Few writers have become as inextricably linked with a region as Thomas Hardy. The novelist and poet brought Dorset and neighbouring counties to life as his reimagined Wessex.
We’re enjoying a holiday in the heart of Hardy country. His birthplace is a short walk from our holiday cottage at Greenwood Grange, a group of buildings built by Thomas’s father. One gable (shown in the photo above) shows its 1840s heritage. Our holiday home Coomb Barton is reputedly mentioned in the last verse of Hardy’s 1915 poem, The Oxen:
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
I confess to thinking it’s more likely a general reference to the then lonely farmyard (or ‘barton’) but it’s nice to think Hardy might have meant the cottage in which I am typing this sentence!
I’ve been intrigued by Hardy since reading the Mayor of Casterbridge for A level English almost 40 years ago. Back in the early 1980s I relished the dramatic plots, the unforgettable characters and the sense of place.
This week, I’ve been intrigued to think of Hardy as a boy walking along the paths through Thorncombe woods next to Greenwood Grange. Above is the Roman road running east from Dorchester. It was ancient when young Thomas was a boy in the 1840s.
I headed north from the Roman road on a twisting track leading to Hardy’s birthplace. These woods were once part of a much larger forest. They also inspired Hardy’s Egdon Heath.
When we first stayed at Greenwood Grange in 2009, I bought Claire Tomalin’s wonderful biography, subtitled The Time-Torn Man. Back in 1991, I had discovered Robert Gittings’ two volume biography of the author. It was the first literary biography I had read, and I found it enthralling. (I doubt anyone else was reading about Hardy in the lunch interval of the 1991 England v West Indies test at Lord’s.) Yet Tomalin created an even greater masterpiece out of the enigmatic Mr Hardy, a man who wrote brilliantly about love and loss, yet who appeared so lacking as a husband.
Tomalin also conveys the brutal class structures of Victorian England. Thomas Hardy’s father was a builder who encouraged his son to become an architect. The young Tom moved to London to establish himself but always found the tide flowing against him, because of his modest roots. He returned to his childhood home, no doubt conscious of his failure to make a success of the move to the capital. (After he became famous, he was feted by the aristocracy.) Back in the family cottage, he wrote Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd. But, as Tomalin observes, despite his roots Hardy is condescending towards the villagers in Under the Greenwood Tree. As she puts it, he draws them sympathetically but as simpletons, and invites us to smile at their simplicity.
Hardy’s earliest surviving poem, Domicilium, describes his birthplace:
In days bygone – Long gone – my father’s mother, who is now Blest with the blest, would take me out to walk. At such a time I once inquired of her How looked the spot when first she settled here. The answer I remember. ‘Fifty years Have passed since then, my child, and change has marked The face of all things. Yonder garden-plots And orchards were uncultivated slopes O’ergrown with bramble bushes, furze and thorn: That road a narrow path shut in by ferns, Which, almost trees, obscured the passer-by. ‘Our house stood quite alone, and those tall firs And beeches were not planted. Snakes and efts Swarmed in the summer days, and nightly bats Would fly about our bedrooms. Heathcroppers Lived on the hills, and were our only friends; So wild it was when first we settled here.’
So wrote Thomas Hardy aged around 17. The poem has an elegiac tone, mourning his much-loved grandmother and the earliest days of the cottage, built in 1799. Hardy could not have imagined that 170 years later the building would attract thousands of visitors from around the world, drawn by his timeless reputation. Even today the cottage feels isolated, with the lonely woods surrounding it.
When Hardy was 10, he started going to school in nearby Dorchester rather than his old school in Lower Bockhampton. As I walked the lane back to Greenwood Grange from his old cottage, I reflected that the young Hardy would have walked that very track every morning on the start of his three mile walk come rain, shine or snow. Even after 170 years, the walk is almost unchanged, and the roads remain remarkably quiet compared with most parts of Britain.
That tranquility makes it the perfect place to unwind. It has been a wonderful oasis during this pandemic summer.