Discovering Thomas Hardy's fictional county of Wessex
I've been an unashamed fan of Victorian author Thomas Hardy after falling in love with actress Julie Christie as an impressionable teenager after she starred in the 1960s film, Far From The Madding Crowd.
Filmed in and around Dorset, one of Britain’s most picturesque counties, Ms Christie was cast in director John Schlesinger’s cinematic masterpiece as the beautiful Bathsheba Everdene in a film which recreates Hardy’s classic tale in all its glory. She plays a headstrong woman who inherits a farm and is then pursued by the likes of fellow actors Peter Finch, Terence Stamp and Alan Bates for her hand in marriage.
With Hardy’s beloved Dorset homeland to the fore, I was recently invited to explore the wild uplands, rolling hills and quaint semi-fictional Wessex villages close to the south coast downs by HF Holidays – www.hfholidays.co.uk (0345 470 7558) – with the intention of learning more about one of Britain’s most prolific Victorian authors and poets.
Staying at West Lulworth House – one of 18 such UK properties owned by the 105-year-old holiday company – from it’s lofty position, the four-star residences is located just a 200 metre stroll from the picturesque Lulworth Cove on Dorset’s historic Jurassic Coast.
On arrival for our four night stay we were warmly greeted by HF Holidays’ enthusiastic walks leader Sandy Franklin who immediately invited us to join her Thomas Hardy Discovery group.
As we had originally planned to undertake a self-guided Thomas Hardy tour, we jumped at the chance and joined ten fellow guests – but what none of us expected were the dreadful walking conditions… but more of that later!
Also on hand at the reception area was keen cyclist Lucinda Rhodes from Cambridge who was there to offer valuable information to 17 self-guided walkers and to show them the house’s invaluable discovery point with its list of maps and various grade walks located on the first floor.
We quickly settled into our comfortable double aspect en suite room with its views over to Lulworth Cove to the south and to the coastal path which leads to Durdle Door to the west… and within a couple of hours we were tucking into one of those famed Dorset cream teas!
West Lulworth House is managed by husband and wife team Mark and Lisa Abbott, but as he was called away to look after another HF (Holiday Fellowship) property in Somerset at short notice – Selworthy in Minehead – the day to day running was down to Lisa who really made everyone feel at home.
One thing that HF Holidays prides itself on is its cuisine and as everyone was on a full board basis, it certainly doesn’t disappoint. There is a huge choice at both breakfast and dinner while locally produced meat and vegetables are very much a big priority. In fact on the final night there was a five course dinner featuring the very best that Dorset has to offer.
Naturally midday lunches are of the picnic variety as everyone is either walking or sightseeing so these are ordered the night before and, apart from a choice of sandwiches, there is also a massive choice of ‘extras’ (fruit, pies, cereal bars, etc).
West Lulworth village and its nearby cove are justifiably popular with walkers, fossil hunters and bird watchers alike while HF Holidays’ house itself dates back to 1881. It was originally built for the former Mayor of Weymouth Sir Richard Howard who owned a paddle steamer which criss-crossed The Solent, taking passengers, supplies and cargo to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight.
The property was purchased by HF Holidays in 2013 while it underwent a full refurbished two years later. It now has 22 en suite bedrooms and can accommodate a maximum of 44 guests, although some are located in the annex.
When renovated, West Lulworth House gained a new lounge and dining room while it has a sunny south facing garden and an outdoor swimming pool (open May to September), while there is free parking for guests in the public car park directly across the road opposite the house.
Like all HF Holidays’ country houses, West Lulworth House is tailored for walkers, cyclists and outdoor enthusiasts with a boot room and drying room, a discovery point plus a rather sociable bar.
As well as outstanding walking, the UNESCO World Heritage Jurassic Coast around the Lulworth area has many fine beaches including Middle Beach to the west and that world-famous geological wonder, Durdle Door.
The massive rock arch is found after a steep uphill walk along the coastal path from Lulworth Cove’s car park – it’s approximately a two hour round trip and is said to be made by more than 250,000 visitors each year – while the ‘door’ itself is absolutely stunning, the sloping pebbled beach ideal for sunbathing, swimming and snorkelling.
The eastern beaches of Mupe Bay and Arish Mell lie below land owned by the military and while these are open to the public when not in army use, you really need to check the opening times before accessing that particular area!
Lulworth Cove itself is a near-perfect circle which has been carved by the waves into the soft rocks. There is a free heritage centre next to the public car park which is worth a visit while facilities in the cove itself are limited to a selection of pubs, cafés and souvenir shops. You can also hire sea canoes and kayaks with which to discover the hidden inlets and coves along the rugged coastline.
Thomas Hardy walks
Despite a heavy mist rolling in off the sea, we joined walks leader Sandy on a short stroll down to the cove and up to Stair Hole – a mini version of Durdle Door – prior to dinner on the first day while entertainment that evening was the 2005 film of Hardy’s Under The Greenwood Tree starring Keeley Hawes (The Durrells), the late Tony Haygarth and Steve Pemberton (Benidorm).
The following morning we boarded a Mercedes Benz coach driven by Callum and were dropped off close to the village of Higher Bockhampton and the Hardy’s Birthplace Visitors Centre close to the cob and thatch cottage where he was born in 1840.
Now looked after by the National Trust, the cottage was built by Hardy’s grandparents and he lived there with them, his parents, two sisters and a brother. The cottage overlooks heathland – immortalised as Egdon Heath – which he later includes in one of his most powerful novels, The Return of the Native.
Shortly after leaving the Thorncombe Wood area we were at the mercy of the elements as we headed along a path which Hardy regularly used next to the River Frome on his way to the village of Stinsford which he called Mellstock in Under the Greenwood Tree.
With the river having burst its banks due to heavy overnight rain, I soon had two very wet feet as the water invaded my walking boots. But we paddled on to view St Michael’s Church and the grave of Hardy’s first wife Emma Gifford (1874-1912). It is said that Hardy’s heart is also buried there even though his body lies in a poets grave in Westminster Abbey.
We continued to walk across rain-soaked farmland, encountering oozing mud and soggy pastures which became the location of Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd while we also climbed heavily wooded tracks in Puddletown Forest to reach an ancient burial site which Hardy named Rainbarrow.
Hardy’s characters and locations were certainly brought to life by walks’ leader Sandy’s fine descriptions. Then crossing the Roman Road we discovered the place where Eustacia Vye lived, the Rushy Pond close by and where she met her lover Wildeve... and then there was the pub which also featured strongly in Hardy’s stories.
In total we walked 9.32 miles but in those conditions it was more like 15 and one wag even suggested that it was more reminiscent of the Somme than a countryside walk!
We also passed through the village of Tolpuddle, home of the six Tolpuddle Martyrs who were banished to Australia for seven years after leading a revolt against the establishment with a march to London, their actions being the basis of today’s trade union movement.
That evening we were treated to a rather special talk by Dorchester’s long serving town crier, Alistair Chisolm, an active and extremely entertaining member of the Thomas Hardy Society. His theatrical delivery and wonderful diction certainly kept everyone amused.
Unfortunately my wife managed to twist her knee coming out of St Mary’s Church in Puddletown right at the end of the walk and that curtailed our involvement in the next two day’s Thomas Hardy walks. They were from Cerne Abbas and Melcombe Bingham which would feature the locations and characters in his novels The Woodlanders and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, his heroine Tess having clearly been an intrepid walker!
However we did manage to make the climb and take the coastal path to Durdle Door as well as visiting the National Trust sites at Corfe Castle and the beautiful Kingston Lacy with its fine collection of artworks and landscaped gardens.
We also made the short trip into Dorchester and Hardy’s home at Max Gate where he wrote the majority of his novels – plus over 1,000 poems – and where he died from pleurisy on 11 January 1928, the same year as his second wife Florence Dugdale whom he had married in 1914.
Hardy also renamed Dorset’s county town as Casterbridge – hence The Mayor of Casterbridge – while his final book was Jude The Obscure which received such mixed reviews that he turned instead to writing poetry, many of them romanticising the love of his first wife Emma even though their marriage had often been a tempestuous affair.
We also passed Clouds Hill, the tiny isolated 19th century-built cottage close to Bovington Camp near Wareham which was the former home of T E Lawrence, better known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. He was stationed at Bovington and was a close friend of Hardy’s. The cottage is now run as a writer’s home museum by the National Trust while there was a shed which once housed Lawrence’s collection of motor cycles. He died at the age of 46 after suffering head injuries after hitting a tree close to his cottage.
However one common misconception made by visitors to Dorset relates to the 72-foot tall Thomas Hardy monument on the summit of Black Down. It was erected in 1844 – just four years after the author Thomas Hardy was born – and is in memory of vice admiral Sir Thomas Hardy, a commander at the Battle of Trafalgar and of whom admiral Lord Nelson spoke those immortal words “kiss me Hardy” on his death bed.
Other Dorset attractions
A brisk walk from Lulworth Cove finds you at Lulworth Castle, a 17th century mock medieval castle that was once the heart of an extensive estate. Having been gutted by fire in 1929 it was derelict for many years, but has since been completely renovated – www.lulworth.com/castle
The iconic ruins of Corfe Castle stand guard over a natural gap in the Purbeck Hills. It’s a half hour drive from Lulworth Cove and dates back from the 11th century. Today it is maintained by the National Trust – www.nationaltrust.org.uk/corfe-castle
Close to Corfe village is a lovingly restored branch railway line which runs through the Purbeck countryside. Steam hauled trains run throughout the year and you can leave your car in the Park & Ride at Norden (a 30 minute drive from Lulworth), and use the railway to visit Swanage – www.swanagerailway.co.uk
Kingston Lacy is a fine country mansion and estate close to Wimborne Minster. It dates back to 1665 and was built for the Bankes family who also purchased Corfe Castle from royalty in 1635. Now managed by the National Trust, it houses a fine collection of antiques, with many notable examples from the Middle East and Egypt – www.nationaltrust.org.uk/kingston-lacy
Near the village of Wool you find Monkey World which again is just 20 minutes from Lulworth by car. Orginally set up to rescue mistreated monkeys from overseas, it’s now home to a huge collection of primates – www.monkeyworld.org
Close by you will find the military premises at Bovington and the tank museum with its impressive collection from around the world dating back to the First World War – www.tankmuseum.org
Slightly further afield is Brownsea Island, located in the middle of Poole Harbour. Boats depart from Poole Quay and from Sandbanks. The island, famous for Lord Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting movement, is now a nature reserve managed by the National Trust and one of last remaining places in Britain to see red squirrels – www.nationaltrust.org.uk/brownsea-island
And finally, no trip to this part of the Dorset coast would be complete without a visit to nearby Weymouth, a fine regency seaside resort with an ever-popular beach and bustling harbour.
Many thanks to Michael Leonhardt of Gough Bailey Wright of St Johns House, 16 Church Street, Bromsgrove, Worcestershire B61 8DN (www.gough.co.uk, 01527 579555) for arranging our stay at HF Holidays’ West Lulworth House in Lulworth Cove, Dorset.
We stayed for four nights (from Monday April 9 until Friday April 13) at a cost of £475 per person which included full board accommodation and three guided walks. For self-guided walking, the four night cost was £395 per person. For more details of all HF Holidays – Catalyst House, 720 Centennial Court, Centennial Park, Elstree, Borehamwood, WD6 3SY – call 0345 470 7558 or visit their website at www.hfholidays.co.uk
About HF Holidays
All HF Holiday country houses welcome self-guided walkers, so you can enjoy the same diverse array of scenery, culture, history and wildlife as the rest of the guests, but with the freedom to explore wherever and whenever you choose. Each of the houses has a discovery point packed with a selection of local walks for you to explore. All you need to do is decide how far you feel like walking that day, pick your route card off the wall, lace up your boots and head off.
HF Holidays is actually owned by its members. Standard membership can be brought for a minimum investment of £100 (100 £1 shares) while Investment Membership means an minimum outlay of £1,000 (1,000 £1 shares) – details at www.hfholidays.co.uk/membership or call 020 8732 1290. Membership itself means various rewards, discounts and advanced booking privileges.
With over 100 years’ expertise in creating unique breaks, HF Holidays has devised special courses with experts for photography, arts & crafts, music, theatre and festivals, dancing, natural world, mind & body, bridge and touring. And while the majority of these activities take place in Great Britain, there is the opportunity to travel to all parts of the globe by checking out the website at www.hfholidays.co.uk
The 18 HF County Houses in the UK are:
Chy Morval, St Ives, Cornwall; Harrington House, Bourton-on-the-Water, Cotswolds; The Pevril of the Peak, Doverdale, Derbyshire; Freshwater Bay House, Isle of Wight; Derwent Bank, Portinscale, Cumbria; Monk Coniston, Coninstonwater, Cumbria; Longwynd House, Church Stretton, Shropshire; Abingworth Hall, Abingworth, Sussex; Craflwyn Hall, Snowdon, Wales; Dolserau Hall, Dolgellau, Wales; Alltshellach, Glen Coe, Scotland; Larpool Hall, Whitby, Yorkshire; West Lulworth House, Luworth Cove, Dorset; Holnicote Gouse, Selworthy, Devon; Nether Grange, Alnmouth, Northumberland; Nythfa House, Brecon, Wales; Newfield Hall, Malhamdale, Yorkshire Dales; Thorns Hall, Sedbergh, Yorkshire Dales.
Contributed by Alan Wooding