NORTH Dorset was a huge inspiration to Thomas Hardy. The principal towns, Shaftesbury and Sherborne, both feature heavily in his novels, with Gillingham also playing a supporting role.
In the surrounding countryside, the Blackmore Vale was the backdrop to his most lyrical writing about nature, with the honey stone village of Marnhull home to Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Indeed, Tess, Jude the Obscure and The Woodlanders – his last three novels – were all largely based in North Dorset.
If following in his footsteps, it makes sense to base yourself in Shaftesbury, then walk, cycle or drive Hardy’s rolling landscapes and historic places. We’d also suggest dropping down to Dorchester to visit the County Museum and it’s treasure trove of Hardy’s effects. The birthplace of Hardy, his family’s cob and thatch cottage outside Dorchester, is open every day this summer.
Margaret Marande from Shaftesbury also recommends finishing your Hardy trip in Dorchester. She is the author of The Hardy Way, first published in 1995. It is a 220-mile marked walking trail through Hardy’s Wessex, with his words and poems alongside each section of the route. Margaret is now 81 and in May, 2018, walked the route again for charity.
Follow our guide to the places which inspired Hardy and which remain largely the same today. The real place names are followed by the names Hardy ascribed to them in his novels and poems. Take a look at our Google map of the locations detailed below.
Shaftesbury plays a leading role in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. In Tess, Jack Durbeyfield visits the doctor and learns he has a bad heart. Phillotson runs a school there. Jude visits to see Sue Bridehead, who is wed to Phillotson and they flee Shaston together.
According to The Word Travels, which runs a Hardy literary tour of Dorset, Sue and Phillotson lived at Ox House in Bimport, near The Duke’s Arms (The Grosvenor Arms Hotel). Jude walked Park Walk, with views out over Wiltshire: it’s the site of the former Shaftesbury Abbey, founded by King Alfred (871-901) and whose gardens can still be visited.
Jude also walks through the ‘Avenue of Limes’ in Trinity Church, which are still there, and the churchyard which lies ‘nearer to heaven than the church steeple’ – which is the Bury Litton graveyard just around a sharp bend at the end of Bimport. It was that of St John’s, a church long gone, but whose churchyard was absorbed into the parish of St James church, 150ft down the hill. There are three huge yew trees on the site, dating back to the 15th century.
In Tess, Shaston is one of the boundaries of her world, seen from her home in Marlott (Marnhull) “standing majestically on its height.” Hardy was fascinated by Shaftesbury, calling it “the city of a dream” because of its history and “one of the queerest and quaintest spots in England … breezy and whimsical”.
The town is four miles northwest of Shaftesbury. In Jude the Obscure, Hardy named the headmaster of Leddenton’s school as… George Gillingham. He and fellow headmaster Phillotson were friends, and Phillotson sought his advice when his marriage to Sue failed. Hardy writes that as Phillotson left his friend to walk back to Shaston, “no sound was audible but that of the purling tributaries of The (River) Stour.”
Tess Durbeyfield (Tess of the d’Urbervilles) was born and brought up in this village seven miles west of Shaftesbury. After falling pregnant to Alec D’Urberville, she returns to Marlott and gives birth to a baby boy, who dies in infancy. The Durbeyfield home is a gorgeous, privately-owned Elizabethan-period thatched cottage (now called Tess Cottage) south of the village, down a single track cul-de-sac. Tours of the cottage can be arranged through The Hardy Society.
In the novel, Tess walks across the fields to Marlott (there’s a public footpath just outside the cottage) in search of her parents in the pub. There were two in the village: The Pure Drop Inn (The Crown Inn) and Rolliver’s (The Blackmore Vale Inn). John Durbeyfield tells Parson Tringham that The Pure Drop serves a “very pretty brew in tap – though, to be sure, not so good as at Rolliver’s”.
The Blackmore Vale Inn was sold last year but has happily re-opened as a pub. The Crown Inn still goes strong. A priest’s hole links to St Gregory’s Church next door, where Tess buried her dead child. The pub has 15th century oak paneling, a huge open fire and settle chairs. Hardy books and a Hardy trail map are given to all guests staying in the seven rooms.
Japanese and German tourists on The Hardy Trail are regulars, as are walkers. Hardy described the landscape as one “in which the fields are never brown, and the springs never dry.” In his portrayal of the Blackmore Vale he notes that it is “for the most part untrodden as yet by tourist or landscape-painter.”
And he adds in Tess: “Here in the (Blackmore Vale), the world seems to be constructed upon 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 below is languorous, and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes of that hue, whilst the horizon beyond is of deepest ultramarine.”
SHERBORNE (Sherton Abbas)
The market place is where Giles Winterborne stood with his sample apple trees in The Woodlanders: the 15th century Sherborne Abbey is where Giles and Grace Melbury talked of their future.
In Woodlanders, Hardy says that the hotel at Sherborne was the Earl of Wessex, “a substantial inn of stone with a yawning back yard into which vehicles were driven by coachmen to stabling of wonderful commodiousness.” He was referring to The Digby Hotel, where Giles set up his mobile apple press in the yard – and where Grace saw him for the first time after her marriage.
The hotel is no longer extant, but it’s worth digging out the Digby Tap pub on part of the hotel site. It’s a cracking, flagstoned, right old fashioned back street bar, with no airs or graces but groaning with old timbers and faces, and extremely good ales. Good lunches too.
In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess walked from near Plush (a village northwest of Dorchester) some 15 miles west to Beaminster and back to plead for her marriage to Angel Clare. Halfway is the village of Evershot, the second highest village in Dorset and still a timewarp place of prettiness.
It was one of the locations for the 2015 film Far from the Madding Crowd. In the village is The Acorn, referred to in the book as The Sow and Acorn. The pub also features in two of Hardy’s other stories: in Interlopers at the Knap, Philip Hall collected Sally’s dress left here by the courier. And in The First Countess of Wessex, Squire Dornell’s man Tupcombe sat in the inglenook in the hope of hearing news of Betty: Hardy also liked to take a drink in that inglenook.
This is also where Tess breakfasted at this thatched cottage next to the church. You can’t miss it: the home is now called Tess’s Cottage.
Information: A walking guide and map, of the 15-mile route from Plush to Beaminster (Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Tour 2) is available from The Thomas Hardy Society.
STURMINSTER NEWTON (Stourcastle)
For nearly two years from July, 1876, Hardy lived at Riverside Villa, just outside the town and close to the mill. This was the happiest period of his marriage, and where he wrote The Return of the Native (1878) and poems including Overlooking the River Stour and On Sturminster Footbridge.
Now a private house, the pink and blue villa overlooking the Stour boasts a blue plaque: Hardy said the location was idyllic, watching “swallows fly in curves of eight, above the river’s gleam.” The town also appears as ‘Stourcastle’ in his Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
He was born near here, died here and based one of his most famous novels here, The Mayor of Casterbridge. Dorchester is awash with Hardy connections: he was a founder member of Dorset County Museum which holds more than 7,000 of his items, including a first edition of Far From The Madding Crowd from 1874.
Three miles east of the town is Upper Bockhampton, where he was born in the family home in 1840. He grew up in the cottage, which is backed by Thorncombe Woods, and walked to school in Dorchester from 1849-1856, initiating his love and understanding of the countryside. In 1867, he returned from working as an architect in London to live in the cottage, and wrote Far From the Madding Crowd there in 1874. The book was his first success, and enabled Hardy to move out and get married.
An impressive new National Trust visitor’s centre opened in 2016, and the cottage is open every day this summer. From the centre, there is a lovely walk through the woods woods to the cottage, which sets the scene beautifully for the visit. The gardens are immaculate, the house fascinating: a good way to finish your Dorset Hardy tour.