Dorset In the footsteps of novelist Thomas Hardy
The short walk through the flower and herb garden up to Thomas Hardy’s cottage reminded me of holidays spent at my father’s family summer home alongside the wild Atlantic coast of Ireland’s County Mayo.
The Dorset cob and thatched structure was two storeys and resembled that blissful place where I played Gaelic football outside for hours with my cousins Mattie and JT.
The joyful atmosphere was also the same that of an inquiring young boy immersed in a loving family and surrounded by the wonder of nature’s animals and plants – a vision that diverged in Hardy’s case only by his builder father’s ramshackle garden which, at the time, was also filled with the bricks, beams and other paraphernalia of his trade.
My feeling of a connection continued as I stepped inside and saw the familiar open fire and kitchen where his mother had cooked family meals and the small bedroom where the future great author had first ventured into the world.
Tess, Jude The Obscure and The Wood landers
Hardy drew from far and wide all over his Dorset home county for novel locations, often inventing fictitious names for places, but we opted for the northern area as it was such a huge inspiration and the base for his final three books, Tess, Jude the Obscure and The Woodlanders.
And so it was that Sue – a ‘moderate’ Hardy enthusiast – and I plunged into a mixed driving and walking tour of a place that has changed.
Bockhampton cottage – Hardy’s birthplace
It was highly evocative to start with the Trust’s Bockhampton cottage, where the sickly baby Thomas, apparently stillborn until he finally screamed into life and where his bookish mother and music-loving father nurtured his aptitude for writing playing the violin and art.
That artistic coaching took him to London where he became an architect before returning to Dorset and publishing the successful Under the Greenwood Tree, featuring his old school in the village.
Our next stop was another Trust property Max Gate the Dorchester house he designed and lived in for 40 years and where he wrote and published such greats as Jude Caster bridge The Wood landers and Tess.
It was also where he lived with the two women that he married. The first Emma Gifford a Cornish vicar’s daughter could not cope with the racy nature of some of his works including the controversial Jude (nicknamed ‘Jude the Obscene’ by Churchmen) and, despite their deep mutual love she lived apart from him for many years in the upper part of the house.
After her much-mourned Hardy never recovered and turned to poetry living for a further 14 years at Max Gate after marrying his young secretary Florence Dugdale.
From the house Sue and I would have headed next to Dorset County Museum in the centre of the town to see its renowned displays of his working area as well as books photographs and manuscripts. But a major redevelopment there means that it will not reopen until next summer.
St Michael’s Church
Instead we made for a place which epitomises the sadness that overshadowed his later life. With his mind by the loss of Emma at the time of his, remains were interred at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey but his heart, however, was buried beside her, in St. Michael’s Church, Stinsford, less than a mile away from his birthplace, which provided us with a highly emotive step on the Trail.