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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
in Dorset.

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 union movement.

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 and prose.

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.

website: www.footscape.co.uk
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First published by the Telegraph

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