Tears welled up a little as I leant over the pretty green gate at the side of Thomas Hardy’s cottage. I was actually here, standing where once he must have at some point in his life, looking out from the garden in front of his house to the lane that ran alongside.
Yup, geeking out on Thomas Hardy. If pressed I might also have to admit to Hardy being my favourite author. I may even have reread Under the Greenwood Tree recently and Far From the Madding Crowd for the first time (how did I miss that before?). I’m planning to revisit The Mayor of Casterbridge and at some point tackle his poetry, although I have to admit I’m more of a prose fan than a poetry fan. Don’t judge me.
My emotion leaning over the gate of course may also have had something to do with the fact that it had been a long, hot day – we were still riding in the midst of an unusual heat wave in England – and just standing in the garden of the house where Hardy was born, grew up and wrote some of his most famous work – Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From the Madding Crowd for instance – felt like a wonderful reward for our efforts.
Concerned by the oppressiveness of the heat and the fact everywhere we rode took far longer than we expected, English hills being a wildcard factor an’ all, we had got up early in West Sussex to ride to the train station a couple of hours away; we planned to travel via train to Dorset, so cutting out a big chunk of riding via busy Southampton and Bournemouth, saving our limited time for exploring more of the county Hardy called Wessex in his novels.
We arrived at the small, neat train station of Dorchester and struck out into the city itself; it’s of a manageable size whilst still feeling bustling and vibrant. What I saw of it as we passed through I liked, a lot. As ever it still took a while for us to find and pick up the Sustrans cycling route but we eventually stumbled across it and navigated country lanes to Higher Bockhampton and the cob and thatch cottage.
Before we even attempted to explore we recouped with tea, sickly sweet coffee cake and cold cider outside the National Trust reception and tea room (Hardy’s cottage, like many historical sites, is managed by the NT) sheltering from the sun under nearby trees. It was all very English and a bit of a stomach churning mix of food and drink, but when you’ve been sweltering on bikes you’ll vacuum up just about anything.
Once again, as was becoming the norm on this trip, I had to fend off the overtures by National Trust staff to buy yearly memberships. Their persistence was dogged but a small price to pay for their unfailing courteousness and helpfulness. We wheeled our bikes up the gravelled lane towards the cottage and were allowed to shovel our bikes, panniers and helmets along the side of a small kiosk at the entrance to the gardens where a staffer kindly volunteered to watch over our gear.
A flower-lined path led to the rose festooned front door of the cottage. Inside we bowed under low door frames into sparsely furnished small rooms that still smelt of smoke from many, many years of wood fires. An almost impossibly narrow stairway led up to the bedroom where Hardy wrote. Reproductions of his maps and writing artifacts are carefully placed throughout (the originals are on view in the Dorset Museum in Dorchester). It all effectively conjured up the life of rural simplicity that Hardy loved and was reflected in his writing, even in his darkest novels.
We emerged to wander the forested grounds, ponds and surrounding heathland, all inspiration for his work. It’s nice to know that from humble beginnings Hardy enjoyed success in his lifetime ultimately moving into the home he designed and had built, Max Gate, just outside of Dorchester.
We finally tore ourselves away from this idyll, retrieving our bikes and setting out for another hour or so of riding surrounded by sun-drenched countryside. In the evening, as the day cooled, we wandered down to a gate in the garden of the latest B&B and gazed across a heritage orchard as the light dipped. I was in Hardy country, I couldn’t have asked for much more.
‘To dwellers in a wood almost every tree has its voice as well as its feature’ – Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy.