It’s easy to look back with longing at the old countryside of England, the sort you read about in Agatha Christie or see on Masterpiece Theater. Indeed, British geographer Richard Muir called the 1880s to the 1940s “The Golden Age of the English Country­side”—explaining that people had enough money for good sanitation and nice gardens but were too poor for anything else. Since then, 20th-century prosperity has left no corner of Britain unscathed, but some places have been a lot less scathed than others. In this regard, Dorset’s county town of Dorchester is a pleasant step back.

Dorchester is a step back in another sense as well; it might be one of the oldest cities in Europe. Evidence of settlement goes back to 4500 bc; London, in comparison, goes back no further than ad 50. By the time the first Roman traders had set up shop in London, Dorchester was already a center for aboriginal Neolithic farmers (who built a meeting and trading place there), the mysterious Megalithic Builders (whose henge temple still stands near the town center) and the Celts (whose fortified city is Dorchester’s most remarkable landmark).

One of Dorchester’s endearingly old-fashioned features is its compactness. The entire town of 16,000 people is completely contained by the River Frome on its north and a belt highway encircling its other three sides, a sprawl-free oval with open country always an easy walk away. It’s the sort of place where you can arrive by train and do without a car, which, as it turns out, is a good thing; Dorchester is a hard three-hour drive from London, some of it on two-lane roads. This remoteness explains some of Dorchester’s quaintness, but land ownership is another factor. Much of Dorchester’s potential building land is owned by the Duke of Cornwall, aka Charles, Prince of Wales, a resolute foe of Modernism.

As its name implies, Dorchester was the stone-built Roman town (ceaster) for administering the Celtic Durotriges tribe (Dur). Roman roads, the engineered and paved superhighways of the ancient world, converge at the town’s center, and one of them still forms the town’s High Street.

The region’s finest Roman site is only two blocks from the train station: The giant oval embankments of Maumbury Rings served the Romans as the town amphitheater. It wasn’t built by the Romans, however, or even the Celts. The mysterious Late Stone Age civilization known as the Megalithic Builders constructed it as a henge, or circular embanked temple, around 2500 bc. No one knows for sure what the Megalithic Builders did with their henges, but they built similar structures at Avebury and Stonehenge at about the same time, and their henges and stone circles can still be seen as far north as Scotland’s Orkney Islands.

Until the Romans rebuilt Dorchester in the 1st century ad, the Celtic Durotriges ruled the region from the next hill west, where they built Europe’s largest hillfort, Maiden Castle. The distance is only a mile and a half, but you still might want to take a taxi; you’ll get plenty of walking once you arrive.

Maiden Castle’s triple ditch-and-bank ramparts, each up to two stories above the other, form a 1.2-mile circle around the central 45 acres that housed its pre-Roman settlement, and it has commanding views the entire way. Hillforts of this sort typically served as royal compounds, where the aristocratic leaders of the British Celts lived in circular timber houses, kept their garrison, and stored the booty they collected as tax for “protecting” the region’s farmers. The farmers themselves lived on their farms with little or no fortification, so evidently this protection scheme worked.

Maiden Castle reached its present form around 400 bc, but earlier settlements on the site go back to 4500 bc. Underneath the Celtic fort, archeologists found a square “camp” surrounded by a low ditch and bank with an open causeway at one end, probably used by the area’s original Stone Age farmers as a permanent community center where they could trade cattle. Counting this as the first settlement means that Dorchester may have been a town of some sort for 6,500 years—old even by Egyptian standards.

You have to wonder what happened to the Durotriges nobility, and why they abandoned such a magnificent fortification when the Romans came. In the 1930s, Maiden Castle’s primary archeologist published a colorful paper detailing a horrific Roman attack on the hillfort, but later studies have rejected this. Archeologists now believe that the Durotriges rulers just left. They moved to the new Roman civil settlement, donned togas and kept themselves warm with hypocausts instead of open fires in the middle of timber huts. Honestly, you can’t blame them.

If you are feeling a bit peckish after walking around this huge Iron Age fortification, you are in luck. It is a pleasant 1.5-mile walk from The Poet Laureate, the first-rate pub in the heart of Poundbury. (Follow the lane back until it passes over the beltway, then walk up the paved path on the left; the views back towards Maiden Castle are great.) The Poet Laureate is almost unique—a newly built pub that’s been turned into a traditional village local by its owner. This was so contrary to the normal trend that its owner was declared “Beer Drinker of 2002.” Its owner happens to be Prince Charles, who built it as an integral part of his experiment in creating a humane urban environment, named Poundbury (see British Heritage, May 2007).

Charles, it turns out, is a champion of the village local as a place where all the classes mix and meet, and has done it up right. Good food and good local ale complement a walk around Poundbury Market, an architectural wonder that mimics a traditional market square.

From here, downtown Dorchester is less than a mile to the east down one of the town’s Roman roads. Dorchester’s commercial district is about par for an English market town—dense, noisy, full of bustle and hurry, with lots of shops to poke into. It’s fairly large, taking up 2,000 feet along High Street, then going two or three blocks deep to its south.
In this area are no fewer than four mu­seums, covering every aspect of local history, geology and culture. The best part, however, lies one block north. Take the B3147 (another Roman road) past the statue of local novelist-poet Thomas Hardy and the Dorset County offices, then take a dogleg over the River Frome, to the riverside footpath.

Along this path is more than half a mile of some of the most intensely beautiful scenery in England. Never more than three blocks from downtown, the riverside walk will lead you past water meadows and weirs, thatched cottages and woods. Be sure to cross the low, stone arch bridge, for a fine river view, then a view of Hangman’s Cottage, a remarkably pretty thatched cottage once home to the town’s executioner. Return to the river path, which now follows the town’s millstream, crystal clear and pebble-bottomed, alive with birds, with woods and meadows and views to the historic neighborhoods. Here, 18th-century town houses rise straight up from the river bed, and throw cast iron bridges over to the path from their rear garden gates. There’s a short circular path off to the left that explores the wooded environment of the water meadows, then a fine little urban garden. The path exits on High Street, on the eastern edge of downtown.

The literary minded will note that Thomas Hardy describes this walk in The Mayor of Casterbridge. Even if you are not particularly literary—or are unimpressed by Hardy’s dense Victorian writings—Thomas Hardy’s Cottage is worth a visit. Run by the National Trust, the cottage sits 4.2 miles east of town, a distance Hardy walked every day of his childhood to attend school in town (although if you decide to take a taxi, no one will blame you). The cottage represents a typical yeoman farmer’s home, furnished as when Hardy lived there, with exceptional gardens of the sort a successful farmer might have had. It backs up onto Puddletown Forest, several square miles of open heath, coppice and hardwoods, through which you can see the embanked remains of yet another Roman road.

Dorchester is closely surrounded by some of England’s most beautiful scenery, and these short trips let you step into it. You will experience quiet valleys with meandering lazy rivers; lovely villages with thatched cottages like Thomas Hardy’s; and wide views of Maiden Castle from grass-topped hills. For a one- or two-day trip from London or elsewhere, the train to Dorchester will take you deep into England, and deep into the past.