The best of Dorset in words and pictures

The Dorset walk — Hardy Country

Matt Wilkinson and Mark Bauer in the fields and woods that the great writer knew and loved - Hardy Country

Hardy's grave in Stinsford churchyard, Hardy Country
Hardy’s grave in Stinsford churchyard

Distance: About 7¼ miles

Start In the Thorncombe Wood car park close to Hardy’s Cottage. OS ref SY725922.

How to get there: Turn south off the A35 some 2 miles east of the Kingston Maurward roundabout, signed to Higher and Lower Bockhampton. In about ½ mile turn left by the sign to Hardy’s Cottage and follow the paved road round to the right to reach the car park.

Maps: OS Outdoor Leisure 15 (Purbeck & South Dorset); OS Landranger 194 (Dorchester & Weymouth)

Refreshments: None on the route but Dorchester is close by

Hardy’s Cottage is open from 11 to 5 from Sunday to Thursday from April to October. Admission £3.50 (free to National Trust members).

Except perhaps the Brontes, no English writer is more closely identified than Thomas Hardy with the landscape in which he lived and worked. This walk is a chance to explore the landscape of Hardy’s early life; it takes in his birthplace, the churchyard where his heart is buried
and Talbothays, to which his brother and sisters moved in later life.

The route is a varied mixture of field-paths, water-meadows and woodland, with the pretty village of West Stafford thrown in for good measure. Some of it, alas, has to go through the least attractive outskirts of Dorchester, which even screens of trees cannot disguise. Should we complain, though? The cottage in which Hardy was born would have had no facility but an earth closet outside; we wouldn’t tolerate such primitive arrangements now, but in that case we have to have sewage works and they have to be put somewhere.

As you might expect, the part of the route that stays close to the Frome, and to the many side-streams into which it divides at this part of its course, can be very muddy and demands stout boots and some nimble footwork.

Long Bridge over the Frome, Hardy Country
Long Bridge over the Frome

1.Walk back along the car park’s approach lane, turn left and walk up the hill to the road, where turn left. Ignore the first turning on the right, to Hampton Farm Business Park. Take the next turning on the right, through a metal gate onto a track. In about 250 yards, where the track bends right into a field, turn left through a small metal gate and walk down the right-hand edge of the field beyond. At the bottom of the field, go through the left-hand of two gates and walk straight ahead over the brow of the field and down to a junction with a track by a gate in the far corner. Bear left on the track through the gate and in 40 yards turn right over a stile onto a footpath that runs parallel with a road. Follow the path until it meets a track, where turn left then immediately right onto the road. Walk along the road for 250 yards, past the entrances to Birkin House on the right and Kingston Maurward College on the left.

2.Turn left down a lane signed ‘Stinsford church and village’. Where the lane bends to the left in front of the churchyard gates with their impressive urns on the pillars, carry straight on into the churchyard. Pass the graves of Thomas and his family on the left and, a little further on, the headstone of Cecil Day-Lewis. Leave the churchyard by a gate in the bottom left-hand corner and turn right onto the paved path beyond. In 40 yards, where it bends to the right, continue straight ahead on an unpaved path. Reaching a track junction, turn left, cross a bridge and then turn right to go down the left-hand side of the stream. Cross a tributary of this stream on a footbridge that leads into an open field. Walk along the field with the river on the right. As it curves away, continue straight ahead, following a shallow ditch on the left. At the far end of the field, go straight ahead through a kissing gate and follow the track beyond as it bends to the left. The track leads under the by-pass, then in about 100 yards bends to the right. Here turn left over Long Bridge over the main stream of the Frome.

on the Frome beyond Lewell Mill Farm, Hardy Country
A peaceful scene on the Frome beyond Lewell Mill Farm

3.After the bridge, take the second turning on the left onto a paved road which goes back under the by-pass. At the end of this road, leave behind with some relief the evidence of how Dorchester has changed since Hardy’s day and take an enclosed path that runs to the left of the Dorchester household recycling centre and leads to an open field. Walk up the left-hand edge of the field to a metal gate onto a lane. Turn left and almost immediately right onto a rough track with a beech hedge on the right. Where the track bends to the right, go over the stile straight ahead and bear slightly left to head just to the right of a stretch of wooden fence. Here go through a gap in the hedge and follow the path beyond along a stream that forms the right-hand field-edge. Leave the field by a metal gate on the far side, just to the left of a stone bridge.

4.Turn right on the road beyond and walk down into West Stafford. Follow the road as it bends to the left round St Andrew’s church, passes the thatched bus shelter on the right and bends to the right in front of the village hall, then left. In a further 350 yards turn left into the drive of the Dairy House and immediately right through a metal gate. Cross the field to a double stile just to the left of the middle of the far side. Head for the far left-hand corner of the field beyond; Talbothays is to the right. Cross the stile and walk straight across the next narrow field to a gap in the hedge. Turn left onto the grassy track beyond. Follow it to a stile onto a path that leads between two gardens to a lane.

The field path approaching Talbothays, Hardy Country
The field path approaching Talbothays

5.Turn left, passing Lewell Mill Farm on the left. Cross a bridge and go through the metal gate straight ahead. In the field, bear left to cross a bridge over the stream on the left and walk up to the corner of the hedgerow straight ahead. Now follow the right-hand edge of the field to a metal gate and footbridge on the right. Go straight across the field on the other side of the bridge to a metal gate. Beyond, follow the enclosed track, which can be very muddy. Bear left immediately after the next gate and after the gate after that, cross a bridge. Continue to the next gate, after which the track bends sharply to the left and then to the right. Go through a gate by a farmyard and continue up the unpaved farm drive to reach a road.

6.Turn left on the road and in about 50 yards right over a stile to follow the right-hand edge of a field. Cross a stile just up from the next corner and walk through the rhododendrons to reach a track. Cross the stile immediately on the left and follow the path through the wood.
For almost all the rest of the way to Hardy’s Cottage, follow what looks unmistakably like the main path: it really is quite difficult to become confused if you stick to this principle. There is a small clearing with two paths running to the left and one to the right; here take the second one on the left. At Rainbarrow, where the landscape opens out on the right, bear left and continue down the path. Reaching a T-junction of paths, turn left down to a stile with a pond on the left. Here continue straight ahead. At the next T-junction, turn right down to Hardy’s Cottage. Turn left round the end of the building and the visitors’ entrance is on the left a little way down the track. Continue down the track until it reaches a lane. Turn left and walk back to the car park.

The path to Hardy's Cottage, Hardy Country
The path to Hardy’s Cottage

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