THOMAS Hardy once wrote: “The old barn embodied practices which had suffered no mutilation at the hands of time.”

Luckily for my family – staying in an old cider barn in the heart of Hardy’s Dorset – our accommodation was right up to date.

Although mutilation would definitely not be the right word to describe how Shaun Webb has lovingly restored this beautiful building in Askerswell, near Bridport.

He and his wife Judith bought the building, the neighbouring water mill and cottage, at auction, and lived in one room with a mud floor to get their restoration project underway.

In June, when we visited, the Old Cider Barn – originally built in the 1700s - had been open for business for little over a year and was the icing on the cake for our perfect holiday in Dorset.

The upstairs living space is open plan, but still cosy, while downstairs two bedrooms and a top spec bathroom have been created with care and attention.

But it hasn’t lost its old charm. As Hardy went on to write: “Here at least the spirit of the ancient builders was at one with the spirit of the modern beholder.”

Outside, guests have their own little courtyard backing on to a wonderful orchard, which they are as free to roam as the hens who share it. There is a trickling stream and a restful pond, which feeds next door’s working waterwheel.

It’s only a shame we were prevented from enjoying the barn to the max because we had so much to explore further afield.

Askerswell is a beautiful little village nestling in the rolling coastal hills between Dorchester and Bridport. And to be honest, I could have spent my days travelling the A35 between the two towns just to take in the stunning scenery which undulates to give you breathtaking peeks of the coast.

But the toddlers in Team Owen would have protested, or thrown-up, so we were forced to take advantage of the amusements on offer.

Most of these were beaches, which, during our week of pure sunshine, were hard to beat. Now, I’m not suggesting for one minute that Dorset enjoys sunshine 365 days of the year, but my goodness those rays make it sparkle.

I expect, however, much of the coast is just as much fun to visit on cloudy days.

First stop was West Bay, which plays host to Bridport’s tiny harbour and is the kind of place children could go crabbing for hours. It has a laid-back atmosphere – so much so that the owners of the beach-side café had shut up shop to enjoy Glastonbury during our visit.

The beach is a glorious mass of shingle veering down to a sea which is equally sheer, but great for strong swimmers.

Lyme Regis, slightly to the west, is a good old-fashioned Victorian resort, where crowds congregate in good weather to bathe in the water and on the sandy beaches. The town’s curving harbour wall, known as the Cobb, was immortalised in Jane Austen’s novel, Persuasion.

For something more refined, head back east to the village of Burton Bradstock, which is home to the National Trust’s Hive Beach. Here the shingly coastline hides thousands of fossils from the Jurassic age, and the sea water is the clearest I have ever seen in the UK. It was beautiful, pure and simple.

My attraction to this beach grew after visiting the beachside Hive Café – a favourite fish restaurant of chef Rick Stein and food critic AA Gill.

This eatery’s laid back atmosphere, coastal views and fresh fish made it to die for. Obviously my children ate nothing but cheesy chips with their plates of ketchup, but we opted for the melt in the mouth scallops.

Our visit was complete when Gracie – the three-year-old - started to help herself to alcoholic beverages on adjoining tables. But nobody minded and I, for once, felt at ease in a good restaurant!

The menu at Hive Café can get pricey, but if you want to justify your meal, do what we did: Stick two under-threes on your backs and trek to Hive Beach from West Bexington, the next door beach about a mile east, also owned by the National Trust.

Both of these beaches are part of the larger Chesil Beach, the world’s largest shingle ridge. At certain angles from above (especially from Portland) this expanse is a majestic sight.

Our final beach was a tiny jewel seemingly only known to residents of Weymouth (sorry to spill the secret).

Sandsfoot Bay, near Sandsfoot Castle, is owned by a sailing club in the town.

A sheltered sandy beach, it is just 50 metres long with shallow waters which go out for miles. In short, it’s toddler heaven. While the tourists are packed in along the longer Weymouth Beach – often paying premium prices for parking – we enjoyed this tiny haven day after day, with the added bonus of free parking.

We did park in Weymouth once – paying £3.10 for three hours – so we could enjoy the town’s Sea Life offering.

Be warned, this overpriced attraction is nothing compared to sea life centres in London or Birmingham, and is a bit torn between being a serious aquarium and a seaside amusement park.

This was illustrated by its new, and slightly innappropriate, log flume ride, dotted with real crocodiles.

If you can afford the parking, you could also visit the 350 acre Lodmoor Country Park, the RSPB nature reserve, the Rio Grande Railway and the nine-hole pitch and putt. We didn’t.

A great place to visit, on the other hand, is Abbotsbury. This village is steeped in history, and now hosts the Children’s Farm and Smugglers Barn, Tropical Gardens, and Swannery.

The farm park is a great place to entertain little ones. They can take a goat for a walk (or is the goat taking the child for a walk?), play on mini tractors, take a pony ride, and get spat at by alpacas.

The swannery is a grown-up attraction in a lagoon sheltered by Chesil Beach, where hundreds of swans were first bred by monks for food.

Now it’s all about conservation, and the hundreds of birds that live here are looked after by a dedicated team.

If you visit in June you may be lucky to see the cygnets. You may be even luckier to watch the huge parents and their babies being hooked out of the water for vaccinations – an amazing and somewhat frightening sight! Did you know that a swan can break human bones with a flap of its wing…?

One word of advice: park in the swannery’s free car park and walk up to the other amusements, rather than leave your car in the village.

Finally, for a wet day (not that we had many), Dorchester hits the spot.

We visited the Teddy Bear Museum, which provided an hour of fun for the children, with a collection covering everything from Sooty to Steiffs.

The same building plays host to the Terracotta Warriors Museum, which houses replicas of a small number of the 8,000 soldiers made to guard the grave of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang di.

Dorchester also has a rather pleasant shopping area, and Prince Charles’ new town Poundbury, which was built to embrace his beliefs in good urban design, nestles on its westerly boundary.

To sum Dorset up, its fabulous. It has a blend of attractions, an eclectic mix of beaches and spellbinding scenery.

As Hardy didn’t write: “Go on, give it a go.”