Thomas Hardy Country – Far from the maddening crowd

Lyme Regis The CobbI recently discovered Dorset – not that I didn’t know it was there before, but more the fact that I never visit there as my obsession fort many years has been Cornwall.  My grandparents used to go on holiday in Dorset every year and we have a wonderful collection of family holiday snaps taken in the 1930’s on Chesil Beach and in Lyme Regis.

So last October, I decided that our half term trip would take us to explore Thomas Hardy country.  We booked a few days at Toomer Farm near Sherborne.  It is so difficult to find a place these days that wil accept a 3 year old, but this farm is a wonderful 16th century farm which operates not only as a working farm now, but also as a Bed and Breakfast and Equestrian centre as well and happily accepts toddlers.  Rumour has it that Elizabeth I stayed there as she toured her Kingdom.

My plan was to visit as much of Thomas Hardy’s country as I could.  My love of Hardy started when I was 14 and had to choose two books for my GCSE English coursework.  My tutor suggested Tess of the D’Urbervilles and I was hooked.  The vivid imagery of the people and the landscapes had me engrossed.  She also introduced to me what has become my lifelong favourite poem – The Darkling Thrush.  I remember visiting Hardy’s Birthplace not long after in the summer holidays with my mum, but I don’t think I’ve returned to Dorset since.  I only wish I’d returned sooner.

Thomas Hardy was born on 2nd June 1840 in the village of Higher Brockhampton, just a couple of miles south of Dorchester. He was the eldest of a family of four children and they lived in an idyllic cottage up a small country lane.  Even today, as you leave the visitor centre and make your way up the track, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped back 150 years and were about to bump into the Hardy family any moment. Hardy’s Cottage is now owned by the National Trust.  Surrounded by beautiful woodland, a cottage garden and miles of beautiful Dorset countryside it is not hard to see where Hardy got his inspiration from.

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After attending the village school, he went as a day boy to a private school in Dorchester.  In 1856, at the age of 16 he joined a local architect firm and for the next few years spent time on his favourite three interests – architecture, classics and his love of the Dorset countryside.  In 1862 he went to London to further his architecture career and by this time he was already starting to write.  But ill health in 1867 forced him to return to Dorchester where he continued to work as an architect. It was soon after that whilst working on a project in Boscastle that he met his future wife.  It wasn’t until the early 1870’s that Hardy’s writing began to gather momentum – his first published novel entitled ‘Desperate Remedies’ was not an overall success but the following year, 1872, the publication ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ was much better received and this start a lifelong literary career.  Although he loved writing novels, it is said that his main love was poetry.  The novels became a success financially allowing him the money to live a comfortable life and be able to write the poetry he craved.  People bought into the world he created, and still remain popular today.

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In 1874, Hardy married Miss Emma Lavia Gifford at St Peters Church in Paddington and for several years they moved from place to place around London.  But in 1881 they returned to Dorset.  At first they lived in Wimborne Minster but in 1883, Hardy purchased a plot of land about a mile south of Dorchester, on the Wareham Road and designed and built Max Gate, which was to be his home for the rest of his life. They still in kept in touch with London and frequently visited their friends and colleagues there.  But Hardy loved the peace and tranquillity of Max Gate and it was here that he wrote many of his finest novels including The Mayor of Casterbridge published in 1886, The Woodlanders in 1887 and Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 1891.   Max Gate is also owned and run by the National Trust.

Hardy was one of the founders of the Dorset County Museum and today the museum holds over 7000 items from his life, including a wonderful first edition of Far From The Madding Crowd.  Hardy died on 11th January 1928.  His ashes were taken to Westminster Abbey and his heart was buried in the churchyard at Stinsford, close to where his mother, father and other family members were buried.

While Hardy’s cottage fills you with memories of a simpler time when rural families lived in small cottages, the walls blackened with smoke, snakes slithering up to the back door (One was famously found in Hardy’s cot while he slept as a baby, by his mother), low ceilings and growing your own produce in your garden.  Max Gate is a much grander affair, reflecting not only perhaps a successful career but also a change in life and the progression of the Victorian ideals.  But Max Gate is a grand house on a small scale – as soon as you enter the hallway there is a cosiness and warmth about it.  It feels as if Hardy has merely stepped outside his front door for a walk in the hills to ponder his latest poem.

As you enter the sitting room on the right, a warm fire crackled and spat, the wonderful smell of the burnt wood seeping through the air.  When you walk into some homes, you are greeted with a coldness of a time so far removed from our own its hard to imagine anyone actually living there.  But Max Gate is a home and I think always will be.  This is how I want my sitting room to be, warm, cosy and always inviting to anyone who turns up for a chat. However, my favourite part of the house was Hardy’s study – I was quite overwhelmed to be stood by his desk, overlooking his beloved garden.

DSC_0917I feel honoured to have the opportunity to stand, where Hardy would have stood as he wrote, contemplated, loved and laughed.

I struggle to write living in London.  It feels too enclosed and stifling – I need space, air and trees to really find my ideas.  I think a little bit of me was jealous as I looked out of the window – what a wonderful place to be able to live and write.  No wonder his works are so full of rich descriptions of the countryside that surrounded him.  How could they not be?

Hardy set all of his major novels in the fictional county of Wessex which he had created.  The places in his novels all exist but with fictional names.  At the start of his writing career to he chose to stick to the places he knew well – the area he grew up in.  Dorchester became Casterbridge and Brockhampton became Mellstock – Under the Greenwood Tree is nearly all set here.  But as his writing developed and the years went by, soon the whole of Dorset was included as well as parts of Wiltshire, Devon, Somerset, Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire.  Cornwall was referred to on occasions as ‘Off Wessex.’  Other famous references include

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Weymouth – Budmouth

Beaminster – Emminster

Bere Regis – Kingsbere

Marnhull – Marlott

Lulworth Cove – Lulwind Cove

Shaftesbury – Shaston

Much of rural Dorset has changed since Hardy lived there and perhaps this is one of the reasons that I have now fallen in love with its little villages and country lanes.  As I wondered on top of hills, looking out to the sea I could almost see Tess in the distance trudging across the muddy paths.  The landscape in Hardy’s works, whether it be his novels or his poetry are almost additional characters.  His descriptions are unique and so detailed that they almost have their own power over the characters, their flaws and stories.  The principal industry has always been Agriculture and it is the only county in the country not to have a mile of motorway – one wonders for how long!

In ‘The Return of the Native’ Hardy describes Egdon Heath which combines many of the gorse and bracken covered heaths to the south of Dorchester.  It is also the sight for supernatural happenings in another of my favourite stories, ‘The Withered Arm’.  There is a certain atmosphere of hostility towards civilisations, but also shows the power of nature in the open.  In his novels he uses the contrasts of the wildness of the countryside set against the hustle and bustle of the towns of Dorchester, Shaftesbury, Sherborne and later Oxford.

‘The Darkling Thrush’ published in 1900 was written on 29 December, although there are suggestions that it was written in 1899 on the eve of the new century.  It is perhaps one of his more lyrical and musical poems and for me the imagery of the frozen, desolate winter countryside are beautiful. Although this poem could have been written anywhere in the countryside, for me it is Hardy’s connection with nature and the Dorset countryside that makes this poem what it is.

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
    The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
    Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
    Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
    The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
    The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
    Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
    Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
    The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
    Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
    In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
    Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
    Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
    Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
    His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
    And I was unaware.

Yet my images of Dorset since my last three trips (In 6 months) are those of peace, tranquillity, beauty, and a tip of the cap to a bygone era.  A place where time is slower, where people stop to say hello and chat over the garden gate, and a place which still lives and breaths what rural England once was.  I have a new obsession and will be returning many more times this year to explore this wonderful place.  I look forward to discovering more of the places that Hardy used as his inspiration.

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William Wordsworth – Daffodils

Spring has to be one of my favourite seasons of the year.  I always feel a little like Mole, from the Wind in The Willows as he comes out of the ground and into the spring sunshine for the first time.  That wonderful fresh new smell of flowers bursting open, grass growing, the damp soil springing to life and the soft fragrance of early spring flowers that float on the breeze.

For me the first sign of spring is seeing the great swathes of golden headed stems adorn roadsides and riverbanks.  Driving round the windy roads of the Lake District in April, Daffodils popped up everywhere; in fields, beside lakes and in craggy rocks.  It is easy to see why William Wordsworth was so inspired by the landscape and county he grew up in to become one of the English languages most famous poets.  In fact, it is not difficult to see why the Lake District has inspired and nurtured so many artists and writers who have used the beauty and drama of the landscape to develop their art.  Wordsworth’s poetry is wholly encompassed by the landscapes that surrounded him and Dorothy’s journals give us a great insight into the flora and fauna of the area.

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William Wordsworth grew up in Cockermouth, the second of five children born to John Wordsworth and Ann Cookson.  His father was the legal representative for John Lowther, the 1st Earl of Lonsdale.  Due to the importance of his job, the family were granted a beautiful Georgia home in Cockermouth.  Wordsworth initially had an idyllic childhood, with days spent playing in the gardens of the family home with his brothers and sisters. Situated on the banks of the River Derwent, William developed his love of nature here as a young boy.   But the untimely death of first his mother, and then his father led to a dramatic change in the family’s circumstances and years of unhappiness.   A far cry from the happy days in Cockermouth as the much loved home was taken away, the family was split up and they left the house for good in 1784.  William and Dorothy, who had always been close as siblings were not reunited until 1795 having been sent to live with varying relations.

Wordsworth finally found solace and happiness once again with his sister Dorothy, when they purchased Dove Cottage in Grasmere in 1799, just weeks after William had walked past it with his brother.  From his cottage window he would have had an unadulterated view of the Lake at Grasmere and its beauty in all seasons with the mountains and hills beyond.  Both William and his sister, the diarist Dorothy, loved the outdoors and once again as adults they enjoyed each other’s company exploring the wilds of the mountain peaks and the pleasures of the lakeside walks.  She was for life, his mentor and confidante, and it was her journals and observations of the rugged terrain of Cumbria that often became a source of inspiration of Williams writing and a great passion for him.

Perhaps one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems, I wandered Lonely as a cloud was inspired by the daffodils of springtime in the Lakes.

‘I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffoldils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.’

William was inspired to write his famous ‘daffodils’ poem after a walk along Ullswater with Dorothy in 1804.  He actually wrote the poem, about two years after their walk and his inspiration came from Dorothy’s account in her journal from April 15th 1802.  She wrote that the daffodils ‘tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the Lake.’  Dorothy’s journals clearly depict the wonder of seasons amongst the Lakes and were often a source for inspiration for William.  His poem was first published in 1807 and his final edited version was published in 1815.

“ When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the waterside. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing.”

This beautiful, eloquent observation of the flowers in spring show her connection to nature and the powerful descriptions must have been wonderful for William to read upon his return from his travels.  Dorothy maintained her journal throughout her time at Dove Cottage.

As Wordsworths family expanded, Dove Cottage became too small and the family moved locally before settling finally at Rydal Mount, only a couple of miles down the road from Dove Cottage, facing Rydal Water.  Whilst there he purchased a piece of woodland beside the property, originally called Rashfield.  Initially this purchase was a defence mechanism, when he was faced with eviction from Rydal Mount.  He planned to build a house on the plot.  However, in the end this was not needed and instead he gave the land to his daughter Dora.  When she tragically died, Wordsworth’s wife and their gardener had the woodland planted with hundreds of daffodils in honour of her.  It is known as Dora’s Field, to this day.  There is a wonderful oasis of calm as you sit amongst the trees and daffodils, overlooking in the distance the hills behind Rydal Water and breathe in the damp smell of woodland moss.  The field was left to the National Trust in 1935 so that future generations could enjoy this haven.

‘Ten thousand saw I at a glance

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance’

Yet it wasn’t just the beautiful of the spring daffodils that inspired Wordsworth.  Throughout his works, we see references to other flora and fauna which surrounded him. His poem, ‘Lines Written In Early Spring’, mentions the smaller wildflowers which would have carpeted woodland paths, and roadsides;

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower, 

The periwinkle trailed its wreaths; 

And ’tis my faith that every flower 

Enjoys the air it breathes.’ 

For me Spring, is the long awaited breath of fresh air after the cold, dark winter.  A time to take stock of life, plan for the summer, look forward to warmer and lighter evenings and a sign of happy times to come.

‘And then my heart with pleasure fills

And dances with the daffodils.’

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For the Adventure

Dove Cottage is run by the Wordsworth Trust is open is to the public.  I thoroughly recommend visiting the house and the museum as a fascinating insight into the life of William and his family.  The house operates on a timed ticket system, as it is very small.  but the museum, which houses a wonderful array of archives from the Wordsworth Family can be visited while you wait.

Visit https://wordsworth.org.uk/visit/dove-cottage.html

For details of Rydal Mount visit http://www.rydalmount.co.uk/

Dora’s Field is owned and looked after by the National Trust https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ambleside/features/daffodils-at-doras-field-