Dorset houses: ‘Where the dead feet walked in’
Hardy’s Birthplace, near Dorchester, is rich in atmosphere and interest, as John Newth has been discovering. Jim Tampin took the photographs.
Published in October ’13
In about 1800, a local stonemason and builder rented from the Kingston Maurward estate a small patch of land among the scattered dwellings and small farms that made up Higher Bockhampton, and there he built himself a two-up, two-down cottage of cob under a thatched roof. He was called Thomas Hardy. The name would become known across the world thanks to his grandson, the novelist and poet, whose first literary works were composed in that little cottage on the edge of Thorncombe Wood. It is the subject of his earliest surviving poem, written in his late teens, which starts:
‘It faces west, and round the back and sides
High beeches, bending, hang a veil of boughs,
And sweep against the roof…’
Grandfather Hardy died in 1837 but his widow, Mary, was to live for another twenty years in an extension that her son, named Thomas after his father, built onto the side of the cottage. This 19th-century version of a granny annexe consisted of a living room with a tiny bedroom above, reached by an almost vertical ladder, which says something about the toughness and agility of Mary, who lived into her eighties.
The extension also provided a further bedroom, which became necessary because in 1839 Thomas seduced Jemima Hand, a young woman in service at the vicarage in nearby Stinsford. They married in haste at the end of 1839 and the child was born in June of the following year. In keeping with family tradition, he was christened Thomas. Mary was born the next year, then there was a gap to Henry, born in 1851, and Kate, who arrived in 1856. Although a servant, Jemima was well-educated and was fiercely ambitious for her children to better themselves. She was something of a harridan, whose temper worsened after a serious miscarriage between Mary and Henry, but Thomas was devoted to her and every week after 1885, when he moved to Max Gate, would walk or cycle over to the cottage to see her.
The place was to have a powerful influence on him to the end of his life. Even after his mother died in 1904, he continued to pay the rent for another seven years until his brother and sisters moved out to a house he had bought for them at West Stafford, and for two years after that. He visited regularly and established a tradition of walking in the woods behind the cottage every year on his birthday. In 1913, the property returned to the Kingston Maurward estate and passed through a number of hands before being bequeathed to the National Trust in 1948.
At Hardy’s Birthplace, to use its official name, not only can devotees of his work see where he wrote Desperate Remedies, Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd, they can stand in the very room where he was born and absorb something of the atmosphere that shaped his character and his thinking. They can see the floor inside what was originally the door (replaced by a window when the cottage was extended), whose worn flagstones inspired ‘The Self-Unseeing’, a poem that aches with nostalgia for his childhood here. Its first stanza:
‘Here is the ancient floor,
Footworn and hollowed and thin,
Here was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.’
Those ‘footworn’ flags are in the parlour, the first room today’s visitor enters, where Thomas would sit by the fire and no doubt listen to the tales that his parents and grandmother told. Next is his father’s office: he continued the building and stonemasonry business, doing a lot of work for the Kingston Maurward estate. He was clearly successful, the two men he employed in 1851 having grown to eight by 1871.
At the back of the study, at the foot of the stairs, is a small barred window to which those employees would come to collect their wages. There was no question of them coming inside, and it represents one of the things that makes the house so interesting even to those with no taste for Hardy’s writing: it is a powerful reminder both of class distinctions and of living conditions in the middle of the 18th century. Certainly Thomas was acutely aware of the nuances of status in a rural society, an awareness which informs his early novels in particular. In such a society the Hardys were by no means at the bottom of the heap, yet six of them living in the main part of the cottage must have meant crowding and lack of privacy almost inconceivable to a modern generation. The small bedroom at the top of the stairs, for example, was the girls’, although as Mary was fifteen years older than Kate and went off to Salisbury to train as a teacher, they may not have shared it very often. Next is the parents’ bedroom, the room where Thomas was born: the midwife thought he was stillborn and put him to one side to attend to Jemima, noticing only some minutes later that he was showing signs of life. In a crib in this room is a wooden snake, a reminder of the possibly apocryphal tale that Jemima one day found an adder curled up alongside the sleeping infant Thomas.
The last bedroom on the wavy-floored upper storey was shared by Thomas and Henry, and it was here that Thomas wrote on a rather rickety-looking table. The original table is in the Dorset County Museum, but a replica stands under the window. Seeing the room, and knowing that he shared it with a no doubt energetic and boisterous teenage brother, only increases admiration for his achievement. The window of the bedroom looks out onto a near-perfect English cottage garden, but when Hardy was writing here, it was his father’s builder’s yard. Tiles and other debris are still being dug up in the garden, which Hardy himself helped to design later in his life, and which today is immaculately maintained by volunteers and a once-a-week gardener.
The experience of visiting Hardy’s Birthplace will be greatly improved by the visitor’s centre, currently under construction and due to open next summer. It is being built by the car park, which is a ten-minute walk from the cottage (although cars with disabled stickers can drive right up to it). The centre will provide practical facilities like lavatories and a tea room, which cannot be accommodated at the cottage, and a large space with information displays about Hardy and the property. This room will also be suitable for talks and for use by community groups and school parties. The building will serve equally as an information centre for Thorncombe Wood, which is owned by Dorset CC. In fact it is being built on the site of an existing depot used by the Dorset Countryside Service, who will have a workshop, office and store in the new centre. The cost is being borne by both the National Trust and Dorset CC, helped by contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other grant-awarding bodies. It will be a long, low building, clad in natural materials sourced wherever possible from Thorncombe Wood, and is designed to be environmentally friendly in operation. Thomas Hardy would probably have been rather grumpy about such a building in his beloved ‘Upper Mellstock,’ but once he had come to terms with the idea, he would surely have approved.