The Dorset walk – Hardy Country
John Newth and Dan Bold in a landscape that would have been very familiar to the young Hardy
Published in March ’15
The fields and woods that Thomas Hardy knew so well as a child are today bisected by the A35 Tolpuddle and Puddletown bypass, whose sights and sounds are inevitable companions for some of this walk, but there are still plenty of the quiet places to be explored on a route through a gently undulating landscape.
Hardy was born in a little cottage which is passed near the end of the walk on the edge of Thorncombe Wood, itself part of the larger Puddletown Forest. Hardy lived in the cottage until he went to London as a young man, and Desperate Remedies, Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd were all written there. Even if you are not an enthusiast for Hardy, the cottage provides a fascinating glimpse into the lifestyle of a middle class family in rural Dorset in the middle of the 19th century and is well worth a visit: for opening times etc, see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hardys-cottage.
Puddletown Forest itself is owned by the Forestry Commission and is a mixture of conifers and deciduous trees. It is justifiably popular with walkers, joggers and cyclists and if you have the time, the energy and the confidence that you can find your way back, there is plenty of scope for diversions off the main path.
The middle section of the walk leads into Puddletown, Hardy’s ‘Weatherbury’, whose immutability he loved: ‘In London, twenty or thirty years ago are old times; in Paris ten years, or five; in Weatherbury three or four score years were included in the mere present, and nothing less than a century set a mark on its face or tone.’ (Far from the Madding Crowd.) Although that could no longer be said in the hectic world of the 21st century, the bypass has allowed Puddletown to rediscover its character and a degree of quietness.
Distance: About 7 miles
Terrain: Mostly good underfoot. No significant climbs.
Start: Thorncombe Wood car park. OS reference SY726921. Postcode DT2 8QH.
How to get there: From the A35 turn south at the western end of the dual carriageway, about 1¾ miles east of Dorchester, signed to Higher Bockhampton and Lower Bockhampton. Pass Mellstock Farm on the left and take the next turning on the left, then turn right in front of the Hardy’s Birthplace Visitor Centre.
Maps: OS Explorer OL15 (Purbeck & South Dorset), OS Landranger 194 (Dorchester & Weymouth).
Refreshments: Hardy’s Birthplace Visitor Centre & Cafe is a short walk from Hardy’s Cottage and the Blue Vinny in Puddletown is about ¼ mile off the route.
1 Walk back out of the car park, turn left by the Visitor Centre and walk up to the lane. Turn left and in 90 yards right through a metal gate onto a track. Where the track swings right into a field, go straight ahead into another field. Walk down the right-hand edge and in the first corner go over a stile next to the right-hand of two gates. Bear right to a stile in the top edge of the field, just to the left of where the hedgerow becomes much thicker. Bear definitely right again, crossing a track on the brow of the hill, with a view of Kingston Maurward House away to the left. Once over the brow, aim to pass about 50 yards to the right of the nearest group of trees, which is immediately downhill. Continue in the same direction to reach the right-hand edge of the field, and follow it until a metal gate comes into view on the other side of the now narrow field. A path beyond leads to the main road.
2 Go directly (and carefully) across, and up a drive with a ‘no through road’ sign. In the middle of the buildings of Higher Kingston Farm, where the drive forks, take the right fork and continue as the track leaves the buildings behind, becomes unpaved and runs up a shallow valley with open fields on the left and woodland on the hillside to the right. Pass a black corrugated iron building on the left and follow the track past two more fields on the left into a third field. Cross this field, turn left and follow its top edge all the way along to a gate onto a road. Turn right, and in about 15 yards right again, down a track. This section is sometimes enclosed and sometimes open, sometimes a track and sometimes a path. Follow it for about a mile to a mobile phone mast on the left and, in about a further ¼ mile, keep a sharp eye out for a metal gate on the right.
3 Go through it onto a path, which becomes a track, breasts a hill and descends easily into Puddletown, becoming a path again and then a lane just before it crosses a bridge over the A35. On the other side of the main road, follow an unpaved track beside a playing field on the right up to a road. Turn right, then immediately left on a main road. Walk into Puddletown, and about 20 yards before the traffic lights, turn right up a track that runs up the side of no. 1A. Follow the track to the top of the hill and take the path down the other side, with Puddletown Middle School on the left. Continue ahead along the right-hand side of a field and down a slope to a lane.
4 Turn right. Where the lane bends sharply to the left and another road comes in from the right, walk straight ahead into Puddletown Forest. Stay on the main path, which heads fairly consistently in the same direction. At all cross-paths and junctions, take the straight-ahead option. The only exception is not quite a mile along the path, where an overgrown path leads straight ahead, while the main path bends to the right; the main path to the right is the correct option. The path leads eventually to Hardy’s Cottage. Leave it on the left (or turn left out of the gate once you have visited it) and walk down the track to the Visitor Centre, where turn left, back to the car park. ◗