Free English Heritage sites to visit in Dorset this summer

The ruined Knowlton Church stand with the sun blazing behind its weathered stone. The church sits on an open field of grass.

There are plenty of local English Heritage sites to visit this year, like Knowlton Church (pictured) - Credit: Clear Inner Vision, Flickr

This summer, visit some of these amazing English Heritage locations and learn a bit more about the amazing history of Dorset

Most of us will need to stay closer to home this summer but there are lots of opportunities for sight-seeing and wonder right on your doorstep you may not have known about. English Heritage looks after over 400 buildings, monuments, and locations of interest across the country. It can be hard to pick where to visit, so we've put together a handy guide to Dorset heritage sites that you can visit for free.

Maiden Castle

Almost 2000 years ago, this hilltop fort would have been bustling with people and work. Built in the early Iron Age, this huge fort was home to hundreds of people and would have been a hub for trade with the continent. The history of this site actually goes back much further though, as excavations have revealed Neolithic occupation more than 6,000 years ago. Abandoned by both eventually, there are the remains of a Roman Temple nestled in the top of the hill too.

You can find out more about the history of Maiden Castle here. Whilst you're visiting, you can also listen to the English Heritage Echoscape which offers a unique way to experience the space and how it has been used over time.

This is a fantastic place to visit for free this summer and offers plenty of walks and views. Dogs are welcome although will need to be kept on a lead as there are often sheep grazing on the land. You can park at the edge of the fort and walk up to it. 

Just a short drive away, you can also explore more remnants of the Roman occupation at Jordan Hill Temple. On the outskirts of Overcombe, this site has great views across Weymouth Bay and more opportunities for walking. Why not finish your day off with a stroll into Overcombe and a stop at one of the many cafes by the beach. 

Grassy mounds and ridges in the hillside stretch off as far as the eye can see, walkers are exploring one such ridge.

At the same as 50 football pitches, Maiden Castle is one of the largest Iron Age hill forts in Europe. - Credit: Mark Robinson, Flickr

Alternatively, you can cross the causeway and visit Portland Castle which is reopening on May 17. There is a small ticket cost to enter the castle but it is worth every penny. The coastal fort was built in the 1540s by Henry VIII to protect against a Spanish invasion. There is lots to explore here and it offers fun for everyone including children. There is a tea room which will be offering takeaway and you can sit in the Contemporary Heritage Gardens to take in the views. 

Tickets and more about what's on are available here.

The entrance to Portland Castle can be seen. Trees rise from behind the walls.

Portland Castle offers a wealth of sights and history. - Credit: Hugh Llewelyn, Flickr

Winterbourne Poor Lots Barrows

Just a short walk from available parking, lies the huge burial mounds of Winterbourne Poor Lot. Straddling the A35, there are 44 mounds of various sizes to walk among here. The 'cemetery' dates back to around 1500BC and is part of the much larger Dorset Bronze Age history. You can learn more about the barrows and how to identify the differences between them here

Less than a 10 minute drive from Winterbourne is another amazing Neolithic site to enjoy. On the hilltop overlooking Abbotsbury is the Kingston Russel Stone Circle. This next stop can be a little hard to find as it is not signposted, but it offers a pleasant short walk to the field where the stones lie. The circle is thought to be part of a larger monument from the late Neolithic period over 4000 years ago. You can learn more about their uses here.

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You could merge the Winterbourne and Kingston Russell visits with our next free English Heritage visit as they are very close together. The remains of Abbotsbury Abbey can be found just on the outskirts of the village of Abbotsbury where there are many food and shopping opportunities available. 

The ruins of the abbey wall can be seen, the more in tact St Catherine's Chapel can be seen in the distance

Abbotsbury Abbey dates back over 800 years. - Credit: Anguskirk, Flickr

The abbey was originally founded in the reign of King Cnut and the remains seen today were built between the 13th and 14th-century. Fragments of the abbey can be seen and explored but would have originally covered much of the area now take up by other buildings and the present parish churchyard. 

A short walk up the hill beyond the abbey leads to another free English Heritage site linked to the abbey. St Catherine's Chapel was a pilgrimage site overlooking Chesil Beach and the Isle of Portland. Its isolated setting make for some great views and there are occasional services held by the parish. Whilst the chapel is currently closed, it is hoped it can safely open again this summer.  

There is also Abbotsbury Swannery just down the road where you can walk through the heart of a Mute Swan colony. This is a separately owned attraction to English Heritage but well worth a visit if you're in the area. Tickets and information can be found here.

Knowlton Church

Our next English Heritage Site is a truly hidden gem that you may never notice if you weren't looking closely. Knowlton Church and Earthworks is a treasure within a treasure as the 12th-century ruined church actually sits in the middle of a Neolithic ritual site known as Church Henge.

Whilst not quite as recognisable as Stone Henge in Salisbury, this earthwork version could date back almost 5000 years. It is part of a wider network of mounds which are best seen from above due to damage by agriculture over the years, You can learn more about what to spot on your visit here. The open and rural space makes for some great walking while you're there.

Knowlton Church sits in the centre of a round grassy ridge on a cloudy day.

This English Heritage Site is a treasure with a treasure. - Credit: James West, Flickr

If you don't mind popping over the Wiltshire border, there is another great English Heritage site called Old Wardour Castle. For a small ticket price, you can explore the ruins of what would have one been the height of luxury. For the price of entry, there is plenty to do here for both adults and children. Booking is a must at the moment and you can get more information here.  

Christchurch Castle

The final stop on our English Heritage tour of Dorset are the beautiful ruins of Christchurch Castle. Sat just off the High Street, this is great addition to any trip to the town of Christchurch where there are plenty of amenities to make a full day trip.

The site is home to both a classic motte-and-bailey castle and a Norman House. The latter is one of the only surviving examples of domestic Norman architecture left in England, even its chimney has survived in near-perfect condition. The castle has a long history dating all the way back to 1100 when Richard de Redvers, a baron who accompanied William the Conqueror to England, began building the great earthen mound the ruins of the castle now sit on.

You can learn more about the Baron and how the castle and house developed here. This is a great piece of history right in the heart of a beautiful town. 

Up some stone steps on a grassy hill, lies the ruins of a castle tower, you can still see where doors and windows were.

This imposing ruin was built by a friend of William the Conqueror. - Credit: Elliot Brown, Flickr

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