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Hardy's Dorset

A Bit of England in Miniature

Thomas Hardy's cottage near Dorchester

Thomas Hardy said it and I think he was right: it is better to know a little bit of the world remarkably well than to know a great part of the world remarkably little.

Hardy was referring to writers, but his advice could apply as well to travelers who want to do more than cut notches on their carry-ons as they systematically visit places they “can’t afford to miss.” Perhaps this makes sense for the first-time traveler with limited time and budget. But after one whirlwind tour it’s time to settle down to something more satisfying.

If England is your destination, what better plan than to take the advice of Thomas Hardy and visit the land he loved and knew so well, the land that gave him the framework upon which to hang his novels, short stories, and poems: the County of Dorset on England’s southern coast.

Dorset is England in miniature. The Celts, the Romans, the Saxons, and the Normans all left their marks. Within Dorset’s borders—measuring about 60 by 40 miles—is a selection of most of England’s landscapes.

Dorchester, the Casterbridge of Hardy’s novels, is a good place to start exploring. (Tourist information offices throughout the county can provide guides to visit Hardy’s Wessex.) It can easily be reached by train from London’s Waterloo Station or by National Express Coach from Victoria Station. Hardy lived in Dorchester for the last half of his life and his study has been recreated in the County Museum on High Street. Across from the museum is the house where the infamous Judge Jeffreys stayed when he sat in judgment on the remains of the Duke of Monmouth’s army. Today the house is a cozy restaurant. Just a short walk down the Roman Road is Maiden Castle, the most massively defended prehistoric earthwork in Britain. One can walk on its grassy ramparts and consider what it must have been like to have lived there before the Roman invasion.

The Frome River in Frampton

To the south of the town lies Maumbury Rings, an amphitheatre centuries old when the Romans took it over for games and gladiatorial combats. Later it was used for public hangings; the last, in 1705, was that of Mary Channing for poisoning her husband. From Dorchester it’s easy to reach dozens of villages in a matter of minutes, villages with intriguing names like Sydling St. Nicholas, Evershot, Ryme Intrinsica, Maiden Newton, Melbury Osmond, and Cerne Abbas.

Sherborne with it’s two castles and beautiful Abbey Church, Swanage with its lovely beach, Poole with its busy harbor, and Wimborne with its stylish shops—all would make good bases. In Lyme Regis one can walk out on the Cobb with the wind dramatically lashing the waves in the background and pretend to be Meryl Streep or Jeremy Irons as they appeared in the movie version of John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Fowles’s own house can be seen from the Cobb.

In Wareham one can stay at a little inn by the Frome River and watch the sailboats on their way to Poole Harbor. Breakfast can be eaten on the terrace so close to the water it is possible to shake hands with the skippers as they sail by. Clouds Hill, where T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) was living when he was killed in a motorcycle accident is just a few miles from town. The National Trust owns it now.

From Wareham it is just a 10-minute drive to Corfe Castle, a village of stone that is among the most beautiful in England. During the Civil War it withstood two different sieges and Parliament voted to destroy the castle in 1646. But although it was mined and blasted the massive towers did not fall but sank into the mines where they still remain, ruined but upright. It’s an awe-inspiring sight, one of many to be found in Dorset.

The things to do in Dorset that are the most fun are either free or cost very little—like following the coastal footpath, a 2-hour tour of Lyme Regis with the town crier, a walk to St.Catherines’s Chapel overlooking Chesil Beach, and strolling through country towns on market day. Just breathing the sparkling, fresh air in places like Melbury Park—with its five lakes, its deerpark, and its fairylike forest thickly covered with oak, chestnut, and lime trees—makes a journey to Dorset worthwhile.

They say London isn’t what it used to be, that the romantic visitor to England is bound to be disappointed. Maybe so in some parts of England, but not in Dorset.

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