Thomas Hardy would no doubt have chuckled had he looked down at his old Dorset pad from the great poets’ corner in the sky. Our pet dog Eddie had taken a leaf from Hardy’s naughty terrier, Wessex, and given two visitors to Max Gate – Hardy’s Dorchester home for more than 40 years – an uncharacteristic dressing down for no apparent reason. It seems the spirit of “Wessie”, who was allowed to terrorise visitors to Max Gate by an over-indulgent Hardy, lives on.
My wife, Carole, and I – plus Tibetan Terrier Eddie – are visiting the imposing Victorian house and its grounds on a spring morning, as the star-studded adaptation of Hardy’s book Far from the Madding Crowd is released in cinemas.
We’re keen to explore the delights of Dorset, where Thomas Vinterberg’s film is set, before the stampede this summer. This little piece of English heaven has so much going for it, with half the county designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and three-quarters of its coastline a World Heritage Site.
We are based in a delightful, dog-friendly cottage in Litton Cheney, a few miles from Bridport and the county town of Dorchester (Casterbridge, to those who have read Madding Crowd).
From the terrace of our rented home for a few days, it’s easy to imagine the film’s sheep farmer Gabriel Oak (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) working in the fields as the beautiful heroine Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) passes by on her rickety yellow wagon.
Overlooking the village is the 13th century parish church of St Mary with its peal of eight bells occasionally adding to the birdsong and bleating of newborn lambs. It’s typical Hardy country.
Just a few miles away, we visit Dorset’s most famous landmark, the spectacular Jurassic Coast, one of the richest sources of fossils in the country. Its dramatic shoreline provides the backdrop for one of the film’s opening scenes, when one of Gabriel’s misguided sheepdogs drives his flock over the edge of the cliffs, rendering him financially ruined.
We then continue to neighbouring Lyme Regis, nicknamed the pearl of Dorset. When the sun shines, it’s a stunning spot to while away a few hours. The seafront is dominated by The Cobb, a long, sweeping harbour wall made famous in Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion, and by Meryl Streep playing The French Lieutenant’s Woman in the critically-acclaimed 1981 film.
A few miles further along the coast we find the picturesque fishing village of West Bay (Port Bredy in Hardy’s novels), the setting for the popular TV police drama Broadchurch.
A coastal path leads us to neighbouring Eype, where Eddie is able to run amok on the dog-friendly pebbly beach, while further east at Abbotsbury, we catch mackerel three at a time on Chesil Beach.
After cooking our catch for lunch we visit Mapperton, one of Dorset’s loveliest houses, which lies on the outskirts of Beaminster. Vinterberg unsurprisingly chose the 16th century Jacobean manor house as Bathsheba’s home.
To get a real sense of where Hardy drew so much inspiration for his novels, we head a few miles out from Dorchester to the small village of Higher Bockhampton.
Tucked on the edge of Thorncombe Wood, lies a modest thatched cottage where Hardy was born in 1840 and lived for the first 45 years of his life.
It’s an idyllic spot where birdsong fills the air and grey squirrels scurry across the tree tops, and it is where he penned Madding Crowd. Hardy’s old cottage has been sympathetically maintained and there is an excellent Lottery-funded visitor centre built nearby.
Hardy died aged 87 and his heart is buried less than a mile away in the graveyard of the tiny church of St Michael, alongside his parents and first wife, Emma. The rest of him was cremated and the ashes scattered in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, close to where Charles Dickens is buried.
I’m not sure the old maestro would have approved of quite such a macabre ending, but at least he is in good company.
• Chris Wiltshire was a guest of Premier Cottages (www.premiercottages.co.uk; 01305 880 077) which has a collection of almost 1,000 four and five-star self-catering cottages across the UK, including pet-friendly accommodation. Many properties have on site facilities, like swimming pools, gyms, spas and indoor games rooms.
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