Cerne Abbas is a well-preserved historic village nestling in the valley of the River Cerne, among the steep chalk downland of central Dorset. Famous for the enigmatic and well-endowed Cerne Abbas Giant, one of the largest hillside figures in Britain, the village of Cerne Abbas lies just east of the A352, approximately ten kilometers north of Dorchester.
Established in the ninth century by St Edwold the hermit, Cerne Abbas grew up around the Benedictine Abbey from which it takes its name. The abbey was founded in 987 and dominated the surrounding area for some five hundred years until it was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1539. It is possible to explore the abbey ruins, including an ancient holy well dedicated to St Augustine and supposedly blessed by the saint. The few surviving buildings, a guesthouse, a gatehouse and a tithe barn, can also be visited. St Mary's church, which was built by the abbey for the parish in the late thirteenth century, remains a focal point of the village, with many original features still intact.
After the fall of the abbey, Cerne Abbas survived and thrived as a small market town, largely thanks to the excellent quality of its water, which is filtered by the surrounding chalk hills. The water was used to make famous beer, which was sold in London and even exported to the Americas. At the height of the beer-making industry, the village boasted fourteen pubs, roughly one to every hundred people, of which three survive. Other industries connected to Cerne Abbas included milling, tanning, silk weaving and glove and hat making.
When the railway bypassed Cerne Abbas in the nineteenth century, the village went into a decline, losing half its population. Sold off the the Pitt-Rivers estate in 1919, Cerne Abbas only recovered some of its former prosperity in the mid twentieth century, when it became a popular tourist destination.
Today, Cerne Abbas, disguised as Abbots Cernel in Thomas Hardy's Wessex, is home to a bustling community of around eight hundred people, with a school, three pubs, a post office, a tearoom and several shops. Voted Britain's most desirable village by Savill's estate agency in 2008, who described it as 'strikingly beautiful', Cerne Abbas is home to an annual music festival, hosted by the renowned Gardier Ensemble, and an annual 'open garden' event, which usually attracts up to a thousand visitors.