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Dorchester is a market town in southern central Dorset, England, on the River Frome at the junction of the A35 and A37 roads, 20 miles (32 km) west of Poole and 8 miles (13 km) north of Weymouth. In 2001 the town had a population of 16,171 and a catchment population of approximately 40,000. There were 7,386 dwellings in 2001 and 205 shops in 1991. Dorchester has been the county town of Dorset since 1305.
A market is held on Wednesdays and Sundays. Major employers include Dorset County Council, West Dorset District Council and Dorset County Hospital.
The town has two private schools, three first schools, two middle schools and one upper school. The upper school, The Thomas Hardye School, can trace its origins back to 1569, when it was founded by a Dorchester merchant of that name. The Dorset County Museum is centrally located in a Gothic-style building.
Dorchester's roots stem back to prehistoric times. Settlements were first based around Maiden Castle, a large Iron Age hill fort that was one of the most powerful settlements in pre-Roman Britain, with varying tribes having existed there since 4000BC. The Durotriges were likely to have been there at the arrival of the Romans in AD43.
The Romans finally defeated the local tribes by AD70. After possibly being converted from a garrison to a town, the Romans named the settlement Durnovaria. This was a Brythonic name meaning 'place with fist-sized pebbles' and almost certainly took part of its name from the local Durotriges tribe who inhabited the area. Durnovaria was first recorded in the 4th century Antonine Itinerary and became a market centre for the surrounding countryside, and an important road junction and staging post, and eventually one of the twin capitals of the Celtic Durotriges tribe.
The Romans walled the town and the remains can still be seen today. The walls were largely replaced with walks that form a square inside modern Dorchester. Known as 'The Walks' a small segment of the original Roman wall still exists today near the Top 'o Town roundabout.
The town still has some Roman features, including part of the town walls and the foundations of a Roman town house, which are freely accessible near County Hall. There are many Roman finds in the County Museum. The Romans built an 8 mile aqueduct to supply the town with water, lengths of the terrace on which it was constructed still remain in parts. Near the town centre is Maumbury Rings, an ancient British earthwork converted by the Romans for use as an amphitheatre, and to the north west is Poundbury Hill, another pre-Roman fortification.
Poundbury is the well-known western extension of the town, constructed on Duchy of Cornwall land (owned by Charles, Prince of Wales) according to urban village principles since 1993. Being developed over 25 years, it will eventually be composed of four phases with a total of 2,500 dwellings and a population of about 6,000. Poundbury will also now house a new headquarters for the Dorset Fire and Rescue Service as well as a new fire station to be completed by September 2008. Prince charles designed the estate (as well as the local tesco supermarket) and makes several visits throughout the year.
There is little evidence for continued occupation after the withdrawal of the Roman administration from Britain. However, in 1996, David Nash Ford suggested that the town became known as Caer Durnac, mistakenly recorded by Nennius as Caer Urnac.. The area remained in British hands until the mid 7th century and there was certainly continuity of use of the Roman cemetery at nearby Poundbury where a settlement later grew up. Dorchester has therefore been suggested as the centre of a sub-kingdom of Dumnonia or other regional power base.
By 864, Durnovaria/Caer Durnac was also dominated by the newly established Saxons or Dorsaetas as they referred to themselves. In their own language, they referred to the town as Dornwaraceaster/Dornwaracester, combining the original name 'Dor/Dorn' from the Latin/Celtic languages with the word 'cester', which was an Anglo-Saxon word used for 'Roman Fort'.