A PACKED programme of events has been lined up for the Shire Hall this summer as plans for a £2.7million renovation of the venue gathers pace.

A proposal led by West Dorset District Council to redevelop the Grade I listed building is moving forward with the submission of a second stage funding bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The plans will see the Old Crown Court and Cells transformed into a heritage attraction used for visitors, education purposes, training and events. While the funding bids and plans are drawn up there is still plenty going on at the venue, starting this weekend when guided family tours are being run on Saturday and Sunday at 11am and noon.

Further guided tours are planned throughout the summer and the historic court, which hosted the trial of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, will also hold a number of theatrical performances.

They start with Hanging Around, a promenade journey through the Old Crown Court and Cells inspired by the tale of Martha Brown, on May 23 and The Trials of Oscar Wilde, a dramatisation of Wilde’s Old Bailey trials on June 12.

There will also be a number of talks under the banner of the Justice Cafe, while the Shire Hall will also be opening and holding tours to tie in with the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival weekend.

Project engineer Rosie Dilke said there had been a conscious effort to bring more events to the venue and that those using it had been impressed with it.

She said: “Everyone who has visited it who has wanted to hold events of different kinds has been really impressed about how they can use it and the facilities.”

Leader of West Dorset District Council Robert Gould said it was exciting to see so much going on at the Shire Hall while plans for the renovation move forward.

He said the council was likely to receive confirmation of the lottery funding bid in the autumn and if all goes well the heritage attraction should open in 2017.

Cllr Gould said: “For many years it has been an ambition to get this restored as a visitor attraction and obviously we are now really making progress.”

He added: “We are in a position to plan with some degree of confidence.

“It’s really getting quite exciting.”

Cllr Gould said it was good to see the packed programme of events to bring more people into the venue and make people aware about the plans for its future.

He said: “It’s been a hidden asset in many ways, it’s remarkable how few people know about it and that’s because for years it’s been nearly impossible to open it up.

“It will be a huge asset for Dorchester, it will also have national and international significance.”