HISTORIC homes, quaint cottages and stimulating saunters are on offer as Dorset opens its doors to a diverse celebration of architecture, history and culture.

Heritage Open Days 2008 run from September 11-14 and 290 properties in the south are among 3,500 nationwide celebrating the best of Britain.

Museums, galleries, churches and guided walks are among the free attractions that last year attracted nearly a million visitors, many of which are not normally open to the public.

The four-day annual event, co-ordinated by the Civic Trust in partnership with English Heritage, is supported by an army of 35,000 volunteers.

"Visitors are invited into places that are otherwise private, to meet people who live or work there, or who know the history of the places better than anyone else," said Peter Berman of the Outer South West Association of Civic Societies.

"The Heritage Open Days event makes architecture accessible and heritage human. It is a fantastic opportunity to discover what makes regions, town and villages so special and dear to us."

Dorset's delights include a chance to explore the collections of Bournemouth Natural Science Society in its grade II listed building in Christchurch Road on Saturday and Sunday.

Tours of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum take place on Saturday and Sunday and St Clement's Church in Boscombe and St Stephen's Church in Bournemouth town centre are both open on Saturday, with the latter offering an organ recital at 1pm. Christchurch Local History Society is offering a walk around the Anglo Saxon town on Sunday.

In Poole the Georgian interior and pine pillars from Newfoundland can be viewed at St James's Church in Thames Street on Saturday all day and Sunday afternoon and Richard Horden's minimalist Study Gallery in North Road is open on Saturday and Sunday.

Walk Awhile With Me explores 1,000 years of Poole history through its lanes and alleyways on Saturday and Brownsea Island holds an open day on Saturday.

There is a walk around Shaftesbury on Saturday, Castleton Waterwheel Museum near Sherborne is open on Sunday and there are tours of works of art at the Castle House on Thursday.

Lawrence of Arabia's isolated cottage Clouds Hill, Bovington, is open on Saturday and Corfe Castle and Wareham Town Museum have events on the same day while Wimborne offers Kingston Lacy.

There will also be a once in a decade chance to re-chalk the Cerne Abbas Giant between Saturday and Saturday week.

l Some events need to be booked and more information is available from heritageopendays.org.