Thomas Hardy Country – the Best Spots to Visit

West Dorset is renowned for being the late, great Thomas Hardy’s (author of Tess of the D’urbervilles, Far From the Madding Crowd, and the Mayor of Casterbridge) birthplace and of course, where his books were based, set in the semi fictional world of Wessex.

Although the places that appear in his novels actually exist, in many cases he gave the place a fictional name. For example, Hardy’s home town of Dorchester is called Casterbridge in his books, notably in The Mayor of Casterbridge. In an 1895 preface to his novel Far From the Madding Crowd he described Wessex as “a merely realistic dream country”.

Words in italics are the names Hardy has given these places in his books. 

Hardy was born in Lower Bockhampton Lower Mellstock just on the outskirts of Dorchester, where his house is nestled in Thorncombe Woods and is owned by the National Trust, so this is a must do!  The Old School house is also in this hamlet, and Hardy was possibly one of the  first pupils to attend, it was also where Fancy Day was a Teacher in ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’.

Hardy was educated in Dorchester before moving to London to enrol in King’s College.  He never felt at home in London, so returned to Dorset, where he married and moved into Max Gate,  where he also later returned and died.  This was a house designed by Hardy and built by his brother. It is amazing and is again owned by the National Trust, so it’s open to the public.

Max Gate is also where he wrote Far from the Madding Crowd, which is the first time he introduced Wessex into his novels.  Wessex is the region in the south west in which his novels were set.  This novel was so successful that Hardy was able to give up his architectural work.  Lucky fella!

So, for this actual tour of Hardy Country these are the places I recommend you revisit from Hardy’s novels:

Maiden Newton Chalk Newton appears in the ‘Tess of the D’urbervilles’ books and at the site of Flintcomb Ash Farm is where Tess worked after Angel left her.

Cerne Abbas Abbot’s Cernel .  This is also home to the famous 180 foot hillside Giant carved into the chalk, which is always worth a visit anyway!  It’s a lovely quintessentially English village lying in the valley of the River Cerne (are you getting where the names of the cottages and lodges came from now?) 

This is also where Mrs Dollery was driving to in ‘The Woodlanders’ and the great barn in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ bears resemblance to the architectural features of ancient tithe-barn in the village.

Dorchester Casterbridge which of course is the prime location of the ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’.  The town that was the centrepoint of much of Hardy’s life is still as picturesque as it is represented in his book – its market, its Corn Exchange and the Kings Arms Hotel (on High East Street; currently closed for refurbishment) all crop up in the book itself.  Located at the Top o’ Town is the Hardy memorial statue sculpted by Eric Kennington and unveiled in 1931 by Hardy’s friend Sir James Barrie

There are two plaques at 39 South Street (opposite the entrance of Hardye Arcade) which mark the home and office of John Hicks,the architect with whom Hardy worked between 1856 and 1862.  William Barnes,the Dorset poet friend and mentor of Hardy, lived and kept his school next door.  His memorial statue stands outside St.Peter’s Church next to the Dorset County Museum.

Henchard’s House in ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ is described as “one of the best, faced with dull red and grey old brick”. Barclays Bank in South Street is the reputed location of the house.

Maiden Castleis a 45 minute walk from Dorchester where visitors can make the most of the elevated viewof the surrounding country that the archaeologists enjoy in Hardy’s short story “”A Tryst at an Ancient Earthwork”.  Thomas Hardy wrote of the hill fort as ” ‘˜Mai'”Dun,’ ‘˜The Castle of the Great Hill,’

Maumbury Rings located on the southern outskirts of the town centre just beyond the market is a good example of a Roman amphitheatre.  It was the scene of Henchard’s secret meetings in ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’.

Dorset County Museum is where you can see Thomas Hardy’s papers and the contents of his Max Gate study as they were bequeathed to the Museum in 1938 and is part of the award winning writer’s gallery.

Puddletown Weatherbury is where ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ was set. Hardy took inspiration from its 12th century church St Mary’s, so it is definitely worth a look around.  The Grade I-listed Waterston Manor, 17th century in origin, but extensively rebuilt after a fire in 1863, is thought to have been the direct inspiration for Bathsheba’s troubled Weatherbury Farm.

Beaminster Emminster– which is our closest town, is very picturesque and was the home of Angel Clare and is also described as “the hillsurrounded little town” with “the Tudor church-tower of red stone” in ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’.

In Bere Regis is the Church in ‘Tess of the D’urbervilles’.  After Tess’ father’s death, the Durbeyfield family take refuge outside the Chapel. 

Trantridge is the site of the d’Urberville estate and is actually Pentridge in Dorset.  

Marnhull Marlott is where Tess grows up and returns in shame to give birth to Alec’s child,

Bere Regis Kingsbere-sub-Greenhill.  This ancient village was the home of the d’Urberville family in Tess of the d’Urbervilles based on the real life family of the Turbervilles. It was also was described by Hardy as “the decayed old town” in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’. The annual sheep fair was colourfully described as “the busiest, merriest, noisiest” of them all. 

In West Stafford Froom-Everard stands the church of St Andrew’s in the village that was the apparent setting for Tess and Angel Clare’s marriage in ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’. Lower Lewell Farm, which is located outside of  the village is the most likely location for ‘Talbothays Dairy’. 

Portesham Pos’ham A pleasant village where Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy lived until 1807. It was also used in ‘The Trumpet Major’ when Bob Loveday visited Captain Hardy to ask if he could serve on the Victory. Hardy’s Monument which is a tribute to Admiral Hardy, is a popular viewpoint above the village and provides almost 360 degree views. It would have been visible from Hardy’s bedroom window on a clear day.

Milton Abbey Middleton Abbey near Blandford Forum is now a school, appears in ‘The Woodlanders’ (allegedly the Author’s favourite of his books).  This is where Grace’s errant husband Edred Fitzpiers visits his mistress Felice Charmond.  When Giles and Grace meet to attempt to rekindle their love after Fitzpiers’s infidelity is uncovered, they do so at Sherton Abbas – a religious structure which (and as you will see) the magnificent Sherborne Abbey.

Melbury Osmond Great and Kings Hintock.  This quiet and unspoilt village is where Hardy’s parents were married in 1839 and the marriage certificate can be seen framed on the wall in the church.  At the end of the footpath, as you go through the churchyard, is a thatched house where Hardy’s mother is thought to have lived as a child.  The church features in the final scene of ‘The Woodlanders’, where Marty South stands loyally alone at Giles Winterborne’s grave.

Evershot  Evershead  Little in this village has changed since Hardy’s time.  It appears in ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’,on her journey to and from Emminster, where Tess stops for refreshments at a cottage, located west of the church and that is named after her. The ‘Sow and Acorn’ (Acorn Inn) is mentioned in both ‘A Group of Noble Dames’ and ‘Interlopers at the Knap’.

Puddletown Weatherbury.  Puddletown is nestled in the Piddle Valley (you can giggle) and is surrounded, typically for West Dorset, rolling hills and woodland.  Hardy’s relations, particularly his grandfather and great-grandfather came from the village. The church is memorable for its fine west gallery which is home to a long tradition of music making which Hardy celebrated in ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’. Fanny Robin was buried in the churchyard and Troy sheltered from the rain in the church porch in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’.

Athelhampton Athelhall.  Athelhampton is a magnificent manor house dating from the 15th Century with award winning gardens. Thomas Hardy’s father was a builder and was involved in restoration works to the Great Hall and West Wing roofs in the 19th Century, and this is when Hardy first visited Athelhampton and painted a watercolour of the gatehouse, which was demolished in 1862.  He was also having lunch here with Alfred Cart de Lafontaine when news broke that World War I had been declared.

The Church of St John’s in Athelhampton was built whilst Hardy was working with the Dorchester architect John Hicks and Hardy’s cousin worked at the school opposite. Hardy’s short story ‘The Waiting Supper’ is set in the house and grounds, the poem ‘The Children’ and ‘Sir Nameless’ refers to the tombs of the Martyns who built Athelhampton in 1485 and he also wrote a sad poem ‘The Dame of Athelhall’.  This beautiful house which is a must visit, and which also hosts my most favourite Food Festival is open to the public so do take advantage of this.

Stinsford  Mellstock  is a small hamlet with a medieval church

was loved by Hardy and features in ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ and some poems.  Hardy was christened at St Michael’s Church.  This is really bittersweet, as Hardy wanted to be buried in Stinsford where his wives Emma, Florence and other members of the family were also buried.  But, only his heart is buried here, as the rest of Hardy’s ashes are interred in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, against his wishes. 

Kingston Maurward House Knapwater House When younger Hardy regularly visited this grand house and gardens and referred to the house in ‘Desperate Remedies’. The gardens and animal park are open to the public.  There is an admission charge.   It is worth a visit as it is the Agricultural college too, so is fantastic for visiting animals too.

Filming of Novels and their locations.

One of my most common sayings is ‘West Bay, did you watch Broadchurch’?  Well, here are the locations of some of Hardy’s novels that were actually filmed in the area.

The ITV version of The Mayor of Casterbridge, which was screened in 2003, starring Ciaran Hinds 😉 was filmed at various locations including Maiden Castle, Cerne Abbas and Charmouth. 

Cerne Abbas and Mintere Gardens were used in the 1998 ITV production of Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The 1967 film adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd starring Alan Bates and Julie Christie were filmed at Maiden Castle , Max Gate and the wedding scene was filmed in the 14th Century Tithe Barn at Abbotsbury.