2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Geography of Great Britain

Status Ceremonial & (smaller) Non-metropolitan county
Origin: Historic
Region: South West England
- Total
- Admin. council
- Admin. area
Ranked 20th
2,653 km²
Ranked 21st
2,542  km²
Admin HQ: Dorchester
Largest City/Town: Bournemouth (Unitary Authority)
ISO 3166-2: GB-DOR
ONS code: 19
- Total (2005 est.)
- Density
- Admin. council
- Admin. pop.
Ranked 30th
265 / km²
Ranked 31st
Ethnicity: 98.1% White
Arms of Dorset County Council
Dorset County Council
Executive Conservative
Members of Parliament
  • Annette Brooke
  • John Butterfill
  • Christopher Chope
  • Tobias Ellwood
  • Jim Knight
  • Oliver Letwin
  • Robert Syms
  • Robert Walter
  1. Weymouth and Portland
  2. West Dorset
  3. North Dorset
  4. Purbeck
  5. East Dorset
  6. Christchurch
  7. Bournemouth (Unitary)
  8. Poole (Unitary)

Dorset (pronounced 'DOR-sit' or [dɔ.sət], and sometimes in the past called Dorset shire) is a county in the south-west of England, on the English Channel coast. The county town is Dorchester, situated in the south of the county at 50°43′00″N, 02°26′00″W. Between its extreme points Dorset measures 50 miles (80 km) from east to west and 40 miles (64 km) north to south, and has an area of 1,024 square miles (2,653 km²). Dorset borders Devon to the west, Somerset to the north-west, Wiltshire to the north-east, and Hampshire to the east. The county is largely rural with a relatively low population and population density. Dorset's motto is 'Who's Afear'd'.

Dorset is famous for its beautiful coastline, the Jurassic Coast, which features landforms such as Lulworth Cove, the Isle of Portland, Chesil Beach and Durdle Door, as well as the holiday resorts of Poole, Bournemouth, Weymouth, Swanage, West Bay and Lyme Regis. Dorset is the setting of the novels of Thomas Hardy, who was born near the county town of Dorchester. The county has a long history of human settlement and some notable archaeology, including the hill forts of Maiden Castle and Hod Hill.


The earliest recorded use of the name was in AD 940 as Dorseteschire, meaning the dwellers (saete) of 'Dornuuarana' (Dorchester), the place of fisticuffs ( Welsh: 'Dwrn', 'fist'; and 'gwarae', 'play').

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 Purbeck, Weymouth and Chesil Beach 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, with 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 Castle. The chalk downs would have been deforested in these times, making way for farmland.

Dorset has many notable Roman artifacts, particularly around the Roman town Dorchester, where Maiden Castle was captured from the Celtic Durotriges by Vespasian in 54 AD, early in the Roman occupation. Roman roads radiated from Dorchester, following the tops of the chalk ridges to the many small Roman villages around the county. In the Roman era, settlements moved from the hill tops to the valleys, and the hilltops had been abandoned by the 4th century. A large defensive ditch, Bokerley Dyke, 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 19th century, as well as many monasteries, which were important landowners and centres of power.

In the 12th century civil war, Dorset was fortified with the construction of the defensive castles at Corfe Castle, Powerstock, Wareham and Shaftesbury, and the strengthening of the monasteries such as at Abbotsbury. In the 17th century English Civil War, Dorset had a number of royalist strongholds, such as Sherborne Castle and Corfe Castle, which were 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 Medieval times, the remaining hilltop settlements shrank further and disappeared. From the Tudor to Georgian periods, farms specialised and the monastic estates were broke up, leading to an increase in population and settlement size. During the industrial revolution, Dorset remained largely rural and still retains its agricultural economy. 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 Chase, the Dorset Downs and Purbeck Hills. 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 nonresistant 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 Harbour, the second largest natural harbour in the world (after Sydney Harbour, though Sydney's claim is disputed). The harbour is very shallow in places and contains a number of islands, notably Brownsea Island, famous for its Red Squirrel sanctuary and as the birthplace of the Scouting movement. The harbour, and the chalk and limestone hills of the Purbecks to the south, lie atop Britain's largest onshore oil field. The field, operated by BP from Wytch Farm, produces a high-quality oil and boasts the world's oldest continuously pumping well ( Kimmeridge, since the early 1960s) and longest horizontal drill (5 miles, ending underneath Bournemouth pier). The pottery produced by Poole Pottery from the local clays is famous for its quality.

Most of Dorset's coastline 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 many important fossils, including the first complete Ichthyosaur and fossilised Jurassic trees.

Durdle Door natural arch
Durdle Door natural arch

The coast also features examples of most notable coastal landforms, including a textbook example of cove ( Lulworth Cove) and natural arch ( Durdle Door). Jutting out into the English Channel is a limestone island, the Isle of Portland, connected to the mainland by Chesil Beach, a tombolo. One of the best ways to explore the Jurassic Coast is to follow the South West Coast Path National Trail that runs along it.

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 Devon. Until recently Pilsdon Pen at 909  ft (277  m), was thought to be the highest hill in Dorset, but recent surveys have shown nearby Lewesdon Hill to be higher, at 279 m (915 ft). It is also a Marilyn.

The county has the highest proportion of 'Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty' (44% of the whole county), 'World Heritage Sites', and 'Sites of Special Scientific interest' in England.

Lulworth Cove, a fine example of a cove.
Lulworth Cove, a fine example of a cove.

The county has warm summers and mild winters, being the third most southern county in the UK, but not westerly enough to be afflicted by the Atlantic storms of Cornwall and Devon. The average annual temperature of the county is 9.8 to 12 °C (49.6 to 53.6 °F), with the exception of the highest areas of the downs. In coastal areas around Dorset it is rare to have frosts, and it almost never snows. The county enjoys more sunshine than any other county, along with Hampshire, Kent and East and West Sussex, with all five counties receiving 1541–1885 hours. Average annual rainfall is 871–1060 mm, less than counties to the west but slightly more than those to the east. This slightly high rainfall means that Dorset has lush vegetation.


Poole Quay
Poole Quay

Dorset has a population of 407,217, plus 165,370 in Bournemouth and 137,562 in Poole (total 710,149 — mid-year estimates for 2006). The following statistics exclude Poole and Bournemouth, which are no longer part of the administrative county.

91.3% of Dorset's population were born in England and 95.2% were born within the United Kingdom. 98.8% are indigenous, an extreme example of the disproportionately small ethnic minority population in rural areas.

78% of the population are Christian, 13.7% are not religious.

Dorset has the second highest proportion of elderly people of any county in Britain, second only to East Sussex, with 25.9% of the population over 65 and 13.9% of the 16–74 age range retired. The county has the lowest birth rate of the 34 English counties, at 9.6 births per 1000. It has the third highest mortality rate, behind East Sussex and Devon. 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 conurbation, 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 May 2005, 24 Conservative, 16 Liberal Democrat, four Labour and one independent councillor sit on the county council. All Labour councillors were elected in the built up area of Weymouth and Portland, with rural areas returning Conservatives and Liberal Democrat councillors.

This pattern is repeated at the national level. South Dorset 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 Poole is represented by the Liberal Democrats, and West Dorset, Christchurch and North Dorset by the Conservatives.

The built up area of Poole and Bournemouth is divided into three constituencies, Bournemouth East, Bournemouth West and Poole, all of which are currently represented by Conservative MPs.

Economy and industry

Abbotsbury Great Barn
Abbotsbury Great Barn

In 2003 the gross value added (GVA) for the 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 12 statistics regions of South West England was £6,257 million. Using 2004 population estimates, the GVA per person was £6,671 for Dorset, £15,683 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, 1,903 km² of the county was in agricultural use, down from 1,986 km² in 1989, although the figure has fluctuated somewhat. Cattle, the principal animal stock in the county, fell from 240,413 to 178,328 in the same period, the dairy herds falling from 102,589 to 73,476. Sheep and pig farming has declined in a similar fashion.

One of Dorset's famous products is the Dorset Knob, a hard biscuit. It can be used as an accompaniment to cheese, especially the local Dorset cheese, Blue Vinney.

Tourism has grown as an industry in Dorset since the early 19th century. 4.2 million British tourists and 260,000 foreign tourists visited the county in 2002, spending a combined total of £768 million. Foreign tourism declined in 1999 (310,000, down from 410,000 in 1998), and again in 2002 (down from 320,000), the latter decline being blamed on the effects of the global economy and security.

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

Dorset will host the only Olympic event at the 2012 Summer Olympics held outside London – sailing – at the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy in Portland Harbour. The seas around Weymouth and Portland rank amongst the best in Northern Europe for sailing.

Dorset people

Cerne Abbas Manor House
Cerne Abbas Manor House

Dorset is famed in literature for being the native county of author and poet Thomas Hardy. Many of the places he describes in his novels in the fictional Wessex are in Dorset. The National Trust owns Thomas Hardy's Cottage, in woodland east of Dorchester, and Max Gate, his house in Dorchester. Stalbridge was home of Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Poet William Barnes, authors Theodore Francis Powys, John le Carré, P.D. James and satirical novelist Thomas Love Peacock are also locals. John Cowper Powys set a number of his most famous novels in Dorset and Somerset. The author John Fowles lived in Lyme Regis before he died in late 2005. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde while living in Bournemouth.

Dorset is also the birthplace of artist Sir James Thornhill, musicians P.J. Harvey and Robert Fripp, photographer Jane Bown, paleontologist Mary Anning and archbishops John Morton and William Wake. Explorer Sir Walter Raleigh lived in Dorset for a time. Scientist and philosopher Robert Boyle lived in Stalbridge Manor for a time. 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, and footballer Jamie Redknapp. Many of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's television programmes are filmed at his home, just outside of Bridport. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web lived in Colehill near Wimborne.

Settlements and communications

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury
Gold Hill, Shaftesbury
Fortuneswell and Chesil Beach
Fortuneswell and Chesil Beach
Weymouth Promenade
Weymouth Promenade

Dorset is largely rural with many small villages, few large towns, and no cities. The largest conurbation is the South East Dorset conurbation which consists of the seaside resort of Bournemouth, the historic port of Poole and the town of Christchurch 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, Sandbanks in Poole was worthless land unwanted by farmers in the 19th century, but is said to be amongst the highest land values by area in the world . Bournemouth and Christchurch were added to the county from Hampshire in the county boundary changes of 1974.

The other two major settlements in the county are Dorchester, the county town, and Weymouth, one of the first tourist towns, frequented by George III, and still very popular today.

Blandford Forum, Sherborne, Gillingham, Shaftesbury and Sturminster Newton 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. Bridport, Lyme Regis, Wareham and Wimborne Minster are also market towns. Lyme Regis and Swanage are small coastal towns popular with tourists.

Currently in construction on the western edge of Dorchester is the experimental new town of Poundbury, 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. The South Western Main Line runs through the south at Bournemouth, Poole, Dorchester and the terminus at Weymouth. Additionally, the Wessex Main Line runs from Weymouth to Bristol. Dorset is one of only four non-urban counties in England to not have a single motorway, along with Cornwall, Norfolk and Suffolk. The A303, A31 and A35 trunk roads run through the county. The only passenger airport in the county is Bournemouth International Airport, and there are two passenger sea ports, at Poole and Weymouth.

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