Would you walk this way?
“You really should get out more”. That’s something I’ve often been told, but this time as Molly tried to manoeuvre the cleaner around my outstretched feet she really meant business. “How about a walk?” she suggested. “Good idea” I replied, “I’ll go and get the paper”. Little did I know she was thinking of something a little bit further. 213 miles further to be precise.
“What do you know about Thomas Hardy?” The question seemed strange. My reply that he had a pub in Dorchester clearly was not the one she was looking for. “Look at that” she demanded, passing me a book. So did you know that there was a walk that starts at the great writer’s birthplace in Higher Bockhampton and the circuit finishes at Stinsford Church where his heart is buried? Neither did I. I thanked Molly for the gift and promised her that I would not rest until I had read it from cover to cover. Somehow I just knew that was not the response that she was looking for.
“No excuses, you’re doing it.” This was the look that said she meant business andby Barney from countless experiences I knew that any protests would be fruitless. As I started to pack I thought that maybe she was right, perhaps I did need a challenge. If Ellen MacArther could sail the world single handed, if Hilary could conquer Everest then I could walk the Hardy Way. Putting on my trusted old walking boots that like me had seen better days and with a tear in my eye, I bade farewell to Molly telling her that I may be gone some time. “Not now you silly old sausage” she said, or words to that affect, “I’m doing it with you! And we’re not going to do it all in one go. Think of all those wonderful days out we can have together.” I was thinking.
Would we be able to find our way with the aid of a guide book that was over 10 years old? Would this give me more of a thirst to read more of Thomas Hardy? Would it give me more of a thirst? And what of some of the places we were to visit on our walks? Places such as Lulworth Cove, Corfe Castle, Cranborne Chase, Shaftesbury, Evershot and Abbotsbury. All magical places that I have visited many times. Would I see them in a new light? Would my wife see me in a new light? I was about to find out.
So what better way to start our epic journey than on a beautiful sunny summer morning? Only this was darkest February. To ensure that there was no way of backing out, Molly had cleverly contrived to arrange for our home to be without central heating or hot water. Staying in was not an option: the challenge had begun. One small step for man.
The car park at Thorncombe woods was strangely quiet. No TV cameras, no press only a youth clad in a t-shirt and shorts exercising his spaniels. I felt a little over dressed in my wax jacket, three jumpers, two shirts, thermal vest, scarf and the tea cosy of a hat. We then made the short journey though the woods to Thomas Hardy’s cottage, wrongly identifying on the way a rook as a bird of prey and the sound of a lesser spotted woodpecker instead being that of a more spotted man sawing wood.
And then we arrived at the birthplace of the great writer. It was here that he was born in 1840, spending the first 22 years of his life before moving to London. He would return and write until his marriage in 1874. It was from here that he composed some of his most famous work including Far From the Madding Crowd and Under the Greenwood Tree. The interior of the home can still be visited by appointment. We had none. So instead I had to be content to look at the garden and house and imagine what life here would have been like for the great writer. Where would he gain his inspiration? How different would life have been? Certainly the landscape here had greatly changed. Gone was much of his dearly loved “Egdon Heath”, now swamped by forestry plantations.
From the monument by the side of the cottage, erected by American admirers, the sign was clear. “Puddletown 2 miles”. This was a journey that I had made many times. This was when we would walk to the Kings Arms before returning through the woods late at night stumbling in the dark worse for wear accompanied to the ghostly chants of a Roman Centurion, who allegedly haunts the area. Sadly the Kings Arms just as my youth had long since gone. And this time our route was not the obvious one but the somewhat less inviting sign “A35”.
As we made our journey north, the morning bird song began to fade and was being replaced with something less melodious. Far from the madding crowd this was not. The majestic sight of the A35 and the roaring traffic loomed before us. In order for us to reach Yellowham Wood it was necessary for us to cross the busy road. Hurrying across the bridge we then joined the old main road that runs parallel with the newer one. Thomas Hardy started his literary career writing poetry. I decided I would. The problem was that I was finding it hard to find anything to rhyme with Higher Bockhampton or Puddletown. And then a flash of inspiration! Where did it come from? Was I blessed? How good it is to be alive, walking by the A35, how sweet the petrol smell, is it Esso or is it Shell. Well it was a start!
Soon our route became a lot more interesting. Taking the path through the woods, we soon passed Keeper’s Cottage, a dwelling that reputedly housed a beech tree used in Under The Greenwood Tree. So which one was it? My guess turned out to be incorrect on the grounds that it was a telegraph pole.
As we started our gentle climb through Yellowham Wood the sound of the traffic faded grew fainter until soon it had completely disappeared. Now the only company was the sight and sound of the birds and oh yes Molly, the wife. And then more welcome company, the sun decided to join us. One by one the jumpers were being discarded. “The catkins are coming out,” said Molly. Wonderful, I thinking that it was something that she had packed for our mid morning snack, until I was assured it was a first sign of spring. Other delightful indications were being pointed out to me on our nature ramble but none more poignant than Molly’s reminder that our fence would soon need painting.
Walking along the Ridge Way, still used for tending sheep, I thought how lucky I was to be living in such a wonderful unspoilt county. Looking northwards all I could see was a seemingly never-ending patchwork of fields punctuated only by trees and the occasional farm building. I almost felt another poem coming on. Almost. Starting our descent and after passing the impressive Waterston Manor, we passed over the River Piddle and a sheep pool, a leisure facility that they enjoyed until the 1970’s. Was this a members only club” I wondered. If so how did the sheep join? Lucky dip? Molly was not amused.
Soon we reached Puddletown, referred to as Weatherbury in Hardy’s novels. Once having the status of a town, it was also known as Piddletown, after the river. The name was changed because, as one resident famously explained, “Tis like this. We do be a crossroads, and the townies in Dorchester – when giving directions – don’t like having to say, turn left at Piddletown.” Until 1998 the village was blighted by heavy traffic passing through it, but then came the long- awaited bypass. Today as we walked along the main street there seemed to be a curious mixture of new and old. Gone were the Kings Arms and Prince of Wales pubs that I used to frequent, now replaced with housing developments. And yet there still remained the old buildings whose thatch roofs formed an irregular outline against the skyline with those of a much later style. Turning left and into the delightful old square stands the 12th century church that was so loved by Thomas Hardy and his many relatives that lived in the village. It has a reputation for being one of the most unspoilt churches in Dorset. Sitting in one of the pews, I found myself casting my mind back in time, seeing the farm men with their smocks while the choir were singing in the Jacobean Gallery.
It was now time to find refreshment. Fortunately there is still one pub in the village, the Blue Vinney. Suddenly there was a spring in my step. Molly was finding it hard to keep up. Maybe there was life in the old dog yet. As there was in the cider needed to accompany a delicious selection of local cheeses including Blue Vinney, after which the welcoming pub is named.
As we made our weary way home I was convinced the day had been a success. Molly and I were still talking. Yes it had got me out of the house. And yes I could still walk 5 miles without oxygen. Shame we still didn’t have any hot water or heating. But every cloud…Molly said we’d have to go to the pub to eat. And now Molly would see that whilst sampling the great outdoors was ok. Once in awhile, it was no substitute for enjoying our home comforts. My contentment was short lived by the arrival of a gift. Now why would I want a guide to Bere Regis?
Footsteps Part 1