Athelhampton in Dorchester is a local gem that opens its doors to visitors. Dorset Society's Claire Williams takes a tour to soak up its stately splendour

Athelhampton House is one of the finest Tudor manor houses in England. This imposing period Grade 1 property is home to the Cooke family, who open the house and its stunning gardens that surround, to the public throughout the year.

Many of us, who used to commute on the A35 between Dorchester and Poole, will have passed Athelhampton House standing majestically in a small hamlet between the villages of Puddletown and the Tolpuddle, the historic home of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. In 1998 the Puddletown bypass opened, just a mile to the north, leaving Athelhampton and the villages in relative peace, without the rumble of traffic all day long.

Sir William Martyn, a local land owner who collected wine duty in Poole, built the Manor House around 1485 - the same year that Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the battle of Bosworth. Much of the fortified house dates from his time, with his descendants adding to the building over the next two centuries.

The heart of the house is the magnificent Tudor Great Hall which showcases an enchanting array of character features including a huge fireplace, oak hammerbeam roof, linenfold panelling and heraldic stained glass. A further 12 rooms and art gallery are on view, making a visit to Athelhampton both enjoyable and informative.

Athelhampton owes its preservation in part to the lack of a male heir at the end of the 16th Century. With four daughters and their husbands inheriting the house, and with no single owner, very few changes were made for many years other than falling into disrepair. Successive owners from the 1850’s made improvements to Athelhampton and in 1891 a significant restoration of the house and construction of the grand formal gardens began.

The gardens designed by Francis Inigo Thomas lie to the east and south of the main house and four architectural stone courts provide the structure of the gardens - each planted with different schemes. The Corona is an attractive circular garden built in the Elizabethan manner - with tall obelisks reaching up from the wall and planting designed by Andrea Cooke, it is the pivotal garden providing access to the further gardens beyond.

The Great Court boasts 12 huge yew pyramids which dominate a sunken lawn, further structure is given by a balustrade terrace and two tall garden pavilions. There are around 10 acres of gardens, many with ponds, fountains and plenty of benches to sit upon and enjoy the tranquillity.

As you explore further, the gardens become less formal and more natural with the River Piddle creating a beautiful natural boundary. A board-walk follows the river providing visitors with a pretty route through a very peaceful rural setting.

An acre sized kitchen garden can be found at the eastern corner of the gardens and has seen much activity in the last two years. The garden had become too much to look after many decades ago, and mother nature had reclaimed the garden for herself. However, in 2014 plans were made to restore the garden and work began to return it to its former glory. The overgrowth was carefully removed and the structure of the garden was slowly revealed, a pond and sundial were restored, and brick paths were laid by Patrick Cooke and his team of gardeners. The Kitchen Garden is a project that will last many years, but already the small amounts of produce are being used by the chefs in the Coach House restaurant.

Athelhampton House and Gardens is open to the public and provides a superb day out, further enhanced by a delightful restaurant and tea room that can be found in the thatched Coach House. The Coach House is where the commercial aspects of Athelhampton’s business are located, with a gift shop, restaurant and space for events and weddings. The house and gardens are licensed for civil wedding ceremonies and combined with the superb gardens as a backdrop and excellent dining facilities, it is easy to see why Athelhampton is a popular venue, and one of the finest in Dorset indeed.

Athelhampton House and Gardens is open every Sunday and from March through to the beginning of November, Monday to Thursday. / 01305 848363