The best National Trust places to visit in Dorset

Days out, Educational, Destinations

Posted by Clare Willcocks on 20th July 2022

The National Trust owns an eclectic mix of places in Dorset, from an island and ancient castle to a Venetian-style palace and the cottages of famous authors. One day, you could be imbibing the inspiring atmosphere of Hardy’s birthplace or exploring Max Gate, the impressive Victorian home he designed himself. The next, you could be setting sail for Brownsea Island which is brimming with nature and Famous Five-style adventure.

Many of these wonderful historic places welcome dogs too, so even your four-legged friend can get an insight into Dorset’s most precious heritage. There is an abundance of outdoor spaces to explore together, from manicured gardens where you can take inspiration from neatly planted veg patches and exotic flower beds, to unspoilt woodlands and coastal landscapes.

For families, fun takes many different forms. The National Trust’s family-friendly trails help to engage even the smallest visitors with the stories behind each historic attraction, and a programme of organised events throughout the year celebrates holidays including Easter and Halloween. We’ve put together a list of our favourite National Trust places in Dorset to visit with your family and dog, as well as a selection of National Trust places with literary links and magical outdoor spaces not to miss.

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The best family-friendly National Trust places to visit in Dorset (with your dog!)

Kingston Lacy: Image credit Instagram @chroniclesands 

Kingston Lacy

This awe-inspiring National Trust property, Kingston Lacy near Blandford Forum, was built to resemble a Venetian Palace and is dripping with grandeur, from art by masters such as Rubens, Van Dyck, Titian and Brueghel, to curiosities and artefacts collected by the Bankes family who lived there for over 300 years. There’s plenty to engage inquisitive young minds including a family house trail to help little ones learn the extraordinary stories of the stately home's most fascinating items.

Plan your visit for a fine day, because you won’t want to miss the outside spaces which are a playground for families and their four-legged friends. Kingston Lacy has been voted one of the top dog-friendly National Trust gardens in the country. Dogs on leads are welcome to accompany you on woodland walks, throughout the parkland and Japanese Garden, and the Stables courtyard. The Formal Garden to the rear of the property is a dog-free zone to create a clean and pleasant area for family picnics and garden games. A stop at the woodland play area is a must to burn off some energy and enjoy the natural surroundings.

  • Don’t miss: Bring your bikes to make the most of the Woodland Trail, a relatively flat, circular route that’s perfect for little cyclists.
  • Best conditions: Fine weather to make the most of the Kingston Lacy Estate.
  • Facilities: Free parking in main car park, stables café, shop, second-hand bookshop.
  • Stay nearby: Dorset View | sleeps 2 + 1 dog

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Corfe Castle: Image credit Instagram @corfecastle_nt


Corfe Castle

Arguably National Trust Dorset’s most iconic historic attraction, Corfe Castle, located in a village of the same name, has been a foreboding presence in the landscape for over 1,000 years. The romantic ruins capture the hearts of visitors young and old and, while children play at being knights, kings and queens, adults can admire the astonishing views of Purbeck and explore its enchanting history. Vestiges of the castle’s bloody past remain intact, including murder holes and arrow loops which will delight children with a sense of adventure.

The self-guided Castle Quest is sure to be a hit, full of activities including brass rubbings, puzzles and quiz questions. There are dress-up costumes in the Outer Bailey to transform your children into medieval warriors or fairy-tale princes and princesses, and a wildlife walk and play trail to keep them active on your day out. Our top tip is to read Enid Blyton’s ‘Five on a Treasure Island’ before your visit and compare Kirrin Castle in the book to the real-life castle by which it was inspired. Dogs are welcome on short leads, including in the tearoom, so this is the perfect family attraction for visits with your four-legged friend.
  • Don’t miss: The spectacular views from the top. Look carefully and you’ll see Corfe’s other castle to the west.
  • Best conditions: Visit on a dry day, as the ruins are mostly an outdoor attraction.
  • Facilities: Pay and display parking (NT members free) at Castle View (800-yard walk to castle), licensed tearoom with garden, shop.
  • Stay nearby: The Old Mill Corfe Mullen | Sleeps 8 + 4 dogs

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White Mill: Image credit Instagram @lwfold


White Mill

Set on the banks of the serene River Stour, White Mill   lies within the National Trust's Kingston Lacy estate, so good if you’re looking to combine a visit. Once one of eight mills on this stretch of river, it’s now the only one which remains. The original elm and applewood machinery has been preserved and the walls almost echo with the clattering, creaking and roar of water which would have filled the air at the height of its use. The children’s trail is a great way to keep little ones entertained as you learn about the stories of the millers and their families.   

The gardens and river outside provide a peaceful spot for a picnic, so be sure to stock up on goodies before your visit. Sit in the gardens enjoying the sound of the river, birds and wildlife and when the mood takes you, take a wander across White Mill bridge to admire the mill from another angle. Dogs are welcome on a lead.

  • Don’t miss: Guided tours are available throughout the day which last 40-45 minutes, ideal to bring history to life for families with older children.
  • Best conditions: The indoor space makes this good for a rainy day.
  • Facilities: Parking on the opposite side of the road (free for NT members), limited facilities.
  • Stay nearby: The Hayloft | sleeps 4 guests + 1 dog

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The best National Trust places to visit in Dorset with literary links

Hardy's Cottage: Image credit Instagram @nationaltrust


Hardy’s Cottage

Thomas Hardy’s family home is steeped in history – if only those cob walls could talk! The gorgeous thatched Hardy's Cottage was built by the author’s great grandfather and it was here that Hardy wrote some of his early works, including Far from the Madding Crowd. It’s not hard to see why this was such an inspiring place for him. Roses climb around the pretty front door and the pretty garden is alive with vibrant blooms and birdsong.

Step inside the cottage and you’ll be transported back to countryside living in the 19th century - thick walls, tiny windows and stone floors giving you a flavour of the modest lifestyle of the author and his family. It's a superb National Trust property if you love literature and Dorset.
  • Don’t miss: The Hardy’s Birthplace Visitor Centre on the edge of Thorncombe Wood Nature Reserve, where tickets are sold for the cottage. Here you’ll find out more about the Victorian way of life.
  • Best conditions: A good all-weather attraction, though you may have to dodge the showers on the walk from the visitor centre to the cottage.
  • Facilities: At the visitor centre – Under the Greenwood Tree café, shop, toilets, hearing loop, accessible building, disabled parking at visitor centre and at Hardy’s Cottage (with advance notice), small car park beyond visitor centre for all visitors.
  • Stay nearby: Higher Burton Barn | sleeps 4 + 2 dogs

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Max Gate: Image credit Instagram @sleeper_cottage_tales


Max Gate

This magnificent Victorian home, Max Gate near Dorchester, has a certain presence which seems to have been infused in it by its designer, Thomas Hardy. Sophisticated and elegant, it was drawn up by the author and poet in 1885 as his own home, a statement of his wealth and class, and signals his entry into polite society. The name comes from a nearby tollgate keeper called Mack.

The rooms have been furnished by the National Trust so, while they don’t represent the exact environment in which the author would have lived and worked, visitors are able to get a sense of where he created such classics as Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. The enclosed garden is a real haven of solitude, the perfect private escape for a writer. It encompasses a vegetable garden, flower beds and tall trees, as well as a croquet lawn and the Nut Walk.

  • Don’t miss: The pet cemetery in the grounds. While this may seem like a strange attraction, it shows the relationship Hardy and his wife Emma had with their pets, with hand-carved headstones, some by Hardy himself.
  • Best conditions: Save for an overcast day, as much of the interest is indoors. 
  • Facilities: Free car park (50 metres away), drop-off point, toilets, self-service refreshments in Old Kitchen (for donations).
  • Stay nearby: Lavender Cottage | sleeps 5 + 2 dogs

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Cloud's Hill: Image credit Instagram @rowlandwright


Cloud’s Hill

Cloud’s Hill near Swanage is the rural retreat of another of Dorset’s famous children, T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia, as he is more commonly known. The tiny, charming cottage was furnished to his tastes, and you can just imagine him sitting in the dim light, writing away in the cosy space created by the dark woodwork and exposed beams.

The book room is sure to ignite a spark amongst lovers of reading, with a large, leather bed on which Lawrence would recline and read, transporting him away from the day’s memories of life on the Bovington Army Camp. His original possessions are exhibited throughout the room, including a made-to-measure reading chair. The music room is another atmospheric space, with a gramophone made by Lawrence himself.

  • Don’t miss: The motorbike shed. Here, Lawrence would have kept his prized Brough Superiors, but now it’s dedicated to a display about his life, as well as housing basic facilities for making tea and coffee.
  • Best conditions: Best for a dry day, as the cottage itself is small and we recommend walking up to the top of the hill above and soaking up the view and the peaceful atmosphere which would have been enjoyed by Lawrence all those years ago.  
  • Facilities: DIY tea and coffee-making facilities
  • Stay nearby: Stable Cottage | sleeps 4 + 1 dog

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The best outdoor National Trust places in Dorset

Golden Cap

You won’t be surprised to discover on a visit to the National Trust-managed Golden Cap near Seatown that it is England’s only natural World Heritage Site. The top is the highest point on the South Coast and there are panoramic views in all directions, rewarding you for taking on the uphill walk with some of the most awe-inspiring scenery your eyes will have ever seen. The Golden Cap Estate is criss-crossed by footpaths. A good spot to set off from is Stonebarrow Hill, where there’s a National Trust information point and shop in an old radar station.

There’s a circular walk which has been made accessible for all abilities, passing peacefully through the wildlife-rich woodlands of Langdon Hill Wood. Keep your eyes peeled for all sorts of wildlife and plants, from the flash of blue butterflies in the summer, to fungi in the autumn. Dogs are welcome on leads, but on the beaches they are only allowed outside the months of May to September. For even more coastal walks in Dorset, read our guide.

  • Don’t miss: Thorncombe Beacon, nestled above the cliffs. Part of a chain of similar beacons which provided an early warning system for foreign invasion, it’s now an idyllic spot to enjoy unparalleled views of Bridport and Chesil Beach.
  • Best conditions: Visit on a dry, clear day in order to appreciate the far-reaching views at their best.
  • Facilities: Parking at Stonbarrow Hill and Langdon Hill, small shop, information point and toilets at Stonebarrow Hill, information points at Eype, Seatown, Ware, Charmouth, Golden Cap & Langdon.
  • Stay nearby: The Guard House | sleeps 7

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Cerne Giant: Image credit Instagram @hannahjones


Cerne Giant

This ancient naked figure, the Cerne Giant, carved into the chalk hillside above Cerne Abbas, has graced many a Dorset postcard and is the focus of much speculation surrounding its origins and purpose. Some believe it to be an ancient symbol of spirituality, while local folklore suggests it is linked to fertility. Others think it is a representation of Hercules, and some even a political satire on Oliver Cromwell.

The National Trust has been guardians of the giant for 100 years, maintaining it by replacing the chalk every 10 years and protecting it from the erosion of walkers and the elements. It’s therefore not possible to walk the chalky outline, but there are several walks in the surrounding countryside to admire it from different angles. Dogs are welcome on leads.

  • Don’t miss: The Cerne Abbas Giant viewpoint. It offers the best views of the giant without even having to leave your car and doubles as a fantastic stargazing sight due to the low light pollution levels.
  • Best conditions: Visit on a dry day to enable you to get out and explore the surrounding countryside.
  • Facilities: Free parking in a lay-by, town of Cerne Abbas (0.5 miles from viewpoint) has local amenities.
  • Stay nearby: Bramble Cottage | Sleeps 4

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Brownsea Island

The extraordinary Brownsea Island is a veritable haven for wildlife. A sanctuary for the elusive red squirrel, it has a number of rich habitats including woodland, heathland and a lagoon. If you’re lucky enough, you may spot kingfishers and other birds, such as dunlin, terns and oystercatchers. Pause to admire the views across Poole Harbour towards the mainland, where the Purbeck Hills rise out of the horizon.

Brownsea is reached by daytrip ferry from Poole Quay or Sandbanks Jetty, giving it a secret island feel and making it a lovely spot for a nature adventure. There are free introductory guided walks at 11am and 2.30pm daily, as well as electric buggy tours, both of which help you get more acquainted with the island’s history and wildlife. For more inspiration, view our guide to coastal walks in Dorset

  • Don’t miss: The Visitor Centre - here you can pick up free family trails and discover more about the island, its inhabitants and its history.
  • Best conditions: Visit on a dry day to get the most out of your island experience.
  • Facilities: Visitor Reception, Visitor Centre, Outdoor Centre, Villano café, shop and Trading Post.
  • Stay nearby: Woodridings | sleeps 8

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Map of National Trust locations in Dorset

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Stay with us in Dorset

If you’re a National Trust member or are simply looking to enjoy the historical and heritage attractions of Dorset, why not stay in one of our Dorset holiday cottages to be perfectly positioned for exploring these National Trust gems? We have a wonderful collection of cottages, from cosy couples’ hideaways to glorious family houses with room enough for everyone.

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Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.