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Thomas Hardy is Dorset’s most celebrated writer and is undoubtedly one of the most revered authors of England’s literary canon.
The son of a countryside stonemason, he was born in 1840 and originally trained as an architect, but went on relocate to London in his early twenties. Whilst there, he tried, unsuccessfully, to publish poetry; in 1868, he wrote a novel attacking the London aristocracy, but was deterred from publishing it after an undermining critique from the planned publisher’s advisor.
It was only when he returned home to his familiar Dorset homeland that his writing came into its own. Reflecting on the people and places he understood so well, he began to create novels set in a semi-fictional, parallel version of the place he called home – novels which would eventually catapult him to literary acclaim. Using reinterpreted or disused ancient names for geographical locations, he merged the Dorset landscape he knew so well with his own fictional perspective to bring to life Wessex, “A Partly Real, Partly Dream Country”.
Hardy’s Wessex is seen by many as a vivid embodiment of that age-old pastoral world that was already fading away by the early 20th century. His intimate understanding of the people and customs of old, rural Dorset is perhaps one of the reasons he was to become so popular an author.
Through thirteen novels and 47 short stories, Wessex would go on to become inextricably merged with the Dorset earth, and the landscape that is painted so vividly in the pages of these works will forever and fondly be known as Hardy Country.
We bring you some key Dorset locations that were reimagined in Thomas Hardy’s work, as well as places linked directly to the author himself.
This redbrick townhouse was designed by Hardy and built on commission by his own stonemason father and brother in 1885, a short distance from Dorchester town centre. He specifically chose the location because it allowed him to gaze out across open fields.
It was at Max Gate that Hardy wrote some of his most famous works, including Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, so this is often seen as a place of real literary pilgrimage for fans of the author.
The house’s pretty garden is surrounded by high walls and trees, to retain the privacy that Hardy desired. Hardy loved croquet and often played on the house’s front lawn. Visitors to Max Gate are encouraged to pick up a mallet and do the same!
During your visit, you may spot hens pecking about in the yard. Hardy loved these farm birds and the house’s ten current feathered residents are rescue hens saved from a battery farm, now living a contented life. You almost expect Hardy’s character, Tess Durbeyfield, to emerge from around the corner to start feeding them, as she does during her time at Trantridge.
‘an engirdled and secluded region, for the most part untrodden as yet by tourist or landscape-painter.’ – Tess of the D’Urbervilles
This verdant, farmland landscape featured prominently in Hardy’s Wessex novels and was well-loved by the author. Many key locations in his writing are found in the Vale.
The sleepy village of Marlott – real-life Marnhull – was home to one of his most famous and tragic protagonists, Tess Durbeyfield from Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It seems very likely that the ancient cottage lived in by Tess and her family was based on the village’s Tess Cottage, formerly known as Barton Cottage, which Hardy revisited in the 1920s.
The local Crown Inn was also the inspiration for The Pure Drop Inn of the novel, which Tess’s father frequented (rather too) often. The Old Lamb House is probably the pub Hardy had in mind when he created Rolliver’s – Mr Durbeyfields favourite watering hole.
‘above all, the town of Shaston standing majestically on its height; its windows shining like lamps in the evening sun.’ – Tess of the D’Urbervilles
The picturesque hilltop town of Shaftesbury features in Jude the Obscure as Shaston, which Hardy whimsically describes as being ‘the city of a dream.’ In the novel, the characters Sue and Phillotson lived at Old Grange Place round the corner from The Duke’s Arms; these two locations are based upon Ox House in Bimport and the nearby Grosvenor Hotel.
At one point, Jude walks along Abbey Walk, a pleasant walkway which offers a wonderful view of the Blackmore Vale and joins Gold Hill. The latter is a quaint cobbled street visitors may recognise from its immortalisation during the famous bike scene from the 1973 Hovis bread TV advert.
Tess also passes through Shaston on her way to claim kin with the Stoke-D’Urbervilles at Trantridge. Up until that point, it acted as a sort of symbolic edge of the known world for her.
For two years in the late 1870s, Hardy lived just outside Sturminster Newton in a property called Riverside Villa, which still exists today. It was a period he described as “idyllic” and, whilst here, he would pen The Return of the Native in addition to several poems.
‘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.’ – Under the Greenwood Tree
This charming, thatched cottage in Upper Bockhampton within the Stinsford area was built by his grandfather and is where Thomas was born in 1840. It was also here that he wrote several early stories, including his first novel Under the Greenwood Tree and, later, Far from the Madding Crowd.
As well as inspiring several of his poems, Hardy’s childhood home matches the description of the Tranter’s house in Under the Greenwood Tree exactly. Nearby St Michael’s Church also features in the novel.
Now owned by the National Trust, it has changed little since it was first built. The cottage sits beside Thorncombe Woods, a nature reserve that leads out onto an area of heathlands that Hardy collectively drew together as Egdon Heath, which is a key and symbolic landscape The in Return of the Native. It also appears in Hardy’s supernatural short story, The Withered Arm.
Although Hardy is buried in Westminster Abbey, his heart always belonged in the area he grew up in and loved so dearly – it was only right that it should be buried in St Michael’s Churchyard.
A stone’s throw from the church, you’ll find the little bridge over the River Frome where Under the Greenwood Tree’s Arthur Maybold jealously tears up the business card of his love rival, Dick Dewy, before throwing the pieces into the water and watching them drift away.
‘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’ – The Mayor of Caterbridge
This historic county town was prominently represented as Casterbridge in Hardy’s Wessex novels, and a statue of the author sits at the top of the hill along The Grove in the town centre.
What is now Barclays Bank is decorated with a blue plaque that states how the character Michael Henchard, The Mayor of Casterbridge in Hardy’s novel of the same name, supposedly lived in this building.
Dorchester’s Corn Exchange, with its beautiful Gothic Revival façade, is where Far From the Madding Crowd’s Bathsheba Everdene boldly dares to sell her own grain in the midst of flabbergasted male farmers.
The next door Dorset County Museum is home to Hardy’s study, transported here and carefully reconstructed. It includes the pen-filled desk where Hardy wrote, a fiddle he played at village parties in his youth, and a leather satchel he used whilst training as an architect.
Walking alongside the River Frome to the North of the town, you’ll find a grisly Hardy location. It was on this riverside spot that a sixteen year old Thomas watched the public hanging of Elizabeth Martha Brown at the prison up above in August 1856. Executed for murdering her violent and abusive husband, many believe that she was at least some of the inspiration behind Hardy’s ill-fated Tess Durbeyfield.
The bones of a female were recently uncovered in the prison grounds and it seems very likely that they belong to Brown. Campaigners are currently fighting to have the bones DNA tested to confirm her identity. They hope to rebury the remains in St Andrew’s Churchyard in the little village of West Stafford, where Hardy’s Tess and Angel Clare were married in the world of Wessex.
Inspired to live your own Wessex tale? Immerse yourself in the beauty of Hardy Country with our selection of beautiful cottages in Dorset.
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