Red Socks At Night
My condition was giving cause for concern. I was rambling by day and rambling by night. The dreams were becoming more obscure. I was Far From The Madding Crowd Under The Greenwood Tree. Desperate Remedies were called for. The diagnosis was not good. I had THS, otherwise known as the Thomas Hardy Syndrome. Molly was seriously worried. I was keeping her awake. She decided that we needed to get away.
She was whisking me away for the weekend. We were to return to the place where we had our honeymoon. Here we were going to relight fires. At least that’s what Molly said. I couldn’t remember anything about fires. I couldn’t remember much about it at all. That is except walking along wild rugged cliffs. The only fire I could remember was the one in the local pub that I sat in front of drinking pints of Tribute. We were going to Boscastle. But I could not get way from Thomas Hardy. In 1870, at the age of 30, in his role as an architect he was sent to St Juliot to make plans for the restoration of the church. It was here that he met his first wife Emma Gifford, the Rector’s sister-in-law. It was love at first sight. As we walked from St Juliot to the beautiful harbour at Boscastle down the beautiful valley by the side of the river, I could imagine the two lovers walking hand in hand. It was from this visit and his romantic encounter he drew the inspiration to write A Pair Of Blue Eyes. Maybe I too could draw inspiration to write. And what would I call it? Beware of the Dragon? What a novel idea! It was a joke Molly. The break was not working.
The Cornish cliffs were not quite as I had remembered them. Whilst they were still dramatic, coastal erosion had caused them to have far more ups and downs in them since we last walked them. But if I could manage these then I could manage anything. Bring on Wool!
We left sleepy Bere Regis in early afternoon spring sunshine. Very soon it wasn’t very sleepy at all. We were back with our old friend, the A35. As we walked along the verge towards the roundabout and our required exit we were greeted by a succession of cars and lorries beeping their horns. Molly thought it was because of her figure caused by the diet and fitness regime. I thought it was because of my new red walking socks that Molly had bought me on our love weekend. I also had bought her a present. It was something that would help us walk together more harmoniously. It was one of those new iso pods. A new device that would enable her to listen uninterrupted to the latest pop music from the hit parade.
After eventually finding our required exit we climbed the path to Woodbury Hill. The saying behind every successful man there’s a successful woman didn’t seem true. Molly was way in front lost in her own world. Maybe her new toy was not such a good idea. Eventually reaching the top we were treated once again to fabulous views. Woodbury Hill is Hardy’s Greenhill. With its flat plateau ringed with Early Iron Age earthworks, it is featured in several Hardy novels. An annual sheep fair took place here. Now I’ve never thought I would like to be a sheep but you have to say that they were particularly well catered for in years gone by. Not only had we previously witnessed a sheep pool but also the site of a sheep fair. Apparently they were very popular with up to 20,000 of the creatures flocking to the event. Typical entertainment that they would have enjoyed would have included Punch and Judy shows, swing boats, running and jumping contests and sack races. They also had 3-legged races which seemed a bit barbaric. I started to sing a medley of songs; I’ll never find another ewe, chirpy chirpy sheep sheep and sheep sliding away. It was all lost on Molly, she just smiled, happy with her new toy.
There then followed a delightful path through woodland towards Bloxworth. A sure sign that spring was here was the sound of a cuckoo. I had to break Molly’s rearguard to share the good news. She was not impressed. Even less so when I found the sound was not the evasive cuckoo but an invasive pheasant. Genuine indications followed with the sight of rhododendron bushes coming into bud, colourful violets and primroses carpeting the wooded floor and brimstone butterflies fluttering amongst the campion. Molly could be educational when she wanted to be. I showed her a duck. She told me it was a moorhen. I asked her what the difference was. She laughed. If only she would do it more often, but not at my expense.
Whilst stopping to view the 12th century St Andrew’s church in the tranquil village of Bloxworth we met an elderly couple with another questionable sense of humour. “Nice afternoon for a walk”. It wasn’t the funniest line I’d ever heard but they seemed to be in hysterics. Politely I laughed, just a little. They were doubled up. I still didn’t get it. “ I like the socks.” I tried to explain how I was only wearing them to please my wife and yes I was slightly aggrieved that the cost of a pair of socks was considerably less than an iso pod. More laughter. It was time to go.
After briefly walking down a road and crossing the inevitable A35 we entered Wareham Forest. I asked Molly what the difference was between a forest and a wood. She told me that one was managed and one was wild. It sounded a bit like us. After awhile we came upon a sign “Warning. Forest Operations.” I knew that things were bad in the NHS but not that bad! I asked Molly if they would be carried out by tree surgeons. She was not amused. It was time for the music again. Forest grump! Walking along the gravelled track I wondered how Hardy would have gained his inspiration. For he was a great tree lover and this helped him with many of his novels including the Woodlanders. To me they just looked like a lot of uniformed pine trees. Back to the drawing board.
After leaving the forest and passing the hamlet of Hyde and the entrance to the East Dorset Golf Club we had a problem. The guidebook had told us to cross the road and behind a road sign we would find a track. The only track we could see was one that was being constantly frequented by heavy lorries belonging to a sand and gravel merchant. I thought about trying to flag down one of the drivers but I could guess what the response would be. Also the signs were very clear, we were not wanted. There was no footpath here. We paced the busy road trying to find an entrance. And then I heard something that I couldn’t believe. For our second walk running I could hear gunfire. We were outside the Purbeck Shooting School. I never have liked the word “school.” It brings back too many bad memories. I also don’t like the dictionary meaning of a place to learn. Well they weren’t going to learn with me. As the cracks grew louder we made a hasty retreat. On the other side of the road there was also signs of potential danger: The Dorset Gliding Club. Trying to outrun a glider was not an option. Just when we were about to give up we saw a Hardy Way sign. It was on a telegraph pole. Seeing as there was no sign of any nearby paths, it was indicating that the only way was up. With my condition this didn’t seem practical and it wouldn’t be fair on Molly, not with her haversack.
The only option we now had was to walk along the busy road towards Wareham, taking us in the wrong direction, hoping to find a footpath. Over two miles later we were still looking. All we could see were signs warning us of danger and telling children to go play somewhere else. Through the barbed wire we could see why. These weren’t your average sand pits that you find on the beach, this was far more sinister; deep quarries and a serious blot on the landscape. I wondered how Hardy would have felt seeing this savaged land bringing a whole new meaning to what he called “the blasted heath.” As we hogged the kerb with high speed lorries whistling by I was grateful for my red socks, at least I could be seen. Even a sign saying “Heavy plant crossing” normally guaranteed to raise a smile failed to raise my spirits. We were only two miles from Wareham when we eventually reached a country lane that would take us in the right direction.
The last part of our journey was painfully slow. Our planned 9-mile afternoon walk in the spring sunshine had turned into something a lot longer. As we inched our way into Wool along our unexpected route the daylight just like us was fading fast. In the gathering gloom we passed over the stone bridge. By the side of the water meadows stands Woolbridge Manor, known as Wellbridge Manor in Tess of the D’Urbevilles where she spent her ill-fated honeymoon. A cold mist descended as a coach drove by forcing me to take drastic action. I was sweeping Molly off her feet. Not for the first time she could not understand me. She was adamant there was no coach. The omens were not good.
We had one more stop to make. It seemed that every time I passed through Wool I would have to wait at the crossing for a train to pass. Today was no exception. As we waited I thought of the times when I was on the train hearing the announcement “Change here for Bovington Camp and Lulworth Cove.” I could see all these people taking off their clothes and putting on their camouflage outfits or bathing costumes. It always made me laugh. It still does. How sad. I then thought of how travel by train would have been different in Thomas Hardy’s time. In 1847 the rail line reached Dorchester. A staggering 5.000 miles of track were laid across the country by the end of the year. In those days the trains were prone to long delays and shady characters. No change there then! Eventually the train rolled into the station. From one of the carriages an immaculately dressed elderly man was hanging out of the window. It was the image of a very famous man. Was it? Wasn’t it? Surely it wasn’t my imagination playing tricks again. And then with an outstretched walking stick he was pointing at me. I wanted to tell him how I’d read all of his books, how much we were enjoying the walk, that I was sorry but it wasn’t really our fault that we hadn’t been stuck to The Hardy Way and could I please have his autograph. Before I could though the great man was saying something to me. Yes to me. “ I love the red socks!”
Article first appeared in The Register March 2006
Footsteps Part 3
Holy Rood Church, Wool
A tranquil scene at Wool