Maybe you are a Thomas Hardy enthusiast, keen to see where he lived and visit the areas which inspired him? You’ll find that West Dorset makes an ideal base for doing just that.
To be honest I wouldn’t say Thomas Hardy is a favourite writer of mine. Perhaps the result of having his book The Trumpet Major drilled into me at school. A frustration with his characters when they don’t communicate, don’t say the one sentence that would sort everything out. Oh my, what miserable storylines! Did you see that depressing film Jude, made about twenty years ago?
Should I give him another chance? His life and work is so tied up with West Dorset. He is undoubtably Dorset’s most famous author and considered one of the greatest ever English novelists and poets. He created some of the strongest leading female characters in 19th century literature. So that’s a yes then. In the meantime I’ve been reading about him. Just google his name and you’re spoilt for choice, although you do come across the actor Tom Hardy a lot too. I’ve written a little here on the writer, an outline of his life with a focus on the links between it, West Dorset, and the “Wessex” of his novels. Some links are included to help with the planning of a visit to Hardy Country.
Thomas Hardy’s Life
Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 in a tiny Dorset hamlet called Upper Bockhampton (now Higher Bockhampton) near Dorchester. The cottage where he was born and brought up had been built of cob and thatch by his great-grandfather in 1800. Initially Hardy’s mother educated him at home where she introduced him to the classics. Aged eight he went to his first school at Bockhampton before attending the Academy for Young Gentlemen in Dorchester. Hardy’s family couldn’t afford to send him to university so, aged sixteen, he started training as an architect in Dorchester. After moving to London in 1862 he began to write in his spare time.
After Thomas Hardy’s first novel was rejected by publishers in 1867 he turned to the “pastoral” for his subject matter. His intimate, first-hand knowledge of the countryside where he grew up was to be a major factor in his subsequent success.
Hardy lived in Weymouth in 1869 and between 1871 – 1872, working as an architect’s assistant. Here he wrote part of Under the Greenwood Tree.
In 1874 he wrote his fourth novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, at his parent’s cottage. He was so excited at times writing it that while out walking he had to grab a leaf or a stone on which to scribble phrases. In this book he introduced the idea of calling the region where his novels are set in the west of England “Wessex”.
Married in 1874, the Hardys moved from London to Yeovil, and then to Sturminster Newton in Dorset. Far from the Madding Crowd was successful enough for Hardy to give up architecture and pursue writing full-time. Over the next twenty-five years Thomas wrote ten more novels.
In 1885 Thomas and his wife moved into Max Gate on the outskirts of Dorchester, a house he designed and built by his brother. Hardy’s wife died there in 1912. Although they were estranged for the last twenty years, during which she lived up in the attic, her death had a traumatic effect on him. His eulogies to her written after her death are considered his peak poetic achievement. In 1914, aged 74, Hardy married his secretary who was 39 years his junior.
By 1928 when he died, aged 87, he was a celebrated grand old man of letters. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in Poet’s Corner. He had requested to be buried in Stinsford (his Mellstock) churchyard in the family plot. His heart was buried there with his first wife, later joined by his second wife after her death in 1937.
Thomas Hardy’s Works
Thomas Hardy is now regarded as one of the greatest of English novelists and poets. His complicated tales of thwarted desire and human failing, his memorable characters and evocative descriptions of recognisable places, have become classics.
Alongside Far from the Madding Crowd his fourteen published novels include Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887 and Hardy’s favourite), Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) and his final novel, Jude the Obscure (1895). His Complete Poems has been continuously in print since the 1920s.
Visit Hardy’s Homes
You can visit Hardy’s Cottage, the cottage where he was born and grew up. It is now owned by the National Trust. It sits next to Thorncombe Woods, an ancient woodland. This opens out onto heathland, the beginning of Hardy’s “Egdon Heath”. Tripadvisor reviews are very positive. They note that the National Trust volunteers in the cottage are very helpful and interesting, the cottage is fascinating and the garden is beautiful. The cafe by the car park is recommended too.
Max Gate is also a National Trust property, only fully opened to the public in 2010 with work still in progress. It is another “must see” for those interested in Thomas Hardy and giving an insight into his later life (only negative comments I can find are about the lack of a car park or tea room).
Explore Hardy’s Wessex
West Bay is an ideal base from which to explore some of the sites of the thinly disguised Wessex made famous in his stories and poems. Many of the features of Hardy’s descriptions still remain. A long distance (actually very long, 220 miles) footpath, the Hardy Way, links many of his favourite sites.
Bridport (Port Bredy) is a location which makes numerous appearances in Hardy’s works. It is the place the Squire retires to after the momentous events in Hardy’s witch story The Withered Arm. It also receives mentions in the short story The Fellow Townsmen and The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Weymouth’s Esplanade, the Gloucester Lodge Hotel and Old Rooms are featured in The Trumpet-Major (1880), renamed Budmouth in the 1895 edition. Budmouth Regis makes an appearance in several other of his novels too.
The town of Beaminster (Emminster) is home of the Clare family in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the place the destitute Tess walks to in order to seek help from her estranged in-laws. Going east from there on the Wessex Ridgeway, hidden in the verge, is the Cross-in-Hand stone pillar. Tess swears on it to Alex that she will never tempt him. The Acorn Inn (The Sow and Acorn) is in Evershot, where Tess eats her breakfast. Lovely views of Blackmoor Vale can be seen along the route.
Speculation about the location of Gabriel Oak’s original home has led some to suggest that nearby Eggardon Hill may have have been the model. Maiden Castle has strong connections with the Mayor of Casterbridge.
Hardy’s home town of Dorchester is called Casterbridge in his books. Along with Hardy’s Cottage and Max Gate it is definitely worth a visit if you are interested in Hardy. A collection of Hardy relics is held in Dorchester’s museum, which includes a re-creation of his study. On a walk around Dorchester you will find buildings, geographical features and monuments connected with the great author. His statue is not far from County Hall.
What a treat if you are a Hardy fan, to visit West Dorset and explore some of the most beautiful literary heritage sights in England. If you’ve read all this and haven’t yet booked accommodation for your trip to the area, we’d love to welcome you to West Bay Cottage. Take a look inside the cottage if you wish, or head to our Book With Us page for availability, the rates and how to book.