AS the Second World War drew to its close, I travelled by the 'Slow and Dirty' -- more properly known as the 'Somerset and Dorset' -- to begin a new life, following the death of my mother, in the small market town of Sturminster Newton which lies about fifteen miles north-east of Dorchester. Thomas Hardy gave Sturminster Newton the name of 'Stourcastle' and the town centre, with its jumble of architectural styles and little back-lanes, still has a 19th century feel about it, an atmosphere familiar to the readers of Hardy's novels. 'Vegetables pass from growing to boiling', he wrote, 'fruit from the bushes to the pudding, without a moment's halt, and the gooseberries that were ripening on the twigs at noon are in the tart an hour later'. That description of country life still held true during my Dorset childhood.
In his book, Hardy's Wessex, my late friend, Desmond Hawkins made the point that both Sturminster Newton and Shaftesbury can fairly lay claim to being the gateway to the Blackmore Vale. But Shaftesbury, he wrote, is an 'aloof spectator' while Sturminster, couched as it is on the banks of the Stour, is 'enfolded in one of the river's winding bends...'. Town and river are inseparable 'and it is the Stour, with its tributaries', Desmond believed, 'which gives the Vale its principal characteristic'. (See review on Hardy by Desmond Hawkins in June 1989 Contemporary Review.) As children, we would often cycle to nearby Okeford Fitzpaine -- that Hardy called 'Oakbury Fitzpiers' -- and on up the long hill to Bulbarrow. So steep is the ascent that we were forced to push our bicycles most of the way. But the effort was worth it for, from the top of its 902 feet, we could look down on the enchanting Blackmore Vale -- 'that valley of the Blue Mist', wrote Sir Frederick Treves, 'in whose soft shadows will be found the ver y heart of England'. Like Thomas Hardy, Treves had Dorset blood in his veins, having descended from a long line of yeoman farmers. The author of Tess of the D'Urbevilles had, in fact, bought his first writing-desk from Treves's father, a Dorchester upholsterer, and in his novel that most famous of Dorset Men recommended the traveller to discover 'the secret of Blackmoor' by ascending 'the heights around': 'Here in the valley the world seems to be constructed upon a smaller and more delicate scale; the fields are mere paddocks, so reduced that from this height their hedgerows appear a network of dark green threads overspreading the paler green of the grass. The atmosphere is languorous, and is so tinged with azure that what artists call the middle distance partakes also of that hue, while the horizon beyond is of the deepest ultramarine'.
It was on those Wessex heights -- Ingpen Beacon, Wylls-Neck, Pilsden Crest or on 'homely Bulbarrow' -- that Hardy, writing in 1896, felt that he could seek refuge from the anxieties and disappointments of the world...
Where men have never cared to haunt, nor women have walked with me, And ghosts then keep their distance; and I know some liberty.
After a quarter of a century writing novels, these were the only places where he could escape from all those people, down there in the valleys, whose lives he had put into his books. People like the farmer at Sturminster Newton who, in the belief that it would prevent the spread of disease, stuck black thorns into the heart of any calf that died and the 'wizard' at Bagber Bridge who sold little bags of toads' legs as charms against scrofula. 'Superstitions linger longest on these heavy soils', he wrote.
Desmond Hawkins is numbered among the distinguished Hardy scholars from across the world, invited by Professor Norman Page to contribute to the recently published Oxford Reader's Companion to Hardy (Oxford University Press, [pound]40). In this useful and authoritative book, Desmond Hawkins reminds us that 'for modem readers Hardy's Wessex has a recurring elegiac tone, a lingering nostalgia which might have reduced him to the lesser stature of a purely regional writer, piously recording a fading legend'. …