Exploring Dorset’s heritage
Dorset Architectural Heritage Week is an annual event which aims to make Dorset’s architectural heritage more accessible to visitors, increasing their knowledge and understanding of local history. During the week, historic properties normally closed to the public are opened up and sites that visitors would have to pay to visit are free of charge. As part of ICM’s commitment to promoting social, economic and community development, the Institute is one of the event’s main sponsors. Our aim is to help ensure that Dorset’s historic buildings are preserved for the future and therefore enjoyed by many more generations to come.
The county of Dorset lies on the UK’s southern coastline set snugly between Hampshire and Devon and bordering Somerset and Wiltshire to its north. It is steeped in a rich history, boasting a wealth of historic buildings and sites of great architectural interest. Records suggest that some of Dorset’s oldest surviving buildings were constructed in the Middle Ages, whilst the county’s castles are estimated to date back over 1,000 years to the Viking and Saxon eras.
Dorset has been described by many historians as being a ‘house or mansion county, rather than a church county’. Peruse through lists of prominent sites of architectural interest and one realises that this is certainly true. Properties of significance range from country houses, fashionable terraces and sprawling farmhouses through to small cottages and farm buildings. The area is also, of course, home to a number of impressive castles and there are many notable churches to inspire the imagination.
Preserving history for future generations
To help ensure that local residents and visitors can enjoy the local environment to its full potential, the East Dorset Heritage Trust (EDHT) was founded in 1987. The Trust is an environmental education charity, which is committed to the ‘care of our environment for the benefit of future generations’. It hopes that by increasing local residents’ knowledge and understanding of local heritage, they will be more likely to appreciate it and wish to conserve it.
In the early 1990s, the European Commission decided that it would be beneficial for each of its member states to provide their residents and visitors with a special focus one weekend a year. In the UK, the task was passed to the Civic Trust in London which concluded that the project should focus its attention on architecture and buildings. Following the Civic Trust’s decision, each of the UK’s counties was briefed with making the idea a reality and in 1994 EDHT was invited to help coordinate and develop Dorset’s programme. The Trust’s involvement grew gradually as the event grew in stature, and today it is in charge of organising virtually the entire programme of events, now known as ‘Dorset Architectural Heritage Week’.
A jam-packed itinerary
Architecture enthusiasts can choose between a whole range of events and activities held during Heritage Week. It’s an extremely popular occasion, with over 1,500 people applying for tickets to attend the free events on offer. Current statistics from EDHT show that visitors come from a variety of UK counties, including Somerset, London, Chichester, Hampshire and Worcester. Tourists are given the opportunity to visit buildings which are not normally open to the public or to go to sites for free that they would normally have to pay for. They can also make trips to see local churches and private homes opened up by their residents, as well as taking part in a range of activities, such as open days, walks and lectures by keynote speakers.
The most popular activities, according to Alan Wilson, Director of EDHT and Events Manager for Dorset Architectural Heritage Week, are the invitations to view private houses when owners from across Dorset kindly open up their homes for perusal. One of the most popular properties is ‘Tudor House’ which is one of Weymouth’s few remaining Tudor buildings, furnished as the home of an early 17th century middle class family. The Trust is continually adding new properties to its itinerary and so for the first time in 2007, 20 lucky members of the public were able to take a peek at ‘Woodside’, a new property built with sustainability in mind. The house is equipped with environmentally-friendly features, including photovoltaic panels, a ground source heat pump and solar water heating, as well as facilities for rainwater harvesting.
According to Alan, tickets for viewing Woodside were snapped up within minutes of them being released. He said: “People seem to have an insatiable curiosity to see how other people live – proved by the popularity of tickets for a property like Woodside. We only had enough room for 20 people to visit over two days, but we could have had the house filled for days on end.” Alan is also keen for more people to come forward and open up their homes to visitors during Heritage Week: “We only add one or two new buildings to our schedule each year so it would be fantastic if more people let us use their homes,” he added.
A man’s home is his castle
Other attractions which prove popular amongst visitors year-in, year-out are trips to walk amongst the ruins of Dorset’s many charming castles. Perhaps Dorset’s most famous ruined castle is Corfe Castle, set high upon the rolling green hills of Wareham. With a history dating back over 1,000 years, the castle is extremely popular with tourists who enjoy strolling between the walls or simply reading up on its history in the National Trust Visitor Centre. Grade 1 listed building Highcliffe Castle, described as ‘the most important remaining example of the romantic and Picturesque style of architecture’, is another building with huge significance to local heritage. Restoration work on the structure has been ongoing since the 1990s and so the castle open day held during Heritage Week presents the perfect opportunity for visitors to see the results of all of this hard work. Travel further afield to Portland and you find Portland Castle nestled in Castletown overlooking the town’s pretty harbour. The fortress has a diverse and fascinating history, originally having been built to defend Weymouth against the French and Spanish invasion. It stands today virtually unaltered and so holds much interest to visitors wishing to learn how a castle of this size would have operated in its day.
[quote: This is a fantastic opportunity for us to get to know our county better – long may it continue. ~ Visitor to Dorset Architectural Heritage Week]
For history-lovers, Heritage Week presents visitors with the opportunity to visit a wealth of museums dotted around Dorset. Popular sites include Wareham Town Museum which tells the story of Wareham’s history with the aid of graphic displays and The Priest’s House Museum in Wimborne where visitors can see how servants and their affluent employers lived during a special ‘Upstairs Downstairs Weekend’. Other museums of great interest are located in Bournemouth, Portland, Beaminster, Dorchester and Bridport.
Visitor feedback collected by the Trust has always been extremely positive, with many saying that Dorset’s Heritage Week is the best organised in the UK. Recent comments have included: “We took part in a great set of events which we thoroughly enjoyed. Many thanks to all of the team for organising it and to all the people who opened their buildings or spoke so eloquently”; the enthusiasm of the guides is infectious – thanks to them and EDHT for a memorable week”; and “This is a fantastic opportunity for us to get to know our county better – long may it continue.”
A glimpse at modern architecture
What many people don’t realise is that Heritage Week is not just about showcasing historic buildings, it also aims to make contemporary architecture accessible to the public. This is achieved primarily through the support of the Dorset branch of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) which organises a special coach trip around newly-constructed, architect-designed houses in Dorset. The event is extremely popular and Dorset RIBA Committee Member David Underhill attributes this to the attention architecture is given in the media. He said: “This event has always been oversubscribed. I think one of the main reasons for this is due to the increased exposure architecture has been given in the media – particularly with television feeding the public’s fascination of looking around other people’s houses.” For the RIBA 2007 coach trip, enthusiasts were taken to view four architecturally-striking houses, all of which were constructed within two years. David described each of the properties as boasting their own individual style, combining design which is: “Strictly contemporary, stunning, big, bold and beautiful.”
Alan Wilson is hoping that in coming years, the Trust will have the opportunity to showcase even more modern buildings located in the county. One structure he is particularly keen to secure visits to is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s (RNLI) Lifeboat College in Poole. He commented: “The college building is internationally recognised and has won many awards. I very much hope that we can add it to our future calendar of events. We are always looking for new properties to feature and encourage anyone with any ideas to approach us.”
Educational heritage fairs
As Dorset Architectural Heritage Week is funded by each of Dorset’s local authorities, all of the activities on offer during the week remain free of charge. In 2001, ICM generously pledged to donate £5,000 annually to the Trust over a period of five years to help fund additional initiatives. Dr Alistair Somerville Ford, ICM Joint Chairman and Head of ICM Communications Group, believes Dorset Architectural Heritage Week is hugely important to the local area. He said: “It is essential that we preserve and promote our historic buildings and other cultural assets for this and future generations. I very much hope that our donations will help ensure that Heritage Week is enjoyed by visitors for many more years to come.” Alan is keen to point out that ICM’s involvement has enabled EDHT to hold additional activities, particularly in terms of education, that would not previously have been possible. He said: “We’re hugely grateful for Alistair’s support which has been very generous. He has always been keen to promote the educational aspect of the event and played a significant part in the three heritage fairs we organised in recent years.”
[quote: It is essential that we preserve and promote our historic buildings and other cultural assets for this and future generations. ~ Dr Alistair Somerville Ford]
The heritage fairs were arranged to showcase the skills of Dorset-based craftsmen, covering a diverse range of industries including thatching and stone masonry through to carpentry and ironmongery. The events proved extremely popular with visitors keen to gain an insight into these ancient industries still being used today. “Hundreds of visitors flocked to the events which were held during Heritage Week in various locations including Kingston Lacey and Corfe Castle,” Alan added.
ICM’s generous funding has also enabled EDHT to revamp its IT systems, particularly the software used for allocating tickets. Alan explained: “Thanks to Alistair we now have a sophisticated administration system. This has enabled us to set up databases as well as create a computerised ballot system so that tickets for events during Heritage Week can be allocated more fairly. It is set up to ensure that virtually everyone who applies is given a ticket to at least one site or event.”
EDHT is so grateful for Alistair’s support that in March 2007 the Trust presented him with an award to mark his five years’ continuous service to Heritage Week. Alistair was given the commemorative plaque during a lunch event organised by the Dorset Conservation and Design Officers Group. Commenting on being honoured with the award, he said: “I am extremely proud and grateful to East Dorset Heritage Trust for giving me this award. I shall certainly be displaying it on my wall for all to see for many years to come!”
Initiatives for the future
The Trust is hoping to launch an educational website in the future which will act as a resource for school children. Alan envisages that the site will feature a full list of architecturally-diverse properties in Dorset, accompanied with imagery and descriptive text. Additional features will include a timeline, depictions of clothing worn in the past and overviews on materials used in the construction of buildings. Alan is even exploring the possibility of including 3-D technology on the site so that site users could, for example, access simulated footage of the way a castle would have looked when it was operational. Alan explained: “We’re currently conducting a feasibility study to ascertain how the site could work and the technology available to use to make it a reality.”
Another future initiative Alan is keen for the Trust to become involved in is a Dorset version of BBC2 television programme Restoration. Each episode of the show, which is hosted by Griff Rhys Jones, focuses on a particular region in the UK and features three historical buildings requiring restoration. Viewers vote for the building they feel should be restored and then each of the most popular structures from each area is put through to a national final. The proceeds of the telephone vote are then used to pay for the restoration of the eventual winner. The fund is also boosted by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Commission. Alan enthused: “I’d love to see structures like Christchurch’s castle walls, Highcliffe Castle and Bournemouth’s Shelley Park featured in the series.”
It is clear that Dorset Architectural Heritage Week has a great future and is set to get bigger and better every year. With an architectural history dating right back to the Viking and Saxon era, Dorset offers visitors the opportunity to explore a plethora of buildings, private homes, castles and churches which can only inspire the imagination. The county is fortunate to have a Trust dedicated to caring for the local environment which can open up properties free of charge, and buildings normally kept under lock and key, as well as to ensure that sites are preserved for the enjoyment of future generations. The next event will be held 13-21 September 2008 – make sure you register for tickets early to avoid disappointment.
Show your support
EDHT is always looking for new properties to include in its programme during Architectural Heritage Week, so if you work in or own premises you think would be of interest to the public, the Trust would love to hear from you. Alan Wilson, Director of East Dorset Heritage Trust and Events Manager for Dorset Architectural Heritage Week can be contacted by telephone on: 01202 888992 or by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org. Up-to-date information on Heritage Week can also be accessed online at http://www.edht.org.uk/