If you take the new Dorchester bypass across the water meadows in the direction of Weymouth, you pass through a little slice of Dorset, which is to millions of people the most sacred piece of England. For this is the land of Thomas Hardy where, against all the odds, the 20th century is held at bay.
On the 2nd June 1840, Thomas Hardy was born here at Upper Bockhampton, and today some 170 years later, it is almost as nothing has changed. Hardy’s novels have spawned quite an industry – films, radio, television and stage adaptations, plus an inexhaustible stream of books about him, his works, and about the brooding landscape of Wessex which he loved.
It seems at first unlikely that a ghostly spirit should still inhabit the lanes and woodlands which formed so much part of Hardy’s writings. Yet, surprisingly, there is still much of Wessex that does hold an essence of his writing. It is in the landscape of Dorset itself that the real celebration of Hardy is to be found. And in the centre of the maelstrom of public attention that this literary anniversary has whipped up, a still centre lies waiting for the more thoughtful literary pilgrim at Mellstock.
Mellstock, as a word, is like so many of Hardy’s names, fictious. There is, however, no doubt at all as to where it is – Upper and lower Bockhampton, Stinsford, three tiny hamlets lying in a wooded cluster between Puddleton and Dorchester. These are the villages of Thomas Hardy’s childhood and early life. They are likewise the settings for many of the poems, and in particular one of the novels, Under the Greenwood Tree. And they are the places to which Hardy returned until his last years, reliving and preserving his own personal heritage…He asked that he should be buried in Stinsford churchyard, but official pomp and national pride decreed otherwise, and his ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey. Only his heart made it to the family grave near the quiet rivers of the River Frome.
Hardy’s birthplace is everything the seeker of old England longs for: in the fragrant garden of the cottage, lavender southern wood and rosemary grow, sweet scented mock orange, and near the door honeysuckle. There are roses, too, everywhere a profusion of flowers, herbs, shrubs, and between them gently curving paths. Come here at the right time of year, and it will seem that for every plant there is a butterfly dancing in attendance. And behind it all, nestling under Thorncombe Wood, quietly dominating this peaceful acre of ground, stands the cottage itself…a long building. Just a room deep, with a thatch that gives you the feeling that it grew organically out of the surroundings so much does it seems to be part of the natural scheme of things.
The Beech trees of Thorncombe rush and roar in the gentlest of weather. This is another of the wonders of Hardy, for he is much loved – some would say more loved – in places like America as in Britain. To enter the cottage is to step at once into Hardy’s life and times and into the novels too. For here it is not only the room where he wrote Under the Greenwood Tree, but also the parlour where many scenes, including the famous Christmas party at the books start occurred. Upstairs is the room in which he was born, a sickly child by all accounts, who on his first appearance in the world was given up for dead by the doctor, and was only saved by a local nurse who is reputed to have said: Dead? Stop a minute; he’s alive enough, sure! He was indeed, and lived on for a venerable 88 years. Looking from the window, we see the view he saw whilst pondering on Far from the Madding Crowd and many of the early poems. His very first poem Domicilium is as clear a portrait of the cottage as you could wish; the garden flowers, the verdancy of the wood – is still there. But the house stands, as it were, on the edge of two landscapes, for as the poem continues:
Behind, the scene is wilder, Heath and Furze
Are everything that seems to grow and thrive
Upon the uneven ground. A stunted thorn
Stands here and there, indeed; and from a pit
An oak surprises, springing from a seed
Dropped by a bird a hundred years ago.
This is Egdon Heath, a haunted place for Hardy, and is still today. Fir plantations now stands where once was just heath and furze, but they retain in their own way, the brooding quality of this place. On summer mornings, the sun lights the dew, through the grasses of the heath, and the beauty is breathtaking. Nevertheless, there is a starkness which is vivid contrast to the richness of Bockhampton woodlands.
After the birthplace, the most significant spot in Melstock is down the lane at St.Michael’s Church, Stinsford. This little church with its gentle view across the shallow Frome Valley, was built in the early part of the 13th century. In Hardy’s younger day’s there was a gallery where local musicians – including his grandfather, his father and his uncle played – in the days before the coming of the organ. Today, the gallery is gone, although some idea of what it was like can be gained on a larger scale in nearby Puddletown Church. All the Hardy’s were fine fiddle players, and their notebooks are on show today in the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. On the wall of St.Michael’s is a plaque, placed there by Hardy himself.
Sacred to the memory of Thomas Hardy, the father of James and Thomas, the sons who formerly in this church for forty years (1802-1841) performed the office of string players.
The brass plate is in latin which, Hardy felt, was likely to change less for the worse than the English in the future. In Stinsford Church, Hardy’s father and mother fell in love, as he played his violin in the gallery, and she turned and caught his eye. The incident is caught most touchingly in a sonnet,
A Church Romance – 1835:
She turned in the high pew, until her sight
Swept the west gallery, and caught his row
Of music men with viol, book and bow
Against the sinking sad tower – window light.
She turned again; and in her pride’s despite
One strenuous viol’s inspirer seemed to throw
A message from his string to her elbow,
Which said: “I claim thee as my own forthright!”
Thus their hearts bond began, in due time signed.
And the long years thence, when age had scared romance,
At some old attitude of his or her glance
That gallery-scene would break upon her mind,
With him as minstrel, ardent, young and trim,
Bowing “New Sabbath” or “Mount Ephraim”.
The high pews have, like the gallery, long gone, but the loving ghosts remain. How could they not? After all, this is the home of the prototype of the Mellstock Quire of Under the Greenwood Fire. In middle age, Hardy wrote a poem called The Dead Quire, which tells how phantom singers passed along the river path and up to the church at Christmas, and disappeared into the churchyard. There is very little here that has not had his eye upon it.
In Stinsfird Churchyard, the Hardy family graves lie in a dignified row, and nearby, the grave of Poet Laureate Cecil day Lewis, whose love for Thomas Hardy was such that for him, this earth was an appropriate place in which to make an end. In the peace of this place, it is easy to agree with him. It seems in many ways, so near yet so far from Dorchester, in truth a short walk away with its market town bustle and self-importance. When Hardy built Max Gate, the house that represented his success as a writer, he chose a site where he could look across the valley to Mellstock. Ironically, such was his fame that to thwart the visitors, who came to peer at him, he was forced to surround himself with tall trees, which in time blotted out the view…
Meanwhile, at Dorchester’s top of the town, the man himself in the shape of Eric Kennington’s 1931 statue, looks out on it all with remarkable detachment. When the statue was unveiled, among those present was another great writer; Llewelyn Powys.
For, in the words of one of his poems: “He was a man who used to notice such things.”
(Image) Thomas Hardy: Wikipedia