By Margaret Marande
Wessex has become synonymous with the works of Thomas Hardy. He, more than any other writer, uses real locations as the background to his novels and poems. If you live in Dorset, as I do, it’s all around you. When I retired from a working life in mainstream and prison education I decided to indulge my twin passions, Hardy and walking. It didn’t take long for the idea of a long-distance literary footpath to evolve.
How to start? I needed to read everything that he had written or I might miss something. This took quite a while because en route I listed the names of all the fictional places that had been identified as based on actual locations. This ranged from the very well-known such as Casterbridge/Dorchester to the more obscure – Little Hintock/Melbury Bubb (The Woodlanders). Even then there was always a question mark over exactitude. The word ‘probably’ was key.
Next I had to plan a route that linked the places most economically distance-wise on public rights of way. This amounted to about 220 miles! Of course it is possible to break this up into sections but I describe my walk as The Hardy Way – A 19th-Century Pilgrimage. Pilgrimages are usually long and quite arduous so in its purest form the Hardy Way is a long distance path. Also pilgrimages usually end in a holy place, which is why I wanted my route to start at Hardy’s birthplace and to end in the quiet country churchyard nearby where his heart is buried.
The best bit came next. The field work. Actually getting out there with Ordnance Survey maps walking the route and discovering the places that I had read about. In spite of ‘progress’ there are many locations that remain almost unchanged. The persistent hum of traffic recedes to be replaced by a silence that evokes, for example, the bleak uplands of West Dorset where Tess worked in bitter weather grubbing turnips at Flintcomb Ash farm – Church Hill above Plush. Of course quite often the route hits the twenty first century. On the two magnificent ‘Jurassic’ coastal stretches from Lulworth Cove, which Hardy visited by paddle steamer in 1868, to Kimmeridge Bay and from West Bay to Weymouth via the Isle of Portland – Trumpet-Major country – things are very different with little pretence of solitude but because the coast is so beautiful it doesn’t seem to matter. Hardy describes the gaiety of Weymouth when George III visited every summer and drilled his troops on the Ridgeway above the town as a Napoleonic deterrent; the figure of the King on his horse is still clearly engraved in the chalk to prove the point.
My final objective was to ‘write it up’ linking the route to historical fact and to fictional description and extracts. I decided upon an unusual pagination device: the left-hand literary pages to read consecutively: similarly the right-hand route directions and factual information. The whole to tally as closely as possible. This was very difficult to achieve but I think worthwhile. It’s user friendly.
After the publication of my book I was delighted when Dorset County Council decided that they would like to adopt the path and to waymark it. Local accommodations have hugely supported it and a great many of them have copies of my book for their guests to enjoy. The Thomas Hardy Society, Tourist Information Centres and Hardy’s Birthplace Visitor Centre – a new venture- have also been very supportive in promoting the book. I hope that it is contributing to the local economy as well as creating more interest in all things Hardy. Most important of all I have had excellent feedback from walkers some of whom have stated that walking the route has made them want to revisit Hardy. My next objective is to try and extend this interest to young people and I’m working on that one!