In April 2007, inspired by the writings of Thomas Hardy, I travelled on foot from Win Green to Weymouth. The journey was one of great contrast, reaching to the very heart of Hardy country. Along the way I passed through landscapes associated with the novels, poems and short stories: Cranbourne Chase, the valley of the Stour, the chalk ridge south of the Blackmoor Vale, the Frome valley, the coastal uplands.
In his works Hardy displays a love and understanding of the countryside, particularly his native Dorset. It was Dorset and the adjoining counties that he called Wessex, reviving an ancient term. To him it is a real place - just as his characters, for all their faults, are real people (he once said of Tess: "I have not been able to put on paper all that she is, or was, to me... I lost my heart to her as I went on with her history"). There is suffering there; but also a wry humour; and in quiet, unexpected corners there are moments of sublime beauty. Hardy never managed to develop his inner experience into a philosopy he himself could trust; but in his poetry, and the prose-poetry of stories such as Far From The Madding Crowd and Tess, he shares with us something of his vision.
The towns and villages of Wessex are those of Dorset, lightly fictionalized. This walk visits some of them: Weatherbury (Puddletown), Mellstock (Bockhampton), Casterbridge (Dorchester), Overcombe (Sutton Poyntz) and Budmouth (Weymouth). Hardy fans will recognize the names, and recall the scenes that took place there; but for those unfamiliar with the novels and poems I've included explanations and quotes where relevant. Hopefully what follows will make sense, to students and non-students alike!
On a practical note, Weymouth can be reached by train, Win Green by bus from Salisbury or Shaftesbury (not Sundays) - the nearest stop is Berwick St. John. The total distance of the walk is about forty miles, crossing OS map numbers 184, 194 and 195.
There are some heights in Wessex, shaped as if by a kindly hand
For thinking, dreaming, dying on, and at crises when I stand
Say, on Ingpen Beacon eastward, or on Wylls Neck westwardly,
I seem where I was before my birth, and after death may be. (more)
Win Green, perhaps the finest of the chalk uplands, is not mentioned in the poem, but Hardy certainly knew it. It's less than three miles from Shaftesbury - the home of Phillotson in Jude the Obscure, which he calls Shaston. You can see the town from the summit. It looks out over Blackmoor Vale, the country where Tess spent her childhood. The Vale... was to her the world, and its inhabitants the races thereof. From the gates and stiles of Marlott she had looked down its length in the wondering days of infancy, and what had been mystery to her then was not much less than mystery to her now. She had seen daily from her chamber-window towers, villages, faint white mansions; above all the town of Shaston standing majestically on its height; its windows shining like lamps in the evening sun. (Tess Of The D'Urbevilles) Marlott is modern-day Marnhull.
Win Green forms the western edge of Cranbourne Chase, where Tess comes to work for the D'Urbevilles - the soft azure landscape of the Chase - a truly venerable tract of forest land, one of the few remaining woodlands in England of undoubted primaeval date, wherein Druidical mistletoe was still found on aged oaks, and where enormous yew trees, not planted by the hand of man, grew as they had grown when they were pollarded for bows. (Tess Of The D'Urbevilles) The views from the top are out of this world. On a clear day you can see the bright light of the sea in Bournemouth Bay, the grey outline of Salisbury Plain, and the Quantocks far away to the west. In fine weather, with the sun shining and the music of skylarks blown on the breeze, the place seems made for happiness.
From the car park a footpath descends to Ashcombe Bottom. Ashcombe House is worth a glance as you pass by. Once the home of the society photographer Cecil Beaton, it's now owned by someone called Madonna. A well-marked path leads down to the attractive village of Tollard Royal, so named because it was the site of a royal hunting lodge. King John, oppressor of the poor and persecuter of Robin Hood, slept here!
Incidentally, the first part of the walk, as far as the Dorsetshire Gap, follows the Wessex Ridgeway, a long-distance footpath from Marlborough to Lyme Regis. If you carry the OS Recreational Path Guide to the trail you will only need the last of the maps, Landranger sheet 194.
From Tollard Royal the path climbs for the first time, regaining much of the height shed on the descent from Win Green. It does a lot of this sort of thing. It's quite steep, but the reward lies in the spectacular views north to Win Green. For Wessex Ridgeway walkers there is an encouraging signpost (or a depressing one, depending on how tired you are feeling). 62 miles to the sea!
Ashmore, a couple of miles further on, is an attractive village of thatched cottages clustered round a pond. Unfortunately it lacks a pub (in fact, much of the walk is depressingly dry until you reach Puddletown). From Ashmore the track bends south, then south-west through Ashmore Wood. In April and May these woods are carpeted with bluebells. The stillness and shade are in pleasant contrast to the exposed downland.
Leaving the woods you descend to the valley of the Iwerne, a tributary of the Stour. The village of Iwerne Courtney is also known as Shroton. I don't know which name the locals use - probably the former, since Shroton sounds dead common! Be warned, the pub in Iwerne is the last for twenty miles, unless you make a detour. There's one shown on the map in Shillingstone, but it's closed at the moment (April 2007). As I found to my cost.
From Iwerne Courtney the path ascends Hambledon Hill. The views from the summit are wide and wild, especially at sunset. There's an Iron-Age hill fort on top, as well as a Neolithic camp. I didn't spot any trace of the latter - as it was constructed over 5000 years ago there probably isn't much to see - but then again, with a bitter wind blustering from the east I didn't look that hard. I was glad to get down to the comparative shelter of the Stour valley.
As I mentioned before, the Old Ox at Shillingstone is now closed, which is a pity as it used to be a very friendly pub. Not enough walkers to keep it viable, I suppose. There's a post office and store in the village, as well as a small petrol station which was still open when I arrived at 8 p.m. on a Sunday evening.
There is another killer climb, from the village up to Okeford Hill. I can highly recommend the woods on top as a source of free lodgings. Very comfortable bed for the night! They are maintained by the Forestry Commission, a public body owned by all of us, so no need to feel guilty even if there are "No Camping" signs scattered about. Didn't notice any myself, but it was dark when I got there.
The next few miles, as far as Bulbarrow and Rawlsbury Camp, are reasonably level. Make the most of it! For a while the track keeps away from the escarpment, but as it descends to join the road you look out over the Blackmoor Vale, Hardy's Vale of Little Dairies.
This fertile and sheltered tract of country, in which the fields are never brown and the springs never dry, is bounded on the south by a bold chalk ridge... The traveller from the coast, who, after plodding north for a score of miles over calcareous downs, suddenly reaches the verge of one of these escarpments, is surprised and delighted to behold, extended like a map beneath him, a country differing absolutely from that which he has passed through. Behind him the hills are open, the sun blazes down upon fields so large as to give an unenclosed character to the landscape, the lanes are white, the hedges low and plashed, the atmosphere colourless. Here, in the valley, the world seems to be constructed on a smaller and more delicate scale; the fields are mere paddocks, so reduced that from this height their hedgerows appear a network of dark green threads overspreading the paler green of the grass. The atmosphere beneath is langorous... tinged with azure... while the horizen beyond is of the deepest ultramarine... Such is the Vale of Blackmoor. (Tess Of The D'Urbevilles)
Past Bulbarrow you reach Rawlsbury Camp, a hill-fort on an outlying spur. Once I passed a hot and restless night in the ditch there. I woke in the half-light to find the bank thronged with supercillious sheep, gazing down at me for all the world like a party of theatre-goers wondering when the show was about to begin. "So what does it DO, darling?" I could almost hear them say. "Well I don't think much of THAT."
After Rawlsbury the path drops to farmland. Down here it can be extremely muddy, since the chalk is overlaid by heavier deposits of clay. The lowest point of the track, just before Crockers Farm, is actually the bed of a stream. Past the farm you climb steadily until you rejoin the ridge above Melcombe Park. From there it's about half a mile to the Dorsetshire Gap.
While negotiating a gate not far from the Gap I noticed a plaque on an upright (see below). Those familiar with Under The Greenwood Tree will recall Thomas Leaf, a young man... consisting chiefly of a human skeleton and a smock-frock, who was very awkward in his movements, apparantly on account of having grown so very fast that before he had had time to get used to his height he was higher. (Under The Greenwood Tree) Good to see that the Leafs are alive and well and living in Dorset! Another Hardy connection here - the village of Powerstock was one of the locations used in the 1967 Schlesinger production of Far From The Madding Crowd.
There are a number of tracks leading away from the Gap - the one you want climbs steadily, curving round a bank. Emerging from the woods, cross a couple of fields and you reach a water tank on a stone plinth. Turn left here, keeping the hedge on your left-hand side.
You are now heading south, on a ridge of land flanked by two streams. This is sheep country, with close-cropped turf and wide views. After Nettlecombe Farm the path becomes a metalled road for a while. At the bottom of the hill, cross the lane and you are on a track which drops down to a stream. If you want to bathe sore feet, do so from the bridge, as the banks are muddy and nettle-strewn further down.
Soon the track passes through Dole's Hill Plantation. The woods here are typical of this part of the world. Hazel formerly was coppiced, cut back to the stool so that the tree threw up straight shoots which could be woven into sheep hurdles. Barbed wire and electric fencing have brought an end to the trade, but the woods still retain their distinctive appearance.
Leaving the plantation the path hugs the right bank of the stream for a short way, before crossing over to the left bank. Soon it becomes a track, running straight to Druce Farm.
You are now entering the country of Far From The Madding Crowd, the most pastoral of Hardy's novels. Druce Farm was the model for Farmer Boldwood's house, though in the narrative Hardy places it much closer to the village of Weatherbury (Puddletown). Describing the place in winter he writes: It was one of the usual slow sunrises of this time of the year, and the sky, pure violet in the zenith, was leaden to the northward, and murky to the east, where, over the snowy down or ewe-lease on Weatherbury Upper Farm, and apparently resting upon the ridge, the only half of the sun yet visible burnt rayless, like a red and flameless fire shining over a white hearthstone... In other directions, the fields and sky were so much of one colour by the snow, that it was difficult in a hasty glance to tell whereabouts the horizon occurred... Over the west hung the wasting moon, now dull and greenish-yellow, like tarnished brass... the frost had hardened and glazed the surface of the snow, till it shone in the red eastern light with the polish of marble; in some portions of the slope, withered grass-bents, encased in icicles, bristled through the smooth wan coverlet in the twisted and curved shapes of old Venetian glass; and the footprints of a few birds, which had hopped over the snow whilst it lay in the state of a soft fleece, were now frozen to a short permanency. (Far From The Madding Crowd)
Turn right when you reach the road, crossing the stream. The scene hereabouts is much as it would have been in Hardy's day. Farmer Boldwood came to the stable-door and looked forth across the level fields. Beyond the first enclosure was a hedge, and on the other side of this a meadow belonging to Bathsheba's farm.
It was now early spring - the time of going to grass with the sheep, when they have the first feed of the meadows, before these are laid up for mowing. The wind, which had been blowing east for several weeks, had veered to the southward, and the middle of spring had come abruptly - almost without a beginning. It was that period in the vernal quarter when we may suppose the Dryads to be waking for the season. The vegetable world begins to move and swell and the saps to rise, till in the completest silence of lone gardens and trackless plantations, where everything seems helpless and still after the bond and slavery of frost, there are bustlings, strainings, united thrusts, and pulls all together, in comparison with which the powerful tugs of cranes and pulleys in a noisy city are but pigmy efforts.
Boldwood, looking into the distant meadows, saw there three figures. They were those of Miss Everdene, Shepherd Oak, and Cainy Ball. (Far From The Madding Crowd)
The house of Bathsheba Everdene is based on Waterston Manor, which lies about half a mile further along the road. By daylight, the bower of Oak's new-found mistress... presented itself as a hoary building, of the early stage of Classic Renaissance... it had once been the memorial hall upon a small estate around it, now merged in the vast tract of a non-resident landlord, which comprised several such modest demesnes. Fluted pilasters, worked from the solid stone, decorated its front, and above the roof the chimneys were panelled or columnar. Soft brown mosses, like faded velveteen, formed cushions upon the stone tiling, and tufts of the houseleek or sengreen sprouted from the eaves of the low surrounding buildings. A gravel walk leading from the door to the road in front was encrusted at the sides with more moss... the generally sleepy air of the whole prospect, together with the animated and contrasting state of the reverse façade, suggested to the imagination that on the adaptation of the building for farming purposes the vital principle of the house had turned round inside its body to face the other way. (Far From The Madding Crowd) As with Boldwood's farm, Hardy moves it closer to the village to enhance the narrative.
The path to Puddletown is over the bridge, at the bend in the road just past the cottages. Entering the village, turn left at the traffic lights to get to the pub. For the church, take the next left and turn right into the square.
Far From The Madding Crowd describes Puddletown as it was in the 1850s. Since then most of the old buildings have been pulled down or replaced, many in late Victorian times. The square, though, with the shop in the middle of the road (now a house), looks much as it would have done. It was originally the way through the village, the top road (the one by which you entered) being blocked off by a row of cottages. The church is well worth visiting. You can pick up a leaflet there for a few pence, listing various places with Hardyan associations.
One Friday evening in August she walked a little way along the road and entered the village for the first time since the sombre event of the preceding Christmas... When she reached a little shop at the other end of the place, which stood nearly opposite to the churchyard, Bathsheba heard singing inside the church, and she knew that the singers were practising. She crossed the road, opened the gate, and entered the graveyard, the high sills of the church windows effectually screening her from the eyes of those gathered within... Whilst she stood and read and meditated the tones of the organ began again in the church, and she went with the same light step round to the porch and listened. The little attenuated voices of the children brought to her ear in distinct utterance the words they sang without thought or comprehension: Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on.
Something big came into her throat and an uprising to her eyes... Once that she had begun to cry for she hardly knew what, she could not leave off for crowding thoughts she knew too well. She would have given anything in the world to be, as those children were, unconcerned at the meaning of their words, because too innocent to feel the necessity for any such expression. All the impassioned scenes of her brief experience seemed to revive with added emotion at that moment, and those scenes which had been without emotion during enactment had emotion then. (Far From The Madding Crowd)
Leave the village as you came. Recrossing the A35, follow the track uphill to the left. After half a mile you will see some buildings away to your left. This is Troy Town Farm, Hardy's Roy-Town and the site of the Buck's Head where Joseph Poorgrass, while bringing the body of Fanny Robin back to Weatherbury, got so memorably drunk. Going down into the kitchen of the inn, the floor of which was a step below the passage, which in its turn was a step below the road outside, what should Joseph see to gladden his eyes but two copper-coloured discs, in the form of the countenances of Mr. Jan Coggan and Mr. Mark Clark. These owners of the two most appreciative throats in the neighbourhood, within the pale of respectability, were now sitting face to face over a three-legged circular table, having an iron rim to keep cups and pots from being accidentally elbowed off...
"Why, 'tis neighbour Poorgrass!" said Mark Clark. "I'm sure your face don't praise your mistress's table, Joseph."
"I've had a very pale companion for the last four miles." said Joseph, indulging in a shudder toned down by resignation. "And to speak the truth, 'twas beginning to tell upon me. I assure ye, I ha'n't seed the colour of victuals or drink since breakfast time this morning, and that was no more than a dew-bit afield."
"Then drink, Joseph, and don't restrain yourself!" said Coggan, handing him a hooped mug three-quarters full. Joseph drank for a moderately long time, then for a longer time, saying, as he lowered the jug, "'Tis pretty drinking - very pretty drinking, and is more than cheerful on my melancholy errand, so to speak it."
"True, drink is a pleasant delight." said Jan, as one who repeated a truism so familiar to his brain that he hardly noticed its passage over his tongue; and, lifting the cup, Coggan tilted his head gradually backwards, with closed eyes, that his expectant soul might not be diverted for one instant from its bliss by irrelevant surroundings... "A man's twice the man afterwards... Too much liquor is bad, and leads us to that horned man in the smoky house; but after all, many people haven't the gift of enjoying a wet, and since we be highly favoured with a power that way, we should make the most o't."
"True." said Mark Clark. "'Tis a talent the Lord has mercifully bestowed upon us, and we ought not to neglect it..."
The longer Joseph Poorgrass remained, the less his spirit was troubled by the duties which devolved upon him this afternoon. The minutes glided by uncounted, until the evening shades began perceptibly to deepen, and the eyes of the three were but sparkling points on the surface of darkness... At that moment hasty steps were heard in the entry, and the door opened to admit the figure of Gabriel Oak, followed by the maid of the inn bearing a candle. He stared sternly at the one lengthy and two round faces of the sitters, which confronted him with the expressions of a fiddle and a couple of warming-pans. Joseph Poorgrass blinked, and shrank several inches into the background.
"Upon my soul, I'm ashamed of you; 'tis disgraceful, Joseph, disgraceful!" said Gabriel, indignantly. "Coggan, you call yourself a man, and don't know better than this... And as for you, Joseph, who do your wicked deeds in such confoundedly holy ways, you are as drunk as you can stand."
"No, Shepherd Oak, no! Listen to reason, shepherd. All that's the matter with me is the affliction called a multiplying eye, and that's how it is I look double to you - I mean, you look double to me."
"A multiplying eye is a very bad thing." said Mark Clark.
"It always comes on when I have been in a public house a little time." said Joseph Poorgrass, meekly. "Yes; I see two of every sort, as if I were some holy man living in the times of King Noah." (Far From The Madding Crowd) Some things haven't changed!
A little further, on the left, is the bridleway through Yellowham Wood - Hardy's Yalbury Wood. Was it here that Joseph Poorgrass got lost after drinking too much of Keeper Day's metheglin? As Coggan recalls: "Once he had been working late at Yalbury Bottom, and had had a drap of drink, and lost his way as he was coming home-along through Yalbury Wood, didn't ye, Master Poorgrass?"
"No, no, no; not that story!" expostulated the modest man, forcing a laugh to bury his concern.
"And so 'a lost himself quite." continued Mr Coggan, with an impassive face, implying that a true narrative, like time and tide, must run its course and would respect no man. "And as he was coming along in the middle of the night, much afeared, and not able to find his way out of the trees nohow, 'a cried out, 'Man-a-lost! man-a-lost!' A owl in a tree happened to be crying 'Whoo-whoo-whoo!' as owls do, you know, shepherd" (Gabriel nodded), "and Joseph, all in a tremble, said, 'Joseph Poorgrass, of Weatherbury, sir!'" (Far From The Madding Crowd)
The cottage in the heart of the wood has hardly changed. This was the home of Geoffrey Day; the Keeper Day whose daughter, Fancy, Dick Dewey finally marries in Under The Greenwood Tree. Continue straight on past the cottage until you emerge into a lane - the old road from Dorchester to Puddletown, before the bypass was built. Turn right, cross the bridge at the end and bear left. There is a gate, on your right-hand side, leading into the wood. The path you are now following is Snail Creep, mentioned in Under The Greenwood Tree. After a quarter of a mile you reach the cottage where Hardy was born.
It was a long low cottage with a hipped roof of thatch, having dormer windows breaking up into the eaves, a chimney standing in the middle of the ridge and another at each end. The window-shutters were not yet closed, and the fire- and candle-light within radiated forth upon the thick bushes of box and laurestinus growing in clumps outside, and upon the bare boughs of several codlin-trees hanging about in various distorted shapes, the result of early training as espaliers combined with careless climbing into their boughs in later years. The walls of the dwelling were for the most part covered with creepers, though these were rather beaten back from the doorway - a feature which was worn and scratched by much passing in and out, giving it by day the appearance of an old keyhole. Light streamed through the cracks and joints of outbuildings a little way from the cottage, a sight which nourished a fancy that the purpose of the erection must be rather to veil bright attractions than to shelter unsightly necessaries. The noise of a beetle and wedges and the splintering of wood was periodically heard from this direction; and at some little distance further a steady regular munching and the occasional scurr of a rope betokened a stable, and horses feeding within it. (Under The Greenwood Tree)
When Hardy was a boy the ground behind the cottage was open heathland - Egdon Heath - though now it is mostly covered with conifers. In The Return Of The Native he describes the place. It was a spot which returned upon the memory of those who loved it with an aspect of peculiar and kindly congruity. Smiling champaigns of flowers and fruit hardly do this, for they are permanently harmonious only with an existence of better reputation as to its issues than the present. Twilight combined with the scenery of Egdon Heath to evolve a thing majestic without severity, impressive without showiness, emphatic in its admonitions, grand in its simplicity. The qualifications which frequently invest the façade of a prison with far more dignity than is found in the façade of a palace double its size lent to this heath a sublimity in which spots renowned for beauty of the accepted kind are utterly wanting. Fair prospects wed happily with fair times; but alas, if times be not fair! Men have oftener suffered from the mockery of a place too smiling for their reason than from the oppression of surroundings oversadly tinged. Haggard Egdon appealed to a subtler and scarcer instinct, to a more recently learnt emotion, than that which responds to the sort of beauty called charming and fair. (The Return Of The Native)
Turn right at the cottage, following the sandy track as far as the road. From here it's about three quarters of a mile to Lower Bockhampton. By the turning in the village is the old schoolhouse, where the Melstock quire sang carols to Fancy Day, the new teacher. By this time they were crossing to a gate in the direction of the school, which, standing on a slight eminence at the junction of three ways, now rose in unvarying and dark flatness against the sky. The instruments were retuned, and all the band entered the school enclosure, enjoined by old William to keep upon the grass. "Number seventy-eight," he softly gave out as they formed round in a semicircle, the boys opening the lanterns to get a clearer light, and directing their rays on the books. Then passed forth into the quiet night an ancient and time-worn hymn, embodying a quaint Christianity in words orally transmitted from father to son through several generations down to the present characters, who sang them out right earnestly... At the close, waiting yet another minute, he said in a clear loud voice, as he had said in the village at that hour and season for the previous forty years - "A merry Christmas to ye!"
When the expectant stillness consequent upon the exclamation had nearly died out of them all, an increasing light made itself visible in one of the windows of the upper floor. It came so close to the blind that the exact position of the flame could be perceived from the outside. Remaining steady for an instant, the blind went upward from before it, revealing a young girl. She was wrapped in a white robe of some kind, whilst down her shoulders fell a twining profusion of marvellously rich hair, in a wild disorder. Her bright eyes were looking into the grey world outside with an uncertain expression, oscillating between courage and shyness, which, as she recognized the semicircular group of dark forms gathered before her, transformed itself into pleasant resolution.
Opening the window, she said lightly and warmly - "Thank you, singers, thank you!" (Under The Greenwood Tree)
At the bottom of the hill the lane crosses a bridge over the river Frome. This is the Valley Of The Great Dairies, where Tess spends her happiest months. Describing her arrival: It was two hours, owing to sundry wrong turnings, ere she found herself on a summit commanding the long-sought-for vale, the Valley of the Great Dairies, the valley in which milk and butter grew to rankness, and were produced more profusely, if less delicately, than at her home - the verdant plain so well watered by the river Var or Froom.
It was intrinsically different from the Vale of Little Dairies, Blackmoor Vale, which, save during her disastrous sojourn at Trantridge, she had exclusively known till now. The world was drawn to a larger pattern here. The enclosures numbered fifty acres instead of ten, the farmsteads were more extended, the groups of cattle formed tribes hereabout; there only families. These myriads of cows stretching under her eyes from the far east to the far west outnumbered any she had ever seen at one glance before. The ripe hue of the red and dun kine absorbed the evening sunlight, which the white-coated animals returned to the eye in rays almost dazzling, even at the distant elevation on which she stood.
The bird's-eye perspective before her was not so luxuriantly beautiful, perhaps, as that other one which she knew so well; yet it was more cheering. It lacked the intensely blue atmosphere of the rival vale, and its heavy soils and scents; the new air was clear, bracing, ethereal. The river itself, which nourished the grass and cows of these renowned dairies, flowed not like the streams in Blackmoor. Those were slow, silent, often turbid; flowing over beds of mud into which the incautious wader might sink and vanish unawares. The Froom waters were clear as the pure River of Life shown to the Evangelist, rapid as the shadow of a cloud, with pebbly shallows that prattled to the sky all day long. There the water-flower was the lily; the crow-foot here. (Tess Of The D'Urbevilles)
Just after the bridge is a footpath off to the right, leading in about half a mile to a signpost pointing to the church. You are following in the footsteps of the quire:
They now crossed Mellstock Bridge, and went along an embowered path beside the Froom towards the church and vicarage, meeting Voss with the hot mead and bread-and-cheese as they were approaching the churchyard. This determined them to eat and drink before proceeding further, and they entered the church and ascended to the gallery. The lanterns were opened, and the whole body sat round against the walls on benches and whatever else was available, and made a hearty meal. In the pauses of conversation there could be heard through the floor overhead a little world of undertones and creaks from the halting clockwork, which never spread further than the tower they were born in, and raised in the more meditative minds a fancy that here lay the direct pathway of Time. (Under The Greenwood Tree) Hardy's heart is buried in the churchyard, close to the main gate.
Return to the stream and turn right, crossing the water meadows to the B3150. Left over Grey's Bridge and you have reached Casterbridge (Dorchester). The inn at the bottom of the High Street is the White Hart, where Sergeant Troy refreshed himself before returning to Weatherbury. Pennyways snuffed the candle, and then looked up and deliberately inspected Troy. "You've made up your mind to go then?" he said.
"Made up my mind? Yes; of course I have."
"Why not write to her? 'Tis a very queer corner that you have got into, sergeant... Faith, if I was you I'd even bide as you be - a single man of the name of Francis. A good wife is good, but the best wife is not so good as no wife at all. Now that's my outspoke mind, and I've been called a long-headed feller here and there."
"All nonsense!" said Troy, angrily. "There she is with plenty of money, and a house and farm, and horses, and comfort, and here am I living from hand to mouth - a needy adventurer. Besides, it is no use talking now; it is too late, and I am glad of it; I've been seen and recognized here this very afternoon."
"Well, sergeant, all I say is this, that if I were you I'd go abroad again where I came from - 'tisn't too late to do it now... My eyes and limbs, there'll be a racket if you go back just now - in the middle of Boldwood's Christmasing!"
"H'm, yes. I expect I shall not be a very welcome guest if he has her there." said the sergeant, with a slight laugh. "A sort of Alonzo the Brave; and when I go in the guests will sit in silence and fear, and all laughter and pleasure will be hushed, and the lights in the chamber burn blue, and the worms - Ugh, horrible! - Ring for some more brandy, Pennyways, I felt an awful shudder just then! Now, let me see what the time is." said Troy, after emptying his glass in one draught as he stood. "Half-past six o'clock. I shall not hurry along the road, and shall be there then before nine." (Far From The Madding Crowd)
Further up is the Kings Arms, described as the chief hotel in The Mayor Of Casterbridge: A spacious bow-window projected into the street over the main portico, and from the open sashes came the babble of voices, the jingle of glasses, and the drawing of corks. The blinds, moreover, being left unclosed, the whole interior of this room could be surveyed from the top of a flight of stone steps to the road-waggon office opposite... "We might, perhaps, after all, make a few inquiries about - our relation Mr. Henchard," whispered Mrs. Newson who, since her entry into Casterbridge, had seemed strangely weak and agitated, "And this, I think, would be a good place for trying it - just to ask, you know, how he stands in the town - if he is here, as I think he must be. You, Elizabeth-Jane, had better be the one to do it. I'm too worn out to do anything - pull down your fall first."
She sat down upon the lowest step, and Elizabeth-Jane obeyed her directions and stood among the idlers. "What's going on to-night?" asked the girl, after singling out an old man and standing by him long enough to acquire a neighbourly right of converse.
"Well, ye must be a stranger sure," said the old man, without taking his eyes from the window. "Why, 'tis a great public dinner of the gentle-people and such like leading volk - wi' the Mayor in the chair. That's Mr. Henchard, the Mayor, at the end of the table, a facing ye; and that's the Council men right and left."
"Henchard!" said Elizabeth-Jane, surprised, but by no means suspecting the whole force of the revelation. She ascended to the top of the steps.
Her mother, though her head was bowed, had already caught from the inn-window tones that strangely riveted her attention, before the old man's words, "Mr. Henchard, the Mayor," reached her ears. She arose, and stepped up to her daughter's side as soon as she could do so without showing exceptional eagerness.
The interior of the hotel dining-room was spread out before her, with its tables, and glass, and plate, and inmates. Facing the window, in the chair of dignity, sat a man about forty years of age; of heavy frame, large features, and commanding voice; his general build being rather coarse than compact. He had a rich complexion, which verged on swarthiness, a flashing black eye, and dark, bushy brows and hair. When he indulged in an occasional loud laugh at some remark among the guests, his large mouth parted so far back as to show to the rays of the chandelier a full score or more of the two-and-thirty sound white teeth that he obviously still could boast of. (The Mayor Of Casterbridge) Just round the corner, in South Street, is the model for Henchard's house, now a bank.
The Casterbridge Hardy describes is a compact town, bounded by the line of the Roman walls. To birds of the more soaring kind Casterbridge must have appeared on this fine evening as a mosaic-work of subdued reds, browns, greys, and crystals, held together by a rectangular frame of deep green. To the level eye of humanity it stood as an indistinct mass behind a dense stockade of limes and chestnuts, set in the midst of miles of rotund down and concave field. The mass became gradually dissected by the vision into towers, gables, chimneys, and casements, the highest glazings shining bleared and bloodshot with the coppery fire they caught from the belt of sunlit cloud in the west. (The Mayor Of Casterbridge) The town has spread out since then, but you can still see traces of the place he knew. The avenues forming the "dense stockade of limes and chestnuts" are there. And there are pleasant walks down by the river, the least developed part of the town.
Find your way out to Max Gate, the gloomy mansion that Hardy built for himself on the outskirts of Dorchester. From the roundabout a bridleway leads south to Winterboune Came, whose rector was William Barnes, the philologist and dialect poet. Hardy describes this path in A Last Signal.
Silently I footed by an uphill road
That led from my abode to a spot yew-boughed;
Yellowly the sun sloped low down to westward,
And dark was the east with cloud.
Then, amid the shadow of that livid sad east,
Where the light was least, and a gate stood wide,
Something flashed the fire of the sun that was facing it,
Like a brief blaze on that side.
Looking hard and harder I knew what it meant
- The sudden shine sent from the livid east scene;
It meant the west mirrored by the coffin of my friend there,
Turning to the road from his green,
To take his last journey forth - he who in his prime
Trudged so many a time from that gate athwart the land!
Thus a farewell to me he signalled on his grave-way,
As with a wave of his hand.
(The Last Signal)
Barnes is buried somewhere in the churchyard of St. Peter's, Winterbourne Came, though in the half-light of dawn I couldn't identify the grave. To get to the church, follow the metalled road into Winterbourne Came until you see the sign.
The walk now joins up with the Jubilee Way, running south to Came Wood. On the left is a chalk pit, which must have been familiar to Hardy and which may well have suggested the scene in Far From The Madding Crowd where Gabriel's sheep plunge into just such a pit. With a sensation of bodily faintness he advanced: at one point the rails were broken through, and there he saw the footprints of his ewes... Oak looked over the precipice. The ewes lay dead and dying at its foot - a heap of two hundred mangled carcasses, representing in their condition just now at least two hundred more.
Oak was an intensely humane man: indeed, his humanity often tore in pieces any politic intentions of his which bordered on strategy, and carried him on as by gravitation. A shadow in his life had always been that his flock ended in mutton - that a day came and found every shepherd an arrant traitor to his defenseless sheep. His first feeling now was one of pity for the untimely fate of these gentle ewes and their unborn lambs.
Oak raised his head, and wondering what he could do, listlessly surveyed the scene. By the outer margin of the pit was an oval pond, and over it hung the attenuated skeleton of a chrome-yellow moon which had only a few days to last - the morning star dogging her on the left hand. The pool glittered like a dead man's eye, and as the world awoke a breeze blew, shaking and elongating the reflection of the moon without breaking it, and turning the image of the star to a phosphoric streak upon the water. All this Oak saw and remembered. (Far From the Madding Crowd)
Now the cries in the fields are of gulls, and not rooks. The sea is not far off. This is the countryside of some of the short stories, the Distracted Preacher and A Tradition of 1804, as well as The Trumpet Major. Hardy as a boy listened to the tales of his grandmother, whose memories stretched back to Napoleonic times, and wove much of what he heard into his works.
Where the track emerges into a lane by Came Wood, turn left to the crossroads. At the junction, continue south over Bincombe Hill to the little hamlet of Bincombe. This was the site of Hardy's short story, The Melancholy Hussar Of The German League. The simple church, so typical of Wessex, is a peaceful place to rest for a while.
Follow the track past the church to Green Hill. The hillside to your left, too steep to be chalk, is in fact Purbeck stone. When you reach the junction, don't take the lane down to Sutton Poyntz: keep to the South West Coast Path for a little way. Descend by the footpath, then follow the stream which feeds the mill-pond in the village. The mill described in The Trumpet Major is probably an amalgamation of this one and another, a mile or so distant at Upwey, though the location must surely be Sutton Poyntz. On a fine summer morning, when the leaves were warm under the sun, and the more industrious bees abroad, diving into every blue and red cup that could possibly be considered a flower, Anne was sitting at the back window of [the mill], measuring out lengths of worsted for a fringed rug that she was making, which lay, about three-quarters finished, beside her... Immediately before her was the large, smooth millpond, over-full, and intruding into the hedge and into the road. The water, with its flowing leaves and spots of froth, was stealing away, like Time, under the dark arch, to tumble over the great slimy wheel within. On the other side of the mill-pond was an open place called the Cross, because it was three-quarters of one, two lanes and a cattle-drive meeting there. It was the general rendezvous and arena of the surrounding village. Behind this a steep slope rose high into the sky, merging in a wide and open down, now littered with sheep newly shorn. The upland by its height completely sheltered the mill and village from north winds, making summers of springs, reducing winters to autumn temperatures, and permitting myrtle to flourish in the open air.
Overcombe Mill presented at one end the appearance of a hard-worked house slipping into the river, and at the other of an idle, genteel place, half-cloaked with creepers at this time of the year, and having no visible connexion with flour. It had hips instead of gables, giving it a round-shouldered look, four chimneys with no smoke coming out of them, two zigzag cracks in the wall, several open windows, with a looking-glass here and there inside, showing its warped back to the passer-by; snowy dimity curtains waving in the draught; two mill doors, one above the other, the upper enabling a person to step out upon nothing at a height of ten feet from the ground; a gaping arch vomiting the river, and a lean, long-nosed fellow looking out from the mill doorway, who was the hired grinder, except when a bulging fifteen stone man occupied the same place, namely, the miller himself. (The Trumpet Major)
From the mill follow the lane south to the main road. The pub opposite, the Spice Ship, is Hardy's Old Ship. Among the many thousands of minor Englishmen whose lives were affected by [the threat of invasion from Napoleon's armies were] Corporal Tullidge, who sported the crushed arm, and poor old Simon Burden, the dazed veteran who had fought at Minden. Instead of sitting snugly in the settle of the Old Ship, in the village adjoining Overcombe, they were obliged to keep watch on the hill. They made themselves as comfortable as was possible in the circumstances, dwelling in a hut of clods and turf, with a brick chimney for cooking. Here they observed the nightly progress of the moon and stars, grew familiar with the heaving of moles, the dancing of rabbits on the hillocks, the distant hoot of owls, the bark of foxes from woods further inland; but saw not a sign of the enemy. As, night after night, they walked round the two ricks which it was their duty to fire at a signal - one being of furze for a quick flame, the other of turf, for a long, slow radiance - they thought and talked of old times, and drank patriotically from a large wood flagon that was filled every day. (The Trumpet Major)
The road from the mill to the pub is the one that Bob Loveday and Anne must have followed on their way to church. The church itself is over the road, down a little lane. On drawing near, they saw through the boughs of a clump of intervening trees, still leafless, but bursting into buds of amber hue, a glittering which seemed to be reflected from points of steel. In a few moments they heard above the tender chiming of the church bells the loud voice of a man giving words of command, at which all the metallic points suddenly shifted like the bristles of a porcupine, and glistened anew.
"'Tis the drilling," said Loveday. "They drill now between the services, you know, because they can't get the men together so readily in the week. It makes me feel that I ought to be doing more than I am!"
When they had passed round the belt of trees, the company of recruits became visible, consisting of the able-bodied inhabitants of the hamlets thereabout, more or less known to Bob and Anne. They were assembled on the green plot outside the churchyard-gate, dressed in their common clothes, and the sergeant who had been putting them through their drill was... now engaged in untying a canvas money-bag, from which he drew forth a handful of shillings, giving one to each man in payment for his attendance. (The Trumpet Major)
Follow the main road towards Weymouth. Just before the roundabout there is a road, which becomes a footpath leading over the hill to the remains of a Roman temple. Past the temple and you are standing on Furzy Cliff, with spectacular views across Weymouth Bay to Portland - the Gibraltar of Wessex, as Hardy calls it in that strange tale, The Well-Beloved.
The peninsula carved by Time out of a single stone... overlooking the great Channel Highway... has been for centuries immemorial the home of a curious and well-nigh distinct people, cherishing strange beliefs and singular customs... Fancies, like certain soft-wooded plants which cannot bear the silent inland frosts, but thrive by the sea in the roughest of weather, seem to grow up naturally here. (The Well-Beloved) Bob Loveday joins H.M.S. Victory, and it is from Portland that Anne watches her passage on the way to Trafalgar. When she reached [Budmouth] it was still early morning, but the borough was already in the zenith of its daily bustle and show. She alighted, and passed down the esplanade... Dashing bucks and beaux in cocked hats, black feathers, ruffles, and frills, stared at her as she hurried along; the beach was swarming with bathing women, wearing waistbands that bore the national refrain, 'God save the King,' in gilt letters; the shops were all open, and Sergeant Stanner, with his sword-stuck bank-notes and heroic gaze, was beating up at two guineas and a crown, the crown to drink his Majesty's health.
Crossing over into the old town, she pursued her way along the coast-road to Portland. Weary with her journey, she approached the extreme southerly peak of rock, and gazed from the cliff.
The wild, herbless, weather-worn promontory... scarce a mark was visible to show that humanity had ever been near the spot. Anne found herself a seat on a stone, and swept with her eyes the tremulous expanse of water around her that seemed to utter a ceaseless unintelligible incantation... her lip quivered as she murmured, without removing her wet eyes from the vacant and solemn horizon, '"They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters - "'
'"These see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep."'
Looking round quickly, she saw a soldier standing there; and the grave eyes of John Loveday bent on her. ''Tis what I was thinking,' she said, trying to be composed.
'You were saying it,' he answered gently. (The Trumpet Major)
From the foot of Furzy Cliff the esplanade curves round the broad sweep of the bay, past cafes and hotels, souvenir stalls and a garish clock commemorating the jubilee of Queen Victoria, until it reaches the statue of King George, the monarch whose visits made Weymouth fashionable. Behind the statue is a street leading down to the harbour. You can cross by rowing boat - the landing stage is a few hundred yards to your left - or by the bridge to your right. Once across, turn left then continue to the end of the jetty and look back. On a warm summer's evening, with the lights of the town reflected in the calm waters, it's a fine way to bring the walk to an end.