The bois­ter­ous spirit of Hardy’s Wes­sex

From dogs past and present to artis­tic in­spi­ra­tion, Chris Wilt­shire digs deep in Dorset

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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.

PA Photo

Dur­dle Door

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