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Dorset ( ) (or archaically, Dorsetshire), is a county in South West England on the English Channelmarker coast. The county town has been Dorchestermarker since at least 1305, situated in the south of the county at . Between its extreme points Dorset measures from east to west and north to south, and has an area of . Dorset borders Devonmarker to the west, Somersetmarker to the north-west, Wiltshiremarker to the north-east, and Hampshire to the east. Around half of Dorset's population lives in the South East Dorset conurbationmarker. The rest of the county is largely rural with a low population density. Dorset's motto is 'Who's Afear'd'.

Dorset is famous for the Jurassic Coastmarker World Heritage Site, which features landforms such as Lulworth Covemarker, the Isle of Portlandmarker, Chesil Beachmarker and Durdle Doormarker, as well as the holiday resorts of Bournemouthmarker, Poolemarker, Weymouthmarker, Swanagemarker, and Lyme Regismarker. Dorset is the principal setting of the novels of Thomas Hardy, who was born near Dorchester. The county has a long history of human settlement and some notable archaeology, including the hill forts of Maiden Castlemarker and Hod Hillmarker.


The first known settlement of Dorset was by Mesolithic hunters, from around 8000 BC. Their populations were small and concentrated along the coast in the Isle of Purbeckmarker, the Isle of Portlandmarker, Weymouth and Chesil Beachmarker and along the Stour valley. These populations used tools and fire to clear these areas of some of the native Oak forest. Dorset's high chalk hills have provided a location for defensive settlements for millennia, there are Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds on almost every chalk hill in the county, and a number of Iron Age hill forts, the most famous being Maiden Castlemarker, constructed around 600BC. The chalk downs would have been deforested in the Iron Age, making way for agriculture and animal husbandry.

Dorset has Roman artefacts, particularly around the Roman town Dorchestermarker, where Maiden Castle was captured from the Celtic Durotriges by a Roman Legion in 43 AD under the command of Vespasian, early in the Roman occupation. Roman roads radiated from Dorchester and from the hillfort at Badbury, following the tops of the chalk ridges to the many small Roman villages around the county. The Romans also had a presence on the Isle of Portland, constructing - or adapting - hilltop defensive earthworks on Verne Hill. In the Roman era, settlements moved from the hill tops to the valleys, and the hilltops had been abandoned by the fourth century. A large defensive ditch, Bokerley Dykemarker, delayed the Saxon conquest of Dorset from the north east for up to two hundred years. The Domesday Book documents many Saxon settlements corresponding to modern towns and villages, mostly in the valleys. There have been few changes to the parishes since the Domesday Book. Over the next few centuries the settlers established the pattern of farmland which prevailed into the nineteenth century. Many monasteries were also established, which were important landowners and centres of power. The earliest recorded use of the name was in AD 940 as Dorseteschire, meaning the dwellers (saete) of 'Dornuuarana' (Dorchester)

In the 12th-century civil war, Dorset was fortified with the construction of the defensive castles at Corfe Castlemarker, Powerstockmarker, Warehammarker and Shaftesburymarker, and the strengthening of the monasteries such as at Abbotsburymarker. In the 17th-century English Civil War, Dorset had a number of royalist strongholds, such as Portland Castlemarker, Sherborne Castlemarker and Corfe Castlemarker, the latter two being ruined by Parliamentarian forces in the war. In the intervening years, the county was used by the monarchy and nobility for hunting and the county still has a number of Deer Parks. Throughout the late Mediaeval times, the remaining hilltop settlements shrank further and disappeared. From the Tudor to Georgian periods, farms specialised and the monastic estates were broken up, leading to an increase in population and settlement size. During the Industrial Revolution, Dorset remained largely rural, and retains its agricultural economy today. The Tolpuddle Martyrs lived in Dorset, and the farming economy of Dorset was central in the formation of the trade union movement.

Physical geography

Most of Dorset's landscape falls into two categories, determined by the underlying geology. There are a number of large ridges of limestone downland, much of which have been cleared of the native forest and are mostly grassland and some arable agriculture. These limestone areas include a band of chalk which crosses the county from south-west to north-east incorporating Cranborne Chasemarker, the Dorset Downsmarker and Purbeck Hillsmarker. Between the areas of downland are large, wide clay vales (primarily Oxford Clay with some Weald Clay and London Clay) with wide flood plains. These vales are primarily used for dairy agriculture, dotted with small villages, farms and coppices. They include the Blackmore Vale (Stour valley) and Frome valley.

South-east Dorset, around Poole and Bournemouth, lies on very non-resistant Eocene clays (mainly London Clay and Gault Clay), sands and gravels. These thin soils support a heathland habitat which supports all seven native British reptile species. The River Frome estuary runs through this weak rock, and its many tributaries have carved out a wide estuary. At the mouth of the estuary sand spits have been deposited turning the estuary into Poole Harbourmarker, one of several worldwide which claim to be the second largest natural harbour in the world (after Sydney Harbourmarker, though Sydney's claim is disputed). The harbour is very shallow in places and contains a number of islands, notably Brownsea Islandmarker, famous for its Red Squirrel sanctuary and as the birthplace of the Scouting movement. The harbour, and the chalk and limestone hills of the Purbeckmarker to the south, lie atop Europe's largest onshore oil field. The field, operated by BP from Wytch Farmmarker has the world's oldest continuously pumping well (Kimmeridgemarker, since the early 1960s) and longest horizontal drill ( , ending underneath Bournemouth pier). Pottery is produced by Poole Pottery from the local clays.

Most of Dorset's coastlinemarker was designated a World Heritage Site in 2001 because of its geological landforms. The coast documents the entire Mesozoic era, from Triassic to Cretaceous, and has yielded important fossils, including the first complete Ichthyosaur and fossilised Jurassic trees. The coast also features notable coastal landforms, including textbook examples of a cove (Lulworth Covemarker) and natural arch (Durdle Doormarker). Jutting out into the English Channelmarker is a limestone island, the Isle of Portlandmarker, connected to the mainland by Chesil Beachmarker, a tombolo.

In the west of the county the chalk and clay of south-east England begins to give way to the marl and granite of neighbouring Devonmarker. Until recently Pilsdon Penmarker at , was thought to be the highest hill in Dorset, but recent surveys have shown nearby Lewesdon Hillmarker to be higher, at . Lewesdon is also a Marilyn.

The county has the highest proportion of conservation areas in England— including an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (44% of the whole county), a World Heritage Site ( ), two Heritage Coasts ( ) and Sites of Special Scientific interest ( ). The South West Coast Path, a National Trail, runs along the Dorset coast from the Devon boundary to South Haven Point near Poolemarker.


The climate of Dorset has warm summers and mild winters, being the third most southern county in the UK, but not westerly enough to be afflicted by the more intense winds of Atlanticmarker storms that Cornwallmarker and Devonmarker experience. Dorset, along with the south-west, experiences higher winter temperatures (average 4.5 to 8.7 °C or 40° to 48 °F) than the rest of the United Kingdom, while still maintaining higher summer temperatures than that of Devon and Cornwall (average highs of 19.1 to 22.2 °C or 66° to 72 °F). The average annual temperature of the county is 9.8 to 12 °C (50°–54 °F), apart from areas of high altitute such as the Dorset Downsmarker. In coastal areas around Dorset it almost never snows.

The south coast counties of Dorset, Hampshire, West Sussexmarker, East Sussexmarker and Kentmarker enjoy more sunshine than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, receiving 1541–1885 hours. Average annual rainfall varies across the county—southern and eastern coastal areas receive as little as per year, while the Dorset Downs receive between 1,061 and 1,290 mm (41.7–50.8 in) per year; less than Devon and Cornwall to the west but more than counties to the east.


Poole Quay
Dorset has a population of 406,800, plus 163,200 in Bournemouthmarker and 138,000 in Poolemarker (total 708,000 – mid-year estimates for 2007). The following statistics exclude Poole and Bournemouth, which are no longer part of the administrative county. 98.7% of Dorset's population are of white ethnicity. 77.9% of the population are Christian and 13.7% are not religious. Dorset has the highest proportion of elderly people of any county in the United Kingdom: 27.4% of the population are over 65.

The county has one of the lowest birth rates of the 34 shire English counties, at 8.7 births per 1000, compared to the England and Wales average of 12.1/1000. It has the third highest mortality rate (12.0/1000), behind East Sussex and Devonmarker. In 1996 deaths exceeded births by 1,056, giving a natural population decline of 2.7 per 1000, however, in 1997 there were 7,200 migrants moving to Dorset and the Poole-Bournemouth conurbationmarker, giving Dorset the second highest net population growth, behind Cambridgeshire, at 17.3‰.


Dorset County Council is based at County Hall in Dorchester. Following the local council elections in June 2009, 28 Conservatives, 16 Liberal Democrats and one independent councillor sit on the county council.

South Dorsetmarker is represented in Parliament by Labour MP Jim Knight, though this constituency was Labour's smallest majority and was one of the most fiercely contested seats in the General Election of 2005. In the event, the seat went against the national trend and Mr Knight's majority increased slightly on a swing from the Conservatives. In all other Dorset constituencies, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are the most successful parties: Mid-Dorset and North Poolemarker is represented by the Liberal Democrats, and West Dorsetmarker, Christchurch and North Dorsetmarker by the Conservatives.

The built up area of Poole and Bournemouth is divided into three constituencies, Bournemouth Eastmarker, Bournemouth Westmarker and Poole, all of which are represented by Conservative MPs. Dorset, the rest of the south west, and Gibraltarmarker are in the South West England constituency of the European Parliamentmarker.

Economy and industry

In 2003 the gross value added (GVA) for the administrative county was £4,673 million, with an additional £4,705 million for Poole and Bournemouth. 4% of GVA was produced by primary industry, 26% from secondary industry and 70% from tertiary industry. The average GVA for the 16 regions of South West England was £6,257 million. The GVA per person is £11,475 for the administrative county, £15,532 for Poole and Bournemouth, £15,235 for the South West and £16,100 for the UK.

The principal industry in Dorset was once agriculture. It has not, however, been the largest employer for many decades as mechanisation has substantially reduced the number of workers required. Agriculture has become less profitable and the industry has declined further. Between 1995 and 2003 GVA for primary industry (largely agriculture with some fishing and quarrying) declined from £229 to 188 million—7.1% to 4.0% of the county's GVA. In 2002, of the county was in agricultural use, down from in 1989, although the figure has fluctuated somewhat. Cattle is the most common animal stock in the county, their numbers fell from 240,413 to 178,328 in the same period; the dairy herds fell from 102,589 to 73,476. Sheep and pig farming has declined similarly.

West Dorset General Hospitals NHS Trust employs around 2,500 multi-disciplinary staff; the majority at the 500-bed Dorset County Hospitalmarker which provides a turnover of £76 million. This new hospital was a larger replacement for Dorchester Hospitalmarker, which was built in 1840, and closed in 1998.

Tourism has grown as an industry in Dorset since the early 19th century. 3.4 million British tourists and 360,000 foreign tourists visited the county in 2006, spending a combined total of £659 million. Numbers of both domestic and foreign tourists has fluctuated in recent years due to various factors including security and economic downturn, a trend reflected throughout the UK.

Dorset has little manufacturing industry, at 14.6% of employment (compared to 18.8% for the UK), and is ranked 30th out the 34 non-metropolitan English counties. The gross domestic product for the county is 84% that of the national average.

Dorset will host the sailing event at the 2012 Summer Olympics at the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academymarker in Portland Harbourmarker. Along with Weymouth Baymarker, these waters have been credited by many, including the Royal Yachting Association, as being amongst the best in Northern Europe for sailing. Due to the venue being completed and available before the Olympics (on May 19 2009), it will be used by international sailing teams, in preparation for the event in 2012.


As a largely rural county, Dorset has fewer major cultural institutions than larger or more densely populated areas. Major venues for concerts and theatre include Poole Borough Council's Lighthouse arts centre, Bournemouth's BICmarker and Pavilion Theatremarker, Wimborne's Tivoli Theatremarker, and the Pavilionmarker theatre in Weymouth. Dorset's most famous cultural institution is perhaps the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1893 and now one of the country's most celebrated orchestras.

Dorset is not especially famous in sport, though Football League Two A.F.C. Bournemouth, Conference South Dorchester Town F.C., Weymouth F.C., and minor county cricket club Dorset CCC play in the county. Rugby Union is played throughout the county and the Dorset & Wiltshire Rugby Football Union is the constituent body responsible for organising rugby union competitions in the county on behalf of the RFU. Bournemouth RFC compete in the fifth tier of national competition and are the reigning Dorset & Wiltshire RFU Challenge Cup Champions. Swanage & Wareham RFC compete in the sixth tier of national competition. The county is notable for its watersports, however, which take advantage of the sheltered waters of Weymouth Baymarker and Portland Harbourmarker, and Poole Baymarker and Poole Harbourmarker.

Dorset is famed in literature for being the native county of author and poet Thomas Hardy, and many of the places he describes in his novels in the fictional Wessex are in Dorset, which he renamed South Wessex. The National Trust owns Thomas Hardy's Cottagemarker, in woodland east of Dorchester, and Max Gatemarker, his former house in Dorchester. Several other writers have called Dorset home, including Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), who lived in Stalbridgemarker for a time; Ian Fleming (James Bond), who boarded at Durnford Schoolmarker, poet William Barnes; John le Carré, author of espionage novels; Tom Sharpe of Wilt fame lives there as does P.D. James (The Children of Men); satirical novelist Thomas Love Peacock; John Fowles (The French Lieutenant's Woman), lived in Lyme Regismarker before he died in late 2005; T.F. Powys lived in Chaldon Herringmarker for over 20 years and used it as inspiration for the fictitious village of Folly Down in his novel Mr. Weston's Good Wine; John Cowper Powys, his elder and better known brother, who set a number of his most famous novels in Dorset and Somerset; and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde while living in Bournemouthmarker.

Dorset is also the birthplace of artist Sir James Thornhill, musicians John Eliot Gardiner, Eddie Argos, P.J. Harvey, Greg Lake and Robert Fripp, photographer Jane Bown, palaeontologist Mary Anning and archbishops John Morton and William Wake. Explorer Sir Walter Raleigh lived in Dorset for some of his life, while scientist and philosopher Robert Boyle lived in Stalbridge Manor for a time; the naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace was also a resident, and is buried at Broadstone. Dorset is a popular home for celebrities. Those who have moved to or own second homes in Dorset include Madonna and Guy Ritchie, actor Martin Clunes, singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, Jonathan Ross, Oasis singer Noel Gallagher, composer, conductor and musician Peter Moss, and footballer Jamie Redknapp. Many of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's television programmes are filmed at his home, just outside of Bridportmarker. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, lived in Corfe Mullenmarker and began his career at telecommunications company Plessey in Poole. Classical composer Muzio Clementi lived and worked near Blandford in Dorset.

Settlements and communications

Weymouth promenade

Dorset is largely rural with many small villages, few large towns, no cities and no motorways. The largest conurbation is the South East Dorset conurbationmarker which consists of the seaside resort of Bournemouthmarker, the historic port of Poolemarker and the town of Christchurchmarker plus many villages. Bournemouth was created in the Victorian era when sea bathing became popular. As an example of how affluent the area has become, Sandbanksmarker in Poole was worthless land unwanted by farmers in the nineteenth century, but is said to be amongst the highest land values by area in the world. Originally part of Hampshire, Bournemouth and Christchurch were added to boundaries of Dorset following the reorganisation of local government in 1974.

The other two major settlements in the county are Dorchestermarker, (the county town), and Weymouthmarker, one of the first tourist towns, frequented by George III, and still very popular today. Blandford Forummarker, Sherbornemarker, Gillinghammarker, Shaftesburymarker and Sturminster Newtonmarker are historical market towns which serve the farms and villages of the Blackmore Vale (Hardy's Vale of the Little Dairies). Blandford is home to the Badger brewery of Hall and Woodhouse. Bridportmarker, Lyme Regismarker, Warehammarker and Wimborne Minstermarker are also market towns. Lyme Regis and Swanagemarker are small coastal towns popular with tourists.

Still in construction on the western edge of Dorchester is the experimental new town of Poundburymarker (expected to be fully completed by 2025), commissioned and co-designed by Prince Charles. The suburb is designed to integrate residential and retail buildings and counter the growth of dormitory towns and car-oriented development.

Dorset is connected to London by two main railway lines. The West of England Main Line runs through the north of the county at Gillingham and Sherborne (there is also a station at Templecombe, just over the Somerset border). Running west to Crewkerne (Somerset) and Axminster (Devon) it provides a service for those who live in the western districts of Dorset. The South Western Main Line runs through the south at Bournemouth, Poole, Dorchester and the terminus at Weymouth. Additionally, the Heart of Wessex Line runs from Weymouth to Bristolmarker. Dorset is one of only four non metropolitan counties in England not to have a single motorway. The A303, A31 and A35 trunk roads run through the county. The only passenger airport in the county is Bournemouth International Airportmarker, but there are two passenger sea ports, at Poole and Weymouth. There are no major trunk routes to the North.

Despite these disadvantages, a flourishing bus service has been built up in the last fifteen years taking advantage of central and local government grants. To compensate for the missing rail link west of Dorchester one service bus runs regularly along the southerly A35 from Weymouth to Axminster. The Jurassic Coast service provides through travel from Poole to Exeter, exploiting a popular tourist route. Other routes connect towns in Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire. The number of services available to rural towns and villages has also increased over recent years.

Telecommunications company BT is to install a line giving "super-fast broadband connection" through Dorset, to provide for the increased demand during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. A campaign for the connection to remain after the Olympic Games began after the announcement, but BT has said it does not want to speculate so early.


Responsibility for education in Dorset is divided between three local authorities: Bournemouth and Poole unitary authorities and Dorset County Council, which covers the rest of the county. The county of Dorset has a comprehensive education system, primarily based on First, Middle and Upper schools, with transfer between schools at age 9 and 13. This system has allowed the predominantly rural county to provide early years education close to home, and to minimise transport requirements for older students. As school populations have fallen in parts of the county, however, the authority has begun to reintroduce a primary/secondary system with transfer at age 11, particularly in the more urban areas such as in Blandfordmarker, which has been two-tier since September 2005. There are 19 state and 8 independent upper or secondary schools in Dorset, with year sizes in the state schools of around 200.

Bournemouth has a selective system, with 10 state and 2 independent secondary schools, with transfer at age 11. Poole also has a selective system, with 8 state and 2 independent secondary schools, but primarily based on a Middle School system, transferring at age 8 and 12. Both councils have two single-sex selective grammar schools. Dorset has further education colleges in Bournemouth and Poolemarker, and in Dorchestermarker and Weymouthmarker. Bournemouth Universitymarker is Dorset's only university-level institution and the county is home to a number of prestigious independent schools such as Port Regis, Bryanston, Knighton House, Canford, Bournemouth Collegiate, Sherborne School, St Mary's Shaftesbury and Clayesmore.

Dorchester uses a three school system with Thomas Hardy school serving years nine to twelve. There have been a number of complaints from some residents of Dorchester whose children have not been given a place in the school whilst children who live in the Weymouth area have been given places.

See also

References and notes



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