Excerpts from 2,000 word article

THOMAS HARDY'S WESSEX



by Pam Hobbs

Dorset, England: I guess I should have expected the unexpected when lodged at an eleventh century hotel calling itself The New Inn. Still I wasn't prepared to be awakened soon after dawn by a band of merry-makers who had been atop a hill celebrating fertility rites. It was May Day, a date ground into the heart of every Dorset Morris Man who, at sunrise, gleefully dances around a maypole above the erotic Cerne Abbas Giant cut into the chalky hill. That done they frolic in procession through the village, clashing sticks, jingling bells, waving handkerchiefs, all to please Mother Earth.

Because so much of Hardy's life and work centred around the town of Dorchester (Casterbridge in his novels) I had tried to get a hotel room there, but all were taken. And so I came to Cerne Abbas (Abbot's Cernel) where the author used to visit his sister Mary, and probably The New Inn.....

Thomas Hardy was born in this county he fictionalized as Wessex, and died here at age 87. Celebrated as he was during his lifetime, his writing attracts even more ardent fans today. You will bump into them often in and around Dorchester, where they wander the streets open book in hand, seeking out Hardy sites. At his former home I came across two women in the garden. Seated on a bench where the author was photographed with the Prince of Wales, one unabashedly read aloud to the other. Television series and movies adapted from Hardy's work have evoked interest.

True-blue devotees travel from as far away as Japan to attend the International Thomas Hardy Conference held in Dorchester every two years. Year-round The Thomas Hardy Society sponsors walks, lectures, picnic lunches and poetry readings in scenic locations familiar to his readers. The society also distributes pamphlets listing important sites in and around Dorchester, with the fictional names in brackets for easy identification.

To start at the beginning means a trip to the thatched cottage in Higher Bockhampton (Upper Mellstock) five kilometres (3 mi) from Dorchester, where baby Thomas was born on June 2 1840 His was a dramatic entry into the world. The doctor pronounced him stillborn, but an alert nurse knew otherwise. As the little mite was cast aside, she exclaimed: "Dead. Stop a minute. He's alive enough, sure." And so he was, growing into a quiet, studious child by all accounts. In this cottage, reached by a woodland footpath, schoolboy Tom would read for hours on a window seat in the bedroom shared with his brother. The highly successful Far from the Madding Crowd, and the earlier Under The Greenwood Tree were written here.

DORCHESTER, the county capital of Dorset, is 196 km (122 mi) south west of London. For more information on Hardy's Wessex drop by any of the local tourist offices throughout Dorset.