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Dorset is a county in South West England on the English Channel coast. The county town is Dorchester, situated in the south of the county at 50°43'00?N, 02°26'00?W. Between its extreme points Dorset measures 80 kilometres (50 mi) from east to west and 64 km (40 mi) north to south, and has an area of 2,653 square kilometres (1,024 sq mi). Dorset borders Devon to the west, Somerset to the north-west, Wiltshire to the north-east, and Hampshire to the east. Around half of Dorset's population lives in the South East Dorset conurbation. The rest of the county is largely rural with a low population density. Dorset's motto is 'Who's Afear'd'.
Dorset is famous for the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site, which features landforms such as Lulworth Cove, the Isle of Portland, Chesil Beach and Durdle Door, as well as the holiday resorts of Bournemouth, Poole, Weymouth, Swanage, and Lyme Regis. Dorset is the principal setting of the novels of Thomas Hardy, who was born near Dorchester. The county has a long history of human settlement and some notable archaeology, including the hill forts of Maiden Castle and Hod Hill.
The earliest recorded use of the name was in AD 940 as Dorseteschire, meaning the dwellers (saete) of 'Dornuuarana' (Dorchester)
The first known settlement of Dorset was by Mesolithic hunters, from around 8000 BC. Their populations were small and concentrated along the coast in the Isle of Purbeck, Weymouth and Chesil Beach and along the Stour valley. These populations used tools and fire to clear these areas of some of the native Oak forest. Dorset's high chalk hills have provided a location for defensive settlements for millennia, there are Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds on almost every chalk hill in the county, and a number of Iron Age hill forts, the most famous being Maiden Castle. The chalk downs would have been deforested in the Iron Age, making way for agriculture and animal husbandry.
Dorset has notable Roman artefacts, particularly around the Roman town Dorchester, where Maiden Castle was captured from the Celtic Durotriges by a Roman Legion in 43 AD under the command of Vespasian, early in the Roman occupation. Roman roads radiated from Dorchester, following the tops of the chalk ridges to the many small Roman villages around the county. In the Roman era, settlements moved from the hill tops to the valleys, and the hilltops had been abandoned by the fourth century. A large defensive ditch, Bokerley Dyke, delayed the Saxon conquest of Dorset from the north east for up to two hundred years. The Domesday Book documents many Saxon settlements corresponding to modern towns and villages, mostly in the valleys. There have been few changes to the parishes since the Domesday Book. Over the next few centuries the settlers established the pattern of farmland which prevailed into the nineteenth century. Many monasteries were also established, which were important landowners and centres of power.
In the 12th-century civil war, Dorset was fortified with the construction of the defensive castles at Corfe Castle, Powerstock, Wareham and Shaftesbury, and the strengthening of the monasteries such as at Abbotsbury. In the 17th-century English Civil War, Dorset had a number of royalist strongholds, such as Sherborne Castle and Corfe Castle, which were ruined by Parliamentarian forces in the war. In the intervening years, the county was used by the monarchy and nobility for hunting and the county still has a number of Deer Parks. Throughout the late Mediaeval times, the remaining hilltop settlements shrank further and disappeared. From the Tudor to Georgian periods, farms specialised and the monastic estates were broken up, leading to an increase in population and settlement size. During the Industrial Revolution, Dorset remained largely rural, and retains its agricultural economy today. The Tolpuddle Martyrs lived in Dorset, and the farming economy of Dorset was central in the formation of the trade union movement.