Far from the Modern Crowd
Bere Regis to Dorchester
by Sarah Shuckburgh
Sarah Shuckburgh forgets her
urban cares on a two-day hike through Thomas Hardy country
Thomas Hardy wrote that it was better “to know a little
bit of the world remarkably well, than to know a great part
of the world remarkably little”. My friend Gila, her dog
Dido and I are spending two days strolling through Hardy’s
own little bit of the world - the still-unspoiled corner of
rural Dorset which formed the setting for most of his Wessex
novels, and where he lived for 77 of his 88 years.
Our route has been devised by Tim Bond, whom we meet in
Bere Regis churchyard. Tim, whose company, Footscape, is
based in nearby Cerne Abbas, is a charmingly dishevelled
bear of a man, cheerful, obliging and knowledgeable - an
educated Gabriel Oak.
Bere Regis has one of the oldest and prettiest churches
in Dorset. Leaving Tim holding Dido’s lead, Gila and I step
inside, and find the nave teeming with elderly parishioners,
who introduce themselves as the Holy Dusters. One gentleman
stops sweeping to show us two Turberville tombs, inspiration
for Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Sun streams through
the stained-glass window which commemorates 500 years of
Turberville lords of the manor. The astonishing timber roof
has gaudily painted statues of the apostles jutting out from
the rafters like marionettes, their faces staring downwards.
In the middle looms the huge wooden face of Cardinal Morton,
Henry VII’s rapacious finance minister, who paid for the
roof in 1493. His mother was a Turberville.
Our Holy Duster is just pointing out some wonderful
12th-century heads grimacing with toothache and headache,
when we glimpse his wife frowning from behind her hoover.
“I’d better get back to my broom,” he says.
Tim and Dido are waiting beneath the Turberville window,
where Tess and her family camped after being evicted from
their cottage. Equipped with our trail notes, Gila, Dido and
I set off beside a shallow stream, as Tim folds his
considerable hulk into a tiny yellow Fiat and drives away.
His trail guide is full of warnings about nettles, but is
also peppered with erudite information, which allows us to
pretend that we remember more about Hardy’s work than we do.
Soon we find ourselves on Black Hill Heath, a wild area
of bracken and gorse which is a remnant of Hardy’s Egdon
Heath. While Dido races after rabbits in the bleached grass,
Gila and I discuss (prompted by the trail notes) how in The
Return of the Native the heath appears as a titan with moods
that affect everyone who lives there - 'singularly colossal
and mysterious in its swarthy monotony’. Clym Yeobright, the
returning native, loves its grim, peaceful beauty; Eustacia
Vye loathes its desolation and narrowness. As a gentle
breeze ruffles our hair, Gila and I imagine Hardy sitting at
this very spot, sensing the ‘linguistic peculiarity of the
heath‘, hearing in the wind gusts of treble, tenor and bass
notes, and choosing words which vividly convey the essence
of this barren wilderness.
We walk on through Piddle Wood, across fields and over
the hedgerow stiles of the unspoilt Piddle valley. The
landscape is gentle and rolling, and the gravel-bottomed
river is astonishingly clear. Dido paddles in the Piddle as
Gila and I sit in a sunny meadow and discuss how our lives
lack the comforting certainties of seasons and customs that
Hardy remembered with nostalgia from his boyhood, a time
when the scythes, pitchforks and milking pails of rural life
had changed little since the middle ages.
At Tolpuddle - Hardy's Tolchurch - we stop for lunch at
the Martyrs’ Inn, before visiting the small museum which
tells how, in 1834, six local labourers dared to object to
their pay of six shillings per week and were transported to
Australia on trumped-up charges, thus initiating the trade
We end our gentle day’s walk at Athelhampton House, a
fine Tudor mansion with beautiful gardens, where doves
flutter from a brick dovecot. Hardy often visited
Athelhampton, using it as the setting for several poems and
a short story, The Waiting Supper. Gila and I decide that we
have found our dream house, and are planning new grand lives
when the canary yellow Fiat rattles up, bearing our burly
Michael Henchard, to whisk us back to our hotel.
Next day, we stroll through Puddletown Forest, out across
great expanses of wild, rabbit-scratched heathland and down
to Hardy’s cottage, which still nestles on the edge of woods
and heath. It is a magical approach to the house where Hardy
wrote his first three masterpieces: Desperate Remedies,
Under the Greenwood Tree, and Far from the Madding Crowd.
Hardy was ashamed of his humble origins and later
described his birthplace as a rambling 7-bedroom farmhouse.
The 200-year-old cottage is in fact small and low, built of
cob, brick and thatch by Hardy’s grandfather (Thomas the
First) for his son (Thomas the Second). It has low beamed
ceilings, uneven oak floors, and window seats in the thick
walls. Gila and I change our minds, and decide that this is
our dream house - despite the lack of a bathroom. In a
downstairs parlour where Hardy's grandmother used to live,
the curator is ready for a chat about the many scenes in the
Wessex novels which are set in this very cottage, and about
Thomas‘s forbidden love for his niece Tryphena Sparks - a
youthful heartbreak that perhaps inspired most of his poetry
Passing Kingston Maurward house, we walk on to Stinsford
parish church. Here Hardy and his father played the violin
and sang in the choir - faithfully portrayed as the
Mellstock quire in Under the Greenwood Tree. Today the
fiddlers are gone, as is the musicians’ gallery. In the
churchyard are the graves of Hardy’s grandparents, parents,
aunts, uncles and cousin, and both his wives. Hardy’s body
is buried in Westminster Abbey, but his heart is buried here
at Stinsford. Or is it? Rumour has it that just before the
interment, Hardy’s cat Cobby gobbled up the heart, which had
been wrapped in a tea-towel. The undertaker, finding the
tea-towel empty and Cobby contentedly licking his lips,
killed the cat and buried him in the grave, hoping for the
best. Dido doesn’t look too impressed by this story.
Our final destination is Max Gate, a suburban brick villa
designed by Hardy himself, where he spent the last 40 years
of his life, and where he wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge
and The Woodlanders, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the
Obscure. We tie Dido to a tree near the grave of Hardy’s dog
Wessex, who famously bit every distinguished visitor.
The contents of Hardy’s first-floor study are now in the
Dorchester’s County Museum, but visitors to Max Gate can see
two ground-floor rooms and the two-acre garden. Here we meet
our most talkative curator so far, who tells us that after
his first wife Emma died, Hardy found, in her attic bedroom,
a notebook entitled “What I Think Of My Husband”, and spent
the rest of his life full of remorse for the unhappiness he
had caused her. His second marriage was a loveless marriage
of convenience, but during these last years Hardy wrote his
best poetry - and the curator knows it all by heart.
In Hardy’s day, walking was the way to get from one place
to another. Today, driving is the new walking, and we have
seen almost nobody on foot all weekend. The fiddlers and
milkmaids have gone, but much of Hardy’s Wessex is little
changed - tiny hamlets of thatched cottages, chalky downs,
ancient beeches, shallow rivers and barren heath have all
survived. A distant hum of traffic on the A35 has provided
an occasional reminder of the ‘mercurial dash’ of our urban
lives, but for two days we have embraced the timeless
immutability of Hardy’s beloved landscape. As our shaggy
Clym Yeobright drives us away in his yellow Fiat, we feel
uplifted and restored.
Tel: 0130 034 1792
First published by the Telegraph