A Roman Town Walk
From the Town Pump, head west up the left hand side of High West Street. The first point of interest on the left is Judge Jeffreys Lodgings (1), which dates back to the 16th century and is one of the oldest buildings in the High Street. In 1685, the infamous Judge Jeffreys stayed here while conducting his ‘Bloody Assize’ which saw many local people condemned to death for their part in the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion against King James II.
Continue up High West Street, which is lined with fine Georgian buildings. When you reach the roundabout, bear left. Almost immediately on your left you will see part of the Roman Wall (2) that once surrounded Dorchester UK, or Durnovaria as it was then. The wall was originally 2.5 metres thick and stood 6 metres high. In the 18th century the wall was replaced by tree-lined walks that continue to define the town’s Roman perimeter.
Turn back in the direction of the roundabout and walk towards the Statue of Thomas Hardy (3). This statue commemorates Dorchester’s most famous son and one of the great writers of English literature and poetry, who lived from 1840 to 1928. His most popular works are probably ‘Tess of the D’Urbevilles’, ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ and ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’. The statue was unveiled in 1931 by Hardy’s friend James Barrie, author of Peter Pan. The sculptor, Eric Kennington, overcame the author’s lack of physical presence by showing him seated.
Proceed down The Grove (4), which heads away from the roundabout in a northerly direction. The Grove is the road located in a massive ditch forming part of the Roman town defences. It is likely that the walls and ditches were built to demonstrate the importance of the town as a ‘civitas’, or centre of administration, as well as to provide defence against attack.
Turn right along North Walk. On the right hand side is the Roman Town House (5), the finest example of its kind in Britain. Discovered in 1937, it has been imaginatively conserved and displayed. Notice the well, the mosaics and the hypocausts, which provided heating below the floor and in the walls.
Further along is the Hangman’s Cottage (6). Covered by traditional Dorset thatch, this was the home of the town’s executioner. Casts of one of the heads of an actual victim can still be seen in the Dorchester Gallery of the Dorset County Museum.
Next you will come to John’s Pond (7). Legend has it that a prisoner named John drowned after escaping from the nearby gaol. The pond is part of the intricate drainage system of the water meadows which allowed low-lying areas to be flooded in the winter to stop the ground freezing and to allow for fertile silt to settle. In this way, grass could be grown earlier in the spring for cattle and several breeds of Dorset sheep.
Further along is the Mill Stream (8). This is a branch of the River Frome that rises about 10 miles to the north west and flows into Poole harbour. Thomas Hardy referred to the Frome valley as ‘The Vale of Great Dairies’ and today it is still farmed and home to a variety of flora and fauna.
Hangings (9) took place on top of an entrance to the gaol on the other side of the Mill Stream. Large crowds would gather to witness the macabre spectacle and, in 1856, at the age of 16, Thomas Hardy witnessed the hanging of Martha Brown for the murder of her husband. Located off North Square, Dorchester Prison was built on the site of a Norman Castle often frequented by King John.
Continuing on, you come to the Reverend John White’s House (10). Known as the ‘Patriarch of Dorchester’, the Rector of St Peter’s and Holy Trinity from 1606 to 1648 was a dynamic preacher who used his personal authority to rapidly rebuild the town after the fire of 1613. He inspired the building of three almshouses and also played a crucial role in the early settlement of North America, including the founding of Dorchester, Massachusetts.
Grey School Passage (11) is one of the more tranquil places in Dorchester. Ahead is Holy Trinity Church, which contains a memorial to John White.
The Shire Hall/Old Crown Court (12) is where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were condemned in 1834 and the building dates from 1797. Notice also the distances to the nearest towns inscribed on the wall at a level for stage coach passengers to read.