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24 exciting things you should do in Dorset for 2024

Shute Lane holloway. (Photo: Natural England)
Shute Lane holloway. (Photo: Natural England)

Dorset magazine’s editor shares favourite places and events happening in 2024 for you to experience the county in new and exciting ways, from walking a holloway and stargazing to enjoying world-class music, art and literature

Stroll along Hell Way [SHUTE LANE IMAGE}

West Dorset is criss-crossed by holloways formed by what the Rev. Gilbert White described in 1788 as ‘the traffic of ages and the fretting of water’. Carved through soft sandstone rock, this Tolkienesque subterranean world can be up to 10m deep, graffiti from passing travellers etched between gnarled tree roots and ferns. Connecting Symondsbury with North Chideock, the holloways of Shute’s Lane and Hell Lane together form one of Britain’s finest sunken trails.

Dorset's starry delights

Cranborne Chase National Landscape is an International Dark Sky Reserve making it one of the best places in the UK to stargaze, and they often host stargazing events. Top spots include Knowlton Church and earthworks, Milton Abbas, Compton Abbas and the Cerne Giant. For those wanting a guided trip around the constellations, the Wessex Astronomical Society hold monthly stargazing events at the astronomy dome at Durlston Country Park near Swanage.

Glamping on Brownsea

Set in the sheltered waters of Poole Harbour, Brownsea Island is not only a haven for wildlife – home to Dorset’s only red squirrel colony and a birdwatching hotspot - but you can also glamp here. Catch the ferry from Poole, then walk to your bell tent on the south shore, where Lord Baden Powell held the first Scout camp in 1907. Hot showers and fabulous views come with your 21st century glamping experience.

Great British Life: Swanage railways steam train chuffing past Corfe Caste. ( Photo: Andrew PM Wriight)Swanage railways steam train chuffing past Corfe Caste. ( Photo: Andrew PM Wriight)

Full steam ahead

If the thought of boarding a steam train quickens your pulse, then the award-winning Swanage Railway is your perfect day out. Rebuilt from nothing after almost seven miles of the original line was removed in 1972, this volunteer-led heritage railway has been steadily replacing the tracks since 1979 and now runs steam and diesel trains between Swanage and Corfe Castle. Events in 2024 include the Roads to Rail Steam Rally (June 28-30).

Dive into the Dorset Arts Scene

Dorset Art Weeks (May 25-June 9) is one of the UK's largest open studio events. This biennial flagship showcase is supported by hundreds of artists across the county who open their studios and workshops to the public, or host group exhibitions locally. Running alongside this, the Purbeck Art Weeks Festival embraces both visual and performing arts with around 40 artists opening their studios and an impressive line-up of world class musicians.

Great British Life: As You Like It, performed by Brownsea Open Air Theatre. (Photo: Neil Goridge) As You Like It, performed by Brownsea Open Air Theatre. (Photo: Neil Goridge)

Shakespeare on an Island

In 1964 the National Trust, the new owners of Brownsea Island, celebrated Shakespeare’s 400th birthday with an open-air performance of The Tempest by Bournemouth Little Theatre Club, from this Brownsea Open Air Theatre was born. Nearly 60 years later they have performed over 30 different plays. This year it’s Macbeth (July 24 – August 9). There can’t be many theatre trips that involve taking a ferry (from Poole) to an island!

Hit the trail

Dorset has some challenging long-distance walking trails. The Stour Valley Way (64 miles) follows the river from its source at Stourhead to the sea at Christchurch. Cerne Valley Trail (26 miles) is a circular walk taking in Minterne Magna, Cerne Abbas, Nether Cerne, Godmanstone, Forston and Charminster. The Jubilee Trail (90 miles) winds through quiet villages, rolling downs and secret valleys from Forde Abbey across Dorset to Bokerley Dyke on the Hampshire border.

Great British Life: Statue of Mary Anning in Lyme Regis. (Photo: Caron B/iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus)Statue of Mary Anning in Lyme Regis. (Photo: Caron B/iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus)

Fondle a fossil 

Lyme Regis is the birthplace of trailblazing paleontologist Mary Anning, her striding statue is by the Marine Theatre. It also hosts an interactive, hands-on Fossil Festival (June 8 - 9). This free family-friendly event includes talks on geology and paleontology by world class experts, local fossil walks and creative workshops with a fossil and dinosaur theme. Guided fossil walks are available all year round, simply book via Lyme Regis Museum.

Wander through a wildflower meadow 

Hogchester is a75-acre remnant of a former Dorset dairy farm near Charmouth which has been lovingly restored as a wildflower meadow with the support of Dorset Wildlife Trust. The views over the Jurassic Coast from here are breath-taking, and Sir David Attenborough filmed here for the BBC series Wild Isles. Explore these wonderous wildflower meadows and their clouds of butterflies during Open Meadows from May 13 to July 31.

Great British Life: Rockpool heaven at Kimmeridge. (Photo: Allou/iStock /Getty Images Plus)Rockpool heaven at Kimmeridge. (Photo: Allou/iStock /Getty Images Plus)

Go on a rock pool safari

Kimmeridge Bay is one of the finest rock pooling sites in the UK. This Marine Conservation Area on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast also offers underwater nature trails for snorkelers. The Fine Foundation Wild Seas Centre, which is based here, has interactive displays and aquaria giving you a glimpse of local flora and fauna here, such as peacock’s tail seaweed and Montagu’s blennies. They also host guided rockpool safaris in the summer.

Enjoy the dawn chorus

If you’ve never experienced nature’s magical symphony of the dawn chorus, look out for guided Dawn Chorus Walks coinciding with International Dawn Chorus Day (May 5). Most happen mid to late April and into early May, when native and migratory birds are singing their little hearts out to establish territory or attract a potential mate. Both Dorset Wildlife Trust and the RSPB host Dawn Chorus walks, often with breakfast after.

Great British Life: The shrine of St Wite. (Photo: Edward Griffiths)The shrine of St Wite. (Photo: Edward Griffiths)

Be touched by Dorset’s patron saint

The cross of Saint Wite, Dorset’s patron saint, is on the county flag and her feast day on June 1st is Dorset Day. Her modest medieval shrine at the Church of Saint Candida and Holy Cross at Whitchurch Canonicorim is a rare survivor. Underneath the limestone coffin containing the bones of Saint Wite, are three oval openings into which pilgrims insert ailing limbs or requests for intercession, a custom which continues today.

Page turning Literary Festivals

Shaftesbury Book Festival: Reading the Land (March 15-17) explores nature writing; Sherborne Travel Writing Festival takes you around the world (April 5 – 7); Sturminster Newton Literary Festival celebrates Thomas Hardy, William Barnes, and Robert Young (June 8 –16); Lyme Crime (June 20 –22) is a crime and thriller fiction festival; while Dorchester Literary Festival (October 12 –19) and Bridport Literary Festival (Nov 3 – 9) attract a glittering array of authors.

A Land of Bone & Stone 

Hidden in the hills between Dorchester and Weymouth is the South Dorset Ridgeway, an ancient 17-mile trackway that begins at West Bexington and finishes at Osmington Mills. It passes through a vast ceremonial landscape that, due to its barrows, stone circles and henges, is as important as Stonehenge and Avebury. These include the Kingston Russell Stone Circles and the Neolithic barrow Hell Stone, the latter is a great place to watch a sunset.

Great British Life: Natalie Clein founder of the Purbeck International Chamber Music Festival. (Photo: Neda Navaee)Natalie Clein founder of the Purbeck International Chamber Music Festival. (Photo: Neda Navaee)

World class music festivals

The award-winning Sherborne Abbey Festival (May 2 –9) is a celebration of music covering opera, choral, classical, jazz and more, with concerts held in locations across the towns as well as at the beautiful Abbey. The Purbeck International Chamber Music Festival (29 August – September 1) is headed up by internationally-renowned cellist Natalie Clein who invites exceptional musicians, actors and lecturers to make music with her on the Isle of Purbeck.

Watch the rare birdie 

From booming bitterns at RSPB Weymouth Wetlands and spoonbills at Brownsea Island’s lagoon, to the Chesil Beach Little Tern Project, Dorset is a paradise for birdwatchers. The reintroduction of ospreys, which have now successfully raised two broods of chicks (the first in southern England for almost 200 years), has seen people flocking to Birds of Poole Harbour birdwatching cruises. Poole Harbour is also a hotspot for white-tailed eagle activity.

Great British Life: Hardy's Cottage at Higher Bockhampton where the Hardy Way starts. (Photo: Edward Griffiths)Hardy's Cottage at Higher Bockhampton where the Hardy Way starts. (Photo: Edward Griffiths)

In the footsteps of Thomas Hardy

Created in the 1990s by Margaret Marande, author of The Hardy Way: A 19th Century Pilgrimage, The Hardy Way is a waymarked (labelled HW) long distance walking trail through Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. The 212-mile route starts from Higher Bockhampton, where Hardy was born, and takes in the Piddle and Frome valleys, sections of the Jurassic Coast, Cranborne Chase, the Blackmore Vale and Brit Valley, concluding in Stinsford churchyard, near Dorchester, where his heart is buried.

I Capture the Castles

Dorset has some extraordinary castles, the oldest of which is Corfe Castle. The distinctive ruins of this thousand-year-old stronghold, destroyed during the English Civil War, dominate the Purbeck skyline. Portland Castle is one of Henry VIII's finest coastal forts, built in the early 1540s to protect against French and Spanish invasion. Sherborne Castle, built by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1594, is famous for its landscaped gardens with lake designed by Capability Brown.

Scale a Dorset hillfort 

Maiden Castle, a mile or so outside Dorchester, is one of the largest and most complex Iron Age hillforts in Europe. The size of 50 football pitches, its huge multiple ramparts, mostly built in the 1st century BC, tower over the surrounding landscape. Download the Echoscape app from the English Heritage website for an immersive audio experience of Maiden Castle’s history that includes thrilling tales from Iron Age storyteller Nonna.

Great British Life: Kingston Lacy, (Photo: Chris Dorney/iStock Editorial /Getty Images Plus)Kingston Lacy, (Photo: Chris Dorney/iStock Editorial /Getty Images Plus)

A very fine house in the country (Kingston lacy image)

Athelhampton House and Gardens, near Puddletown, is one of England’s finest and prettiest Tudor Manor Houses. The Great Hall was built in 1485, with later additions from the 16th century onwards. Kingston Lacy, near Wimborne, is where the Bankes family moved after Corfe Castle was destroyed. This lavish family home, re-imagined as a Venetian Palace, has artworks by Rubens, Van Dyck, Titian and Brueghel, and ancient Egyptian artefacts including The Philae Obelisk.

Eye up the Cerne Giant

Standing at 180 feet tall, this priapic club brandishing chalk figure carved into the hillside at Cerne Abbas is an arresting sight. Scientific analysis by National Trust archaeologists in 2021 concluded that the Cerne Giant was probably first constructed in the late Saxon period. And a rectangular earthwork enclosure above the giant, known as the Trendle, is probably Iron Age; the Wessex Morris Men perform here at sunrise on May Day.

Britain’s first Snowdrop Town

Shaftesbury is the home of the Snowdrop Festival (10-18 February). Started in 2012 to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, to date over 200 thousand snowdrops have been planted by volunteers to create accessible snowdrop walks for all (download from their website). The snowdrops bloom from late January, but during the festival week (February 10-18) there is a Snowdrop Study Day, a Snowdrop Sale and a Snowdrop Lantern Parade on February 17.

My Blue Heaven 

Dorset is blessed with beautiful bluebell woods, here are some to visit from mid-April onwards: Delcombe Wood, Hooke Park, King Down Wood, Thorncombe Wood, Abbott Street Copse (also known as Pamphill Woods), Chetterwood, Langdon Wood, Mistleberry Wood, Kingston Lacy, and Fifehead Wood. The river of bluebells that ripples down the slopes of Colmers Hill near Symondsbury is top of my list! Find details for 15 Dorset Bluebell walks on our website.

Great British Life: Mapperton's award-winning gardens in autumn, (Photo: Supplied by Mapperton House & Gardens)Mapperton's award-winning gardens in autumn, (Photo: Supplied by Mapperton House & Gardens)

How does your garden grow? 

Minterne Gardens has a world-renowned collection of Himalayan rhododendrons and azaleas planted by a chain of small lakes, waterfalls and streams. Exotic rarities thrive in the coastal microclimate at Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens, their Magnolia Walk and Camillia Groves are stunning in spring. Winner of the Historic Houses Garden of the Year in 2020, Mapperton Gardens is famous for its large Italianate gardens including an Orangery, fountains, pools, herbaceous borders and bold topiary.


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