â€œDo you mind me prattling on like this?â€ Tony Fincham asks as we descend through a wood of beech and chestnuts to Thomas Hardyâ€™s cottage. Weâ€™ve just set out on an eight-mile walk through the Dorset landscape of Far From the Madding Crowd and the alert, encyclopedic Fincham â€“ chairman of the Thomas Hardy Society â€“ is firing on all cylinders.
Like so many walks, even those following 19th-century novelists, ours began in a car park, in this case at Thorncombe Wood, from where we are heading for the thatched cottage in Upper Bockhampton where Hardy was born. We clamber over a locked gate and bemoan the fact that the National Trust property is not only closed during the winter (it opens in May) but also uninhabited. Peering through the window, I wonder why they donâ€™t let a writer take up residence in exchange for a bit of DIY. Fincham points to the middle upstairs window, identifying the room where Hardy wrote Far From the Madding Crowd. I find it hard to make any connection between the empty cottage and the pastoral soap opera in which Bathsheba Everdene, a feisty woman farmer, is caught between three very different suitors â€“ the shepherd Gabriel Oak, the soldier Sergeant Troy and the gentleman-farmer Mr Boldwood.
In a pretentious moment, one might call Hardy a writer of terroir. The geographical canvas of his books was Wessex â€“ a land based on real places, local characters and legends, and the looming natural world. So Iâ€™ve always felt his Dorset backyard would make for the ideal literary walk. Far From the Madding Crowd, while lacking the tragic grandeur of Tess, Jude or The Woodlanders, is the first novel to refer to Wessex by name. It is a dramatic story about country life, featuring sheep that eat the wrong kind of grass, lovers collecting honey from the hive and hay ricks being rescued from fire and storm.
We press on and the pastoral mood is interrupted for a while by the screaming torrent that is the A35 dual carriageway. But even so, for outsiders such as Fincham, who works as a GP in Kent, the landscape is full of exciting remnants of Hardyâ€™s imagination. Once past the hurtling traffic, he leads us on to the old road where Gabriel Oak is walking one February evening, 50 pages into the novel. Oak spies a parked wagon, curls up and goes to sleep only to wake and find it in motion. In true Hardy style â€“ character is fate, after all â€“ he is transported back into Bathshebaâ€™s life.
We veer off to the left, past a cottage with a couple of handsome pigs and up a steep track through Yellowham (Yalbury in the novel) Wood. The road noise melts away and our senses become attuned to nature â€“ mounds of rusty leaves, thick moss, gorse bushes with tiny yellow flowers, ivy-choked trees, and up above through their lifeless grey limbs, fragments of blue sky. Itâ€™s beautiful but somehow too picturesque to feel like Hardy country. We emerge from the trees on to a ridgeway that presents a very different scene â€“ a gently rolling but almost desolate landscape, save for a herd of black and white cattle lit gently by the winter sun.
Half an hour later, weâ€™re passing through the archway of Waterston Manor, the model for Bathshebaâ€™s farmhouse. The grade I listed property was bought three years ago for more than Â£4m and the owner â€“ who Fincham says is a Hardy fan â€“ has given us permission to tramp round the garden. Itâ€™s far grander than the house Iâ€™d imagined and that Troy â€“ by now Bathshebaâ€™s husband â€“ dismisses as â€œrambling and gloomyâ€. We push on to Druce Farm â€“ Boldwoodâ€™s supposed house â€“ pausing to debate where the sheep-dipping scene might have taken place. Fincham points out a small business inspired by the novel, so we stop and talk to the local couple building luxury shepherdsâ€™ huts â€“ available for a non-rustic Â£8,900 â€“ before heading on to St Maryâ€™s church, Puddletown, where Troy buries his lover, Fanny Robin.
Over a baguette at The Blue Vinny in Puddletown, Fincham tells me about his forthcoming book, Hardyâ€™s Landscape Revisited. He argues that Hardy always intended readers to come and visit the locations: â€œHardy generated Wessex as a brand and an area that was distinctly his own and that you could visit.â€ But do readers benefit from coming? â€œYes, you gain something [when] you can see the house where such and such happens. Of course they are fictional characters â€“ you mustnâ€™t get too carried away.â€ I bring up the 1895 preface to Far From the Madding Crowd in which Hardy described Wessex as a â€œpartly real, partly dream countryâ€ and warns people like us from going overboard: â€œThe dream-country has, by degrees, solidified into a utilitarian region which people can go to, take a house in, and write to the papers from.â€ Ouch! â€œBut I ask all good and idealistic readers to forget thisâ€¦â€ Fincham thinks he is being tongue in cheek but Iâ€™m not so sure.
Weâ€™re on the home straight now, marching across what used to be Egdon Heath, which has now been planted with conifers by the Forestry Commission. Another blow to Hardy landscapists, I think. Fincham points at something to our right â€“ a swallet hole, he exclaims. It is a natural crater several metres deep, almost round and encircled by bracken. This phenomenon is the setting for the novelâ€™s most memorable chapter, suggestively titled The Hollow Amid the Ferns, in which Troy puts on a show of swordplay for Bathsheba that leaves her flushed, guilty and infatuated. And for once, seeing Hardyâ€™s inspiration does fleetingly evoke the intimacy of Troyâ€™s seduction.
We pass Hardyâ€™s cottage again, completing the circle, and are soon saying our farewells in the car park. Itâ€™s been a bracing day, full of Hardy banter, with the delightful coda of the swallet hole. But driving away, it strikes me that looking for Hardy in the hills of Dorset is like seeking David Lynchâ€™s Twin Peaks in the forests of Washington State. These are worlds, after all, out of dreams.
This piece appeared in the Financial Times magazine on April 3 2010