As I have said many a time, I count myself very lucky to live somewhere with so much to do. We go on countless days out whether they are paid for or free and have great fun exploring new places or returning to old favourites. One thing I will say though is that I have never really taken the time to learn about the history of the place I am living in. Of course apart from a few years ago, I have only really lived in the Dorchester area again for the past year and have been very much living in the moment. However, our county town has a remarkable history and this is being brought right to the forefront of the town’s attractions with the re-opening of Shire Hall, which was the old court house from years gone by now opened as a museum… “bringing 200 years of justice and injustice to life!” I was delighted when I was asked to attend and see what I thought of the newly opened Shire Hall. It claims to be a family friendly venue but as with anything not obviously family orientated I decided to head there alone for my first visit so I could scope out the suitability…
Firstly, for those like me who have no idea of the backstory of this building, a little history.
“Shire Hall was Dorset’s courthouse from 1797 until 1955. Through that time, it saw everything from the 1834 trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the 1856 domestic abuse case that inspired Thomas Hardy to write ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, to victims of mesmerism, child perpetrators and American GIs tried during the Second World War.
Alongside its human history lies Shire Hall’s intrinsic architectural value, as one of the best-preserved buildings of its kind. This is recognised in its Grade I listed status, awarded in 1950. It was designed by architect Thomas Hardwick. As well as being a well-known architect in his own right, Hardwick was also the architectural tutor of the artist J.M.W. Turner, before advising him to focus on his painting instead.
After ending its life as a court in 1955, Shire Hall was used as offices for West Dorset District Council (previously the Rural District Council), thus preserving the Georgian architecture for future generations.”
Located on Dorchester’s main hill that runs directly through the centre of the county town, I advise your best bet is to go to the top of the hill and park in the Top ‘O Town car park and walk the few minute walk down to the entrance which is what I did. You step into what looks like a very modern building, despite the stonework and this does a very good job of concealing what is on the inside. Straight away, you’re hit with information as well as quotes on the wall, giving hints to what lies within.
Once through the initial entrance, you walk into a very modern reception area where you can pay for entry, browse the gift shop or simply head straight on up to the cafe which serves breakfast, brunch and lunch and has a really exciting menu that caters for vegetarians and vegans. I did say up but have no fear as they have done an amazing job on making the whole of Shire Hall wheelchair accessible in case you were wondering.
You have a few options when deciding on the type of tour you’ll take – standard or electronic. If you choose the electronic, you can have an individual little i-pod style device with headphones to listen to information and tales as you go or you can choose the family option which is what I decided to try out. It’s amazing. You can a tablet that gives you a map of each room, secret locations for the kids to find objects, information about the room as well as games and activities. They’re in hard shell cases as well so obviously be careful but don’t panic too much!
Honestly, it was quite nice to go around on my own as it meant I could really take in what I was seeing and also decide whether it would be suitable to bring Alyssa on another visit. I found the first room fascinating as there was a map of old school Dorset and artifact displays showing the different classes on the time.
It was in this room that I first discovered the ingenious way the museum has tried to include children in the tour – secret drawers. That’s right – in almost every section of the museum there is either a hidden drawer in the wall or a red box for children to find. Some are very well hidden but they needn’t worry as the location is also helpfully marked on the map of each room on the ipad they are taking round as well as games and interactive activities for each room. In each box is usually an item the kids can put on to dress up in or a prop the can have a play with as well as an information card telling them all about it.
The next room you come too is a little mini cinema where a short video is shown, detailing the history of the courthouse before setting you off into the main body of the museum.
I spent the next hour wandering around cells – despite being well lit they sent a chill down my spine at the thought that this is actually where people were held. I also managed to leave my mark in one cell on the chalk board… can you spot it?!
There are artifacts dotted around the museum at various locations as well as the kids boxes. There are also various ways to interaction with the museum – there was a special type of cell the was below the ground level and on the bars was a sign asking people to leave a note as to what they thought the cell might have been used for. I had fun reading through some of the other thoughts left by visitors…
The final room, before going up to the actual court rooms, was the room I really “didn’t like.” It was the room where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were kept and it had such an eerie feeling in there. The room was quite small and still held the table they must have sat at before being taken up to the courthouse. If you know nothing of the story, there is some great information in this room to help you learn the history.
Finally you enter the courtroom which is probably the most interactive part of the whole experience – children (and of course adults) can play any part in the courtroom including the judge, jury, defendant, witness or simply a spectator. There are clothes and hats to put on, interactive pads in some of the tables and lots of space to move. What I have yet to mention are the wonderful staff that are dotted around the museum that have so much knowledge it blew my mind. I met a lovely gentleman in the courtroom who gave me loads of information about the history and all the different types of people that would have been present – it was fascinating.
When you reach the end of the tour you come out in the beautifully bright and delicious smelling cafe where as I said I was really impressed with the selection available – especially when I spotted vegan, vegetarian and gluten free options as well as a yummy looking salad bar.
So my overall thoughts of Shire Hall? A museum like no other I have ever been to. The fact you can touch things and interact with things makes this as they say a family friendly historical trip. I would say in my personal opinion that it is suitable for around the age 5+ mark just because I think that is kind of when they will begin to find it interesting, enjoy the tablet and the dressing up aspects. This would be a great location especially for Home Educated children as well. During school holidays they do also do special family events as well.
I’d recommend Shire Hall as a place to visit in the Dorchester area – I’d say you would need a whole morning or afternoon to fully explore and enjoy.
You can book to visit Shire Hall here.
*I was gifted entry in return for my review. All thoughts are my own.