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West Dorset

With some of the best beaches in the country, West Dorset has traditional seaside holiday resorts, a dramatic coastline – great for walking, lively fishing towns, and no end of pretty thatched villages, along with large swathes of bucolic, rolling countryside, little changed from Thomas Hardy’s time. Stretching from the sandy expanses of Weymouth in the east to cliff-backed Lyme Regis in the west, the varied coastline forms part of the Jurassic Coast: packed with fossils, its geology is so unique that it has UNESCO World Heritage status. Home to the original River Cottage, West Dorset is also at the forefront of the local, seasonal food movement, with restaurants and cafés serving up homegrown and foraged produce and fish caught fresh in the sea that morning. Add numerous village pubs with roaring fires and pretty beer gardens, selling locally brewed real ales, and West Dorset is rural Britain at its best.

History

History is one thing that West Dorset is not short of. Some of the UK’s most important fossil finds dating from the Jurassic era have come from the coast around Lyme Regis and Charmouth – including a thirty-foot almost complete ichthyosaurus skeleton, now on display in the Natural History Museum in London. There are also clear remnants of Iron Age forts at sites such as Pilsdon Pen – now a great place for a walk, with stunning views – while Stone Age burial mounds dating from around 3000 BC have been found at Maiden Castle, just outside Dorchester, though the impressive hillfort that you can wander around today dates from around 450 BC. Dorchester itself was founded around 60 AD by the Romans – you can visit a well-preserved Roman villa – but is today more associated with the Bloody Assizes of Judge Jeffreys, who sentenced 292 men to death here in 1685, including 74 who were hanged, drawn and quartered and their heads stuck on pikes throughout the county. The later Georgian and Regency period saw the seaside resort of Weymouth – popularized by “mad” King George – flourish, while the fortunes of Lyme Regis were much improved by being a favourite of Jane Austen, who visited several times in the early 1800s and set part of Persuasion there.

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