The boisterous spirit of Hardy’s Wessex
From dogs past and present to artistic inspiration, Chris Wiltshire digs deep in Dorset
THOMAS Hardy would no doubt have chuckled had he looked down at his old Dorset pad from the great poets’ corner in the sky. Our pet dog Eddie had taken a leaf from Hardy’s naughty terrier, Wessex, and given two visitors to Max Gate – Hardy’s Dorchester home for more than 40 years – an uncharacteristic dressing down for no apparent reason.
The well-dressed couple looked unnerved by Eddie’s barking and quickly made a beeline for the house’s formal gardens.
I turned round to scold our little scamp, but was disarmed by the trace of a smirk across his cheeky face.
It seems the spirit of ‘Wessie’, who was allowed to terrorise visitors to Max Gate by an over-indulgent Hardy, lives on. Writers Rudyard Kipling and George Bernard Shaw were among several famous guests who are said to have suffered a painful nip to an ankle from Wessie, as they arrived for teatime meetings.
But Hardy cared deeply for his unruly companion and was moved to pen at least two poems about him when the pooch died, aged 13.
Wessie’s grave holds pride of place in Max Gate’s touching pet cemetery, Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd with his own engraved headstone carrying the words, The Famous Dog, Wessex. Faithful, unflinching.
My wife, Carole, and I – plus Tibetan terrier Eddie – are visiting the imposing Victorian house and grounds on a simmering spring morning, as the star-studded adaptation of Hardy’s book, Far from the Madding Crowd, is released in cinemas.
We’re keen to explore the delights of Dorset, where Thomas Vinterberg’s film is set, before the expected stampede this summer.
This little piece of English heaven has so much going for it, with half the county designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and three-quarters of its coastline a World Heritage Site.
We are based in a delightful, dog-friendly cottage in Litton Cheney, a few miles from Bridport and the county town of Dorchester (Casterbridge, to those who have read Hardy). The village has narrow lanes flanked by pretty thatched cottages and spring water streams leading down to a welcoming pub.
It’s easy to imagine the film’s Gabriel Oak (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) working in the fields as the beautiful heroine Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) passes by on her rickety yellow wagon.
Our cottage is more like a grand country manor house. Each of the five bedrooms has spacious en suites, the beds are as large and comfortable as those found in any five-star hotel and the modern kitchen-diner has two dishwashers and underfloor heating.
Overlooking the village is the 13th century church of St Mary with its peal of eight bells occasionally adding to the birdsong and bleating of lambs. It’s typical Hardy country.
Just a few miles away, we visit Dorset’s most famous landmark, the spectacular Jurassic Coast, one of the richest sources of fossils in the country. Its dramatic shoreline provides the backdrop for one of the film’s opening scenes, when one of Gabriel’s misguided sheepdogs drives his flock over the edge of the cliffs, rendering him financially ruined.
We then continue to neighbouring Lyme Regis, nicknamed the pearl of Dorset. The sea front is dominated by The Cobb, a long, sweeping harbour wall made famous in Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, and by Meryl Streep playing The French Lieutenant’s Woman in the acclaimed 1981 film.
A few miles further along the coast we find the picturesque fishing village of West Bay (Port Bredy in Hardy’s novels), the setting for the popular TV police drama Broadchurch, starring David Tennant and Olivia Colman.
A coastal path leads us to neighbouring Eype, where Eddie is able to run amok on the dog-friendly pebbly beach, while further east at Abbotsbury, we catch mackerel three at a time on Chesil Beach – one of the most popular and prolific angling destinations along the south coast.
There is something deeply gratifying about being able to take your own freshly-caught fish home to cook and eat, washed down with a glass or two of chilled Sauvignon.
The lunch set us up nicely for a visit to Mapperton, one of Dorset’s loveliest houses, which lies on the outskirts of Beaminster and is home to the Earl and Countess of Sandwich.
Vinterberg unsurprisingly chose the 16th century Jacobean manor house as Bathsheba’s home, where she
Chalk sea cliffs in Dorset greets her three suitors: Gabriel Oak, the handsome and reckless Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge) and prosperous bachelor William Boldwood (Michael Sheen).
To get a real sense of where Hardy drew so much inspiration for his novels, we head a few miles out east from Dorchester to the small village of Higher Bockhampton.
Tucked on the edge of Thorncombe Wood, lies a modest thatched cottage where Hardy was born in 1840 and lived for the first 45 years of his life.
Hardy’s old cottage has been sympathetically maintained and there is an excellent Lottery-funded visitor centre built nearby, run by the National Trust. It includes a cafe and information about how the Victorians lived at the time and what wildlife can be found in the woods.
Hardy died aged 87 and his heart is buried less than a mile away in the graveyard of the tiny church of St Michael, alongside his parents and first wife, Emma. The rest of him was cremated and the ashes scattered in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner.
I’m not sure the old maestro would have approved of quite such a macabre ending, but at least he is in good company.