IT SEEMS that West Dorset District Council (WDDC), despite the many attempts over the past 40 years to develop the Charles Street site, have simply returned to the old, well-worn idea that the future of the county town lies in its having more shops and becoming “a sub-regional shopping centre”.

Although that particular phrase does not appear in the Strategic Director’s latest report entitled Dorchester’s Centre - Retail Enhancement, which was passed by the new WDDC Strategy Committee on Tuesday, August 1, it would appear that very little indeed has changed over a period of two generations and the spending of millions of pounds of our money.

The report does mention ‘a cultural quarter’ for Dorchester but puts forward no ideas for promoting this. Most extraordinary, however, is the report’s view of the town’s rich archaeology.

This is consistently seen as something of an awkward impediment to development (with phrases like ‘the site has constraints in terms of archaeology’ and 'much greater archaeological costs’ and ‘the possible presence of archaeological features should not be ruled out.’).
It is this very archaeology which makes Dorchester the unique place that it is; it is an integral part of the story of the town; it is of ‘national importance’, to quote Heritage England, and could and should be acting as a USP for a town which already boasts two other names - Roman ‘Durnovaria’ and Thomas Hardy’s ‘Casterbridge’. 

It is, in short, a vital part of the bait, the lure, the magnet which should be helping promote the town. How very much more interesting and enriching it would be to shop or relax above the visible evidence of a neolithic monument or that of a Roman legionary fortress.

That the regeneration of Dorchester should be based on its unique story, and the stunning evidence of that story which can still be seen, is surely a priority. The report speaks of there being ‘a lack of awareness of Dorchester’ - something which the downgrading and moving of the Tourist Information Centre has done nothing to help - but makes no suggestions to improve this state of affairs. 

The report recognises the impact of the internet and comments that shopping today is ‘viewed as part of an overall leisure experience…..visitors will be looking for entertainment and a vibrant street scene’ .

I believe that viewing the remains of an enigmatic neolithic monument, not to mention part of the Roman baths, would be extremely “entertaining” and of great interest to many visitors.

In the 19th century the new railway companies were challenged by the townsfolk when they proposed to slice through both Maumbury Rings and the Iron Age Poundbury hill fort. 

Both these ancient monuments were recognised, respected and valued as important parts of the town’s long and varied story. The railway companies listened and modified their plans accordingly.

Surely our massive 5,000-year-old henge (or is it perhaps part of a ‘ceremonial avenue’ akin to those discovered recently at Stonehenge?) is just as important and significant ?

Come on WDDC. You may well be in your death throes but please add something different, something sustainable, something imaginative and visionary for our very special county town before you are abolished.

Alistair Chisholm