Photograph by Helen Hotson, Alamy Stock Photo
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English cottages in Shaftesbury, Dorset

Photograph by Helen Hotson, Alamy Stock Photo

England's Enchanted Garden: Dorset

Quintessentially English, Dorset brims with thatch-roof homes, winsome gardens, literary history, and ancient, fossil-rich beaches.

The pastoral landscapes of Dorset—celebrated as the quieter sister of the more popular Cotswolds—yield the kind of romantic imagery you’d expect to find cross-stitched on a tea towel: ivy-hugged homes, thatch-roofed inns, sheep-strewn hills.

In this corner of southwestern England, idyllic farmlands eventually give way to the Jurassic Coast, a 185-million-year-old shoreline that happens to be the only "natural" UNESCO World Heritage site in the United Kingdom.

Conveniently, a two-and-a-half-hour train ride southwest from London’s Waterloo Station delivers travelers straight to Dorset's doorstep. 

Here’s where to discover the best of Dorset's ancient past and charming present: 

Besides being Dorset’s main town, Dorchester achieved fictional fame as the setting for Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge.

The author himself is a hometown hero and his statue—with book in hand—graces the top of High Street. Visitors can tour the home he designed, Max Gate, and the cob-and-thatch dwelling where he grew up in the mid-1800s, now known as Hardy’s Cottage. It was in the latter, surrounded by woodlands and a garden brimming with roses, that he penned Far From the Madding Crowd.

A 30-minute drive inland reveals Sherborne, a Saxon-era town centered around its abbey. Originally built as a cathedral in the early eighth century (and now a parish church), the abbey's intricate vaulted ceilings still hold up—and its eight bells retain their claim of being among the loudest in the world.

Tourists also make pilgrimages to Sherborne for its thrift stores (the English call them “charity shops”). Snagging a full porcelain tea set for less than 10 pounds, in the shadow of the abbey’s spires, is a religious experience in itself.

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Afternoon tea at the Summer Lodge

If the rolling countryside isn't dramatic enough for you, head toward the English Channel, to West Bay. The most breathtaking part of the beach here is revealed when your back is turned to the ocean, as the trophies of this town are its 140-foot golden sandstone cliffs. (Visitors may recognize them from Netflix binges; they’re the ominous backdrop of the BBC's murder-mystery Broadchurch.) 

After you've had your fill of the view, follow the aroma of fried fish down the pier to find colorful huts selling fresh catches, Dorset apple cake, and hot jackets—the Brits’ version of a loaded baked potato.

Farther up the coast lies Lyme Regis, where fossil hunters can still find relics from prehistoric times along the pebbled shore. (Even the lampposts are shaped like fossilized shells.) Those who strike out should try the boardwalk, where scads of shops hold tchotchkes and treasures from years past. At Lyme Regis Antiques & Craft Centre, sail through endless rooms of dog figurines, Beatles paraphernalia, King George coins, and more.

Stroll the rest of the boardwalk while nibbling a slab of clotted cream fudge from locally loved Roly’s Fudge Pantry on Broad Street. At the harbor, Meryl Streep groupies will recognize the Cobb, the stone wall stretching out into the sea where a caped Streep somberly stood in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

After all that salty air, find your way back to terra firma in Evershot, where the wild daffodils may just outnumber village denizens, and settle down at the 24-room Summer Lodge Country House Hotel. A wing of the Georgian beauty was designed by none other than Thomas Hardy, and features an eponymous suite and a lush blue-toned drawing room ideally suited for afternoon tea.

If you're looking for something stronger than Earl Grey, check out the hotel’s whiskey room, adorned with dark brown leather and portraits of hunting dogs. More than 100 whiskeys, 200 cognacs and brandies, and 1,000 bottles of wine call it a night here, but the real amenity appears when the Summer Lodge’s cheese trolley rolls in for pairings. 

Hardy once called Dorset the “vale of dairy” and, luckily for visitors, the cows are still cranking. Blue Vinney sets Dorset’s blue cheese standard, but Barber's 1833 vintage reserve cheddar goes down smooth, too; it’s made from the same milk used to make the "pure-milk vodka" at Black Cow, another Dorset gem. 

Guests will spot another Hardy landmark—this time straight from the pages of Tess of the D'Urbervilles—across the street from the Summer Lodge: a 16th-century pub-inn hybrid known as the Acorn Inn.

Order up a pint of crisp Thatchers Gold cider with a side of brown bread from Evershot Village Bakery or enjoy a full-on meal of regional specialties, such as confit rabbit lasagna or slow-roasted lamb, topped off with a classically English dessert of sticky toffee pudding awash in butterscotch sauce. 

Walking past the stone-walled homes of Evershot, it’s difficult to remember that you’re not on the set of a period piece film. Dorset itself is like a secret garden—where you’ll always be invited in for a spot of cozy tea.