Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Heart of Thomas Hardy

There are two routes from the car park to Hardy's cottage in Higher Bockhampton.  We took the one that led through Thorncombe Wood,  his birthplace suddenly coming into view between trees and looking very much the rural idyll his tales belie.  




Inside the guide warned me that none of the contents belonged to the Hardy family.  I don't think it matters.  TH left us so much that is of him.  Just open a book.  


And anyhow, the most interesting aspect of the cottage is the fabric of the building, with its humped floorboards and cracked plaster ...  














... and its fiendishly steep back stairs. 















One display solved a 15-year mystery for me.  By ruling out what it wasn't, I had deduced that a skull one of the kids had picked up on Dartmoor was probably once wrapped in badger.  An identically shaped (though possibly slightly larger) one stencilled badger on this shelf confirmed my suspicion. 


The National Trust are in the process of building a visitors centre which means that £4.50 slices of cake and William Morris-patterned trowels will soon be the order of the day.  I was glad we slipped in while entry fees are still collected in a shed and the nearest refreshments are to be found at the Wise Man pub in nearby West Stafford.  Which is where we went next. 


After dinner we went to Hardy's local church, St Michael's in Stintsford.  It was Hardy's wish that he be buried next to his first wife, Emma, who had died a quarter of a century before him, but only his heart made it, the rest of him having been cremated and interred in Westminster Abbey ... 


... unless you believe the story that the doctor's cat ate his heart. (And was subsequently killed and buried in the tomb also.) I prefer not to. If Hardy's heart is anywhere, it is in his poems.   



Also in the tomb with Emma and Hardy's heart, half-eaten or otherwise, lies Florence, TH's second wife - and lover, prior to Emma's death.  It must have been galling for Florence to witness Hardy's grief and the beautiful elegies he wrote for Emma after her sudden death, but I can't help feeling sorry for Emma also.  I'm sure she would have preferred not to share her grave with her husband's mistress.  


I was surprised to spot poet laureate Cecil Day Lewis's grave next to others from Hardy's family, with that of his wife behind.  Apparently CDL was greatly influenced by Hardy and arranged to be buried as close to his tomb as possible. 

Shall I be gone long?  
For ever and a day.
To whom there belong?
Ask the stone to say,
Ask my song.  





In the church a Saxon stone carving - rather more weathered than the one in Flax Bourton - of St Michael vanquishing the dragon ... 

... the Norman font discovered in pieces in the churchyard in the 20th century ... 


... and a striking memorial window to Stinsford's most famous son.  


I liked the sunny serenity of Higher Bockhampton and Stinsford, but it was time to move on to Max Gate, the house near Dorchester which Hardy designed for him and Emma to live in, and where he died.  


I should like Max Gate.  It has an Arts and Crafts feel about it, and was built in a prehistoric landscape.  Hardy wrote 'The Mayor of Casterbridge', 'The Woodlanders', 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles' and 'Jude the Obscure' there, as well as much of his poetry.   


But I didn't. I found it profoundly depressing.  Whether it was the colour scheme - a heavy terracotta almost throughout ... 


... apart from in Emma's attic rooms, which are a dispiriting dark grey ... 


... or a transference of remembered energy from two less than happy marriages ... 


... but I emerged feeling deeply despondent and with the impression of a couple - first, Thomas and Emma, then Thomas and Florence - for ever punishing themselves and each other.  


After a quick visit to the pet cemetry, where, amongst others, Wessex the dog who famously bit almost every distinguished visitor to the house and Snowdove the albino cat who was cut in two by a passing train and inspired the poem 'Last Words to a Dumb Friend' lie buried, we left.  





Time to finish the day by the sea then, except that both Fleet and Abbotsbury seemed to have turned their backs on their respective sections of the coast.  





We had a quick pint in a roadside pub instead, and made do with this view from the B3157, approaching Burton Bradstock.  



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