Walking through Dorchester’s history
Jeany Poulsen opens our eyes to how much a walk through the county town reveals of its colourful past Credit 1. Photography by Peter Booton
Published in September ’09
This is an easy but fascinating walk through fragments of Dorchester’s long history. Allow at least two hours for plenty of gazing, being distracted by details you’ve never noticed before, and a fair bit of footwork.
Start at Dorchester South Station, go to Weymouth Avenue and turn right past the pub on the corner. Walk down towards the town centre past the splendid brickwork of Eldridge Pope Brewery (1880), the pinnacle of Dorchester’s centuries-old tradition of fine brewing. Sadly, closure means that its heady, hoppy aroma no longer welcomes the weary traveller home.
Opposite is ‘Fair Field’, where the market is held on Wednesdays. This site took over in 1877 from the sheep fairs held from 1834 in Poundbury Hillfort, just north-west of the town. Note the large brick houses, part of the Victorian/Edwardian town expansion. They took Dorchester for the first time beyond the line, marked by the ‘Walks’, of the defensive banks, walls and ditches of the former Roman town, Durnovaria.
At the bottom of Weymouth Avenue bear right, cross Prince of Wales Road, then use the pelican crossing over South Walks Road to leafy South Walks. Turn left from the crossing to see the War Memorial and a rare hexagonal pillar-box, dating from between 1866 and 1879, before turning right into South Street. This quieter end of Dorchester’s main shopping street was once the site of a hospital, or poorhouse, built in 1616 with a brew-house to fund its upkeep.
Look on the left for the plaques showing where the dialect poet William Barnes worked and (next door) where novelist Thomas Hardy worked for an architect in the 1860s. In 1569 a previous Thomas Hardye founded the Free School, re-built opposite in 1617 but now sadly replaced, though an impressive 17th-century oak screen saved from it is displayed in the modern school in Queen’s Avenue.
Next you come to the pretty stone frontage (re-built to the original design in 1842) of Napper’s Mite, a former almshouse founded by Sir Robert Napper in 1615 to house ‘ten aged men’ following one of the several fires that periodically raged through the mostly thatched-roofed town. The decorative building on the opposite corner is the former Post Office of 1904-05.
As you walk along South Street, remember to look up above or between the shop-fronts to enjoy the various types of brick, window-openings and doorways: many of these buildings were originally 18th- or early 19th-century town-houses later converted to shops. When the foundations for what is now Marks & Spencer were dug in 1936, a bronze jug and a bowl were found, together with a box containing 22,000 coins, buried in about 257 AD. Opposite stands an unspoilt late 18th-century brick town-house, now a bank, which Hardy used as Henchard’s house in The Mayor of Casterbridge.
You are soon in the area of South Street known as Cornhill. Despite the fine early 19th-century frontage of the former Antelope Hotel, one of Dorchester’s two major coaching inns, parts of it date to the 17th century. These are visible from the attractive shopping arcade, worth a short detour. Ahead of you is a limestone obelisk with a ball finial: the Town Pump of 1784, built on the site of a market building. Pause here to enjoy the attractive views up and down High West and High East Streets; apart from the obvious, these have barely changed since the 19th century. The Kings Arms, a little way down on the left, was the town’s other main coaching inn.
You are now in what was old Dorchester’s commercial centre, from medieval times up to Thomas Hardy’s lifetime, when it expanded south into the pattern we see today. Opposite is the mainly 15th-century St Peter’s church, the only one of medieval Dorchester’s three churches to survive. Next downhill from the church is the Corn Exchange, with the Town Hall on the upper floor (1847-48); the clock-tower was added in 1864. The architect was Christchurch-born Benjamin Ferrey, who was one of the earliest members of the RIBA. It was built on the site of an earlier (1791) town hall with a market house below, which straddled the entrance to the Bullstake, now known as North Square.
Turn left up High West Street and cross over at the pelican crossing. This will give you a closer look at (and inside if you’ve time) St Peter’s and the bronze statue (1888) of the famous dialect poet, scholar and teacher, Rev. William Barnes. He was instrumental in founding the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society, whose excellent Dorset County Museum (1881-83) stands next-door.
Turn right from the crossing, heading downhill and noting one of Ferrey’s other Dorchester landmarks, All Saints’ Church (1843-45), in High East Street. Turn immediately left into North Square, now relatively quiet apart from the swifts in summer but once busy with medieval and later market stalls and shops. The imposing red-brick walls of Dorchester Prison ahead of you were built on the site of Dorchester’s medieval castle, which was in existence by 1137. Stone from the castle is thought to have been used in building the medieval Franciscan Friary somewhere close by North Square (hence Friary Hill leading down to the River Frome). Notice, too, Chubb’s Almshouses, before turning left (uphill) from North Square into Colliton Street, formerly Pease Lane.
About halfway up on the left is a low stone building, formerly the rectory of St Peter’s and once occupied by the remarkable Rev. John White, who not only led the renewal of Dorchester after the devastating 1613 fire but was also the driving force behind the foundation of Massachusetts in America. He is buried under the porch of St Peter’s.
At the top of Colliton Street is Glyde Path Road with its pretty row of 18th- and 19th-century houses. Walk diagonally right across the road to what is now the c.1740 north front of Colliton House, which began life facing south in the 17th century. Its extensive grounds are now home to County Hall opposite and, beyond the car park on the left, the County Library. (If you have time, the remains of one of Roman Dorchester’s town-houses are signposted from the car park opposite the library entrance).
Continue past the library, bearing left onto The Grove, where you are once again on the Roman defences. Here you’ll find a moustachioed gentleman on a plinth, sadly contemplating the Top o’ Town traffic: Thomas Hardy, sculpted by Eric Kennington in 1931. Keep straight on, cross the top of High West Street and then stop to admire the fine view down the hill. Instead of going down High West Street, bear right then immediately left past the red phone boxes. A few paces on is a short section of walling behind railings, with a panel explaining that this is the last remnant of the core of Durnovaria’s town wall. Ahead is West Walks, and next to it the lovely Borough Gardens, laid out in 1895.
Turn left into Princes Street and walk down to where Somerleigh Road and Alington Street cut across it. On the right are the former buildings (Benjamin Ferrey again) of Dorchester’s old hospital, begun in 1839. During redevelopment another Roman town-house was discovered, while further down Princes Street, excavation revealed iron collars joining decayed Roman wooden water pipes. The colourful modern water-feature on your right suggests the position of the Roman town’s public fountain.
Turn left along Alington Street, then right onto High West Street, from where you will quickly have a good view of the impressive Shire Hall (1795-96) across the road. This is where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were brought for trial in 1834; the court and cells are preserved as a memorial to their bravery. Opposite the end of Trinity Street is Holy Trinity Church (Ferrey, 1875), replacing an 1824 church built on the site of its medieval predecessor.
Cross over Trinity Street and you soon come to ‘Judge Jeffreys’, virtually the only timber-framed building to survive the town fires and not re-fronted in brick. Dating from the early 17th century, it is said to have been the infamous judge’s lodgings when he tried Monmouth’s unfortunate peasant followers in 1685. Parts of their butchered carcases were displayed outside St Peter’s church.
You can return to the station along Trinity Street, past the 1930s Plaza cinema, or carry on down to South Street. Last, and by no means least, walk a little further up Weymouth Avenue, past the turning to Dorchester South and past the Police Station, to a huge grassy earthwork on your left. Maumbury Rings started life as a Neolithic henge monument, was converted into an early 1st-century Roman amphitheatre, and was used by Parliamentarians in the Civil War. Today it is used for concerts and plays and, in snowy weather, for sledging. You may prefer a picnic and snooze after your long walk….