Wednesday, 13 January 2016

South Wessex - January 2016

Queen Victoria's bed in The Charlotte Suite at the Ilchester Arms, Abbotsbury
As a birthday treat, we went in search of Dorset and its literary sights. 

We arrived in Abbotsbury, which writer Thomas Hardy called Abbotsbeach or Abbotsea. We drove down a hill as the sun was setting, impressed by the panorama. A hill was capped by St Catherine’s Chapel where single women prayed for husbands in medieval times. The chapel overlooks the pale stone village and the famous Abbotsbury Swannery, founded by monks who ate swan. Below, the ancient village is set off by one of the geological wonders of England, a long, barren, gravel beach which Hardy called Pebble Beach. 

View from space of Chesil Beach, its lagoons and Portland 
This is Chesil Beach, an eighteen miles long 'storm beach', which appears as straight as an arrow on aerial photos. It even appears on national weather maps. It was thrown up by the sea several thousand years ago. It is not a true a 'tombolo' but creates lagoons. We stayed in Queen Victoria’s suite (The Charlotte Suite) at The Ilchester Arms and ate fish, caught fresh from West Bay. It is said that Queen Victoria stayed for two days in this delightful suite, while her carriage was being mended. The bed is fit for a Queen. Having walked on Chesil Beach, we set off for Weymouth, Hardy's Budmouth Regis, the scene of a drowning in one of his most gripping short stories. With its gently shelving sandy beach, Weymouth was once a royal 'riviera', where (later ‘mad’) George III and his family spent many happy summers. Old Weymouth has two charming halves. One has a long elegant frontage with many fine and elegant old houses overlooking a fine sandy beach. The other part is a working harbour worthy of Cornwall, with tall ships and trawlers. It is worthy of Cornwall.

My husband with tall ship in old Weymouth harbour

Delightful old harbour at Weymouth
We drove across Chesil Beach to the Isle of Portland and to its lighthouse at Portland Bill. The fine white stone for Whitehall (London Government buildings), Buckingham Palace and the British Museum was taken from this spot.  There is a stretch around Portland Bill even called 'Whitehall'. The ceremonial centre of our nation is actually Dorset's coastline....

Hardy’s novels recreate the old Saxon kingdom of Wessex. It is much larger than one assumes.  It includes Devon (Lower Wessex), Somerset (Outer Wessex), Berkshire (North Wessex), Wiltshire (Mid Wessex), Hampshire (Upper Wessex) and Dorset (South Wessex). Hardy invented 300 place names for actual places. South Wessex, old Dorset, did not, until the late 20th century include Poole and Bournemouth. Bournemouth was Hardy’s Sandbourne which used to be in Hampshire. Both Poole and Bournemouth now stand within Dorset’s country boundaries.  Half the entire population of modern Dorset (0.5m) lives in this pleasant urban sprawl with the rest living in old Dorset's small towns, and in scattered rural homesteads.  One gets an impression from high points overlooking majestic Poole Harbour at night of one half of the vast harbour being entirely lit (the Poole-Bournemouth conurbation) and the other half completely dark (old Dorset). I sense that old Dorset is largely unchanged since Hardy's day. He would be very satisfied that it has largely defied modernity to this day.

View from the Isle of Portland of Chesil Beach
Dorset County Museum
We visited remarkable Dorset County Museum in Dorchester, Hardy’s Casterbridge. Hardy spent his latter years in ‘Max Gate’ a house that he designed himself situated just outside town. Hardy left his study to the County Museum with its furniture and books, including the fireplace into which he would gaze late at night, meditating on life and Fate, while Emma Gifford, his first wife retreated into her refuge in the attic.  
Thomas Hardy's study in Dorchester Museum

Thomas Hardy's mother's old muslin dress dating from around 1860 has been preserved in the Museum. It seems so fresh it could have been taken from a Hardy film. Next to it, a rarely seen photo of Hardy's mother Jemima Hardy with baby Thomas. 

Jemima Hardy's beautiful dress in Dorchester Museum

How a Dorset woman, married to a builder, could own a thing of such beauty, this lovely, delicate dress, seems improbable - but amazing.  The Hardy family cottage is at Higher Bockhampton, well outside Dorchester. It seems so far away that Thomas Hardy’s daily boyhood walk, to and from his Dorchester school, seems almost impossible. Yet Hardy did it, often walking home across fields in the dark. Walking across country in the dark, often figures in his stories. There is no wild Egdon Heath which Hardy imagined near the cottage in Bockhampton - Mellstock. He said Egdon Heath was a spiritual place relating to mankind rather than a real place. Wareham Forest which is quite near, is an apt substitute for Egdon Heath.

Jemima Hardy with baby Thomas

Thomas Hardy, Dorset's leading novelist and poet

Roman Dorset

Before it was Wessex, Dorset had belonged to a Celtic tribe, the Durotriges. This tribe was conquered by Vespasian and his Second Legion Augusta in AD 47. By 70 AD the tribe was thoroughly Romanised. By then, Vespasian with his son, Titus, conquered rebellious Judea and Jerusalem (an event predicted by Jesus). Vespasian became a rather good Roman Emperor and built the Colloseum in Rome. Italian urinals are named after him to this day. The Celtic bastion of Maiden Castle, which Hardy called Mai Dun, is still a huge earthwork outside Dorchester. The Romans built the usual garrison and amphitheatre nearby (its earthworks are intact) and bought the allegiance of local Celtic leaders. Dorset County Museum is home to some of Dorset's stunning Roman mosaic floors from its villas. There are Christian symbols in Roman floors across Dorset, which include fish, crosses and early Chi-Ro symbol of Christianity.  

Many fine Roman floors are inset in Dorchester Museum

One of the clearly Christian Roman floors in Dorset
We stayed in Alistair Sawday-recommended Goldcourt House in Wareham, Hardy's Anglebury which has Saxon rampart walls. Wareham was once an important Saxon port but the sea has now retreated leaving it landlocked, apart from the River Frome.

The Isle of Purbeck
The Isle of Purbeck is a hilly peninsula on which is located historic but ruined Corfe Castle, possibly Hardy's Stancy Castle. Next to it is romantic Corfe, a perfect stone village. We saw Swanage, or Knollsea, as Hardy called it, and the fine views around beautiful and uplifting Studland Bay.  

King Harry Rocks in the distance of sunny Studland Bay
From here, we crossed to Poole, Hardy’s Havenpool, by chain ferry to Sandbanks, Britain's 'Palm Beach' to which millionaires retire owning prime real estate, possibly sailing a lot in Poole Harbour. We admired Brownsea Island which the National Trust has preserved intact for wildlife, as a haven for red squirrels.  There was a medieval castle on Brownsea Island now disguised as a stately home. The island can be visited but the castle is not open. 
View from the chain ferry to Sandbanks, with Bournemouth in the far right distance.
Romsey in modern Hampshire (Upper Wessex) is Hardy’s Deansleigh. It boasts a perfect Norman Abbey built in 1120, by Henry Ist, son of William the Conqueror.  
Norman Romsey Abbey built in 1120

It also offers a lovely 12th century house named after King John - perfect for my birthday coffee.
Going for my birthday morning coffee

Acknowledgements and short bibliography
Thanks to my cousin for information about key places to visit 
  • "Discover Dorset: The Romans" by Bill Putnam
  • "Thomas Hardy - The Time-Torn Man" Clare Tomalin (excellent biography of Thomas Hardy)
  • Charles G. Harper. The Hardy Country - literary landmarks of the Hardy novels (London, A. & C. Black, 1904).
  • R. Thurston Hopkins & E. Harries (ill.). Thomas Hardy's Dorset. (New York: D. Appleton and co. 1922).
  • Hermann Lea. Thomas Hardy's Wessex (London, Macmillan and co. 1911).
  • Ralph Pite. Hardy's geography: Wessex and the regional novel. (Palgrave, 2002).
  • The English composer John Ireland (1879–1972) wrote the tone poem Mai-Dun, A Symphonic Rhapsody adopting Hardy's name for Maiden Castle. In 1931, Ireland arranged his piece for piano four hands.
  • For low cost hotel rooms in January) try the Expedia website


  1. I always enjoy reading your travel writing. You should be writing for the weekend papers. Good stuff. Alison G

    1. I noted a book in our local library on travel writing which you have encouraged me to read. I would like to do it, but finding time is the difficulty. I am like you attracted to novels but in fact I may be better at the travel genre. I love guiding tours....and events. Very kind.