from the beach and the South West Coast Path. The tents, which sleep six and come with wood burning stoves, cost from £290 for a three-night weekend stay. Glampotel (07774 603209; glampotel.com), in the Purbeck Hills, offers four canvas "cottages" backing on to 300 acres of ancient woodland and heathland, each with its own deck and barbecue. From £110 per night (two nights minimum).

If you want to bed down in literary style, the 16th-century Acorn Inn (01935 83228; acorn-inn.co.uk) in the chocolate-box village of Evershot features as The Sow and Acorn in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Bedroom names jump straight off the pages of the book, with doubles from £115 B&B.

Getting there

Dorset is a motorway-free zone, criss-crossed by A-roads. If you're travelling by car, the main M3/A303 route between London and Devon skirts the top of Dorset.

The closest thing to a "Trans-Dorset Railway" is the Heart of Wessex line (heartofwessex.org.uk), which runs from Bristol Temple Meads and Bath to Weymouth, calling at the historic villages of Yetminster and Maiden Newton as well as the county town, Dorchester.

The main rail link from London is the South West Trains (0870 906 6649; southwesttrains.co.uk) service from Waterloo to Bournemouth, Dorchester and Weymouth; the Waterloo to Exeter train stops at Sherborne and Axminster (for Lyme Regis). Cross Country Trains (0844 811 0126 ; crosscountrytrains.co.uk) runs from Birmingham and various other cities to Bournemouth, via Reading.

Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) flies to Bournemouth from Glasgow, Jersey and Manchester.

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