Thomas Hardy Tourism in Dorset

We fancied a short break before term starts (my husband is a teaching associate in university-level biology), so booked a cheap Airbnb room in Bridport for a couple of nights and headed to Dorset on Wednesday, stopping at the Thomas Hardy birthplace cottage on the way down and returning on Friday via Max Gate, the home he designed on the outskirts of Dorchester.

I’d been to both before, but over 15 years ago. In the summer of 2004, at the end of my study abroad year, I used a travel grant from my college to spend a week in Dorset and Nottinghamshire, researching the sense of place in the works of Hardy and D.H. Lawrence. I marvel at my bravery now: barely out of my teens, there I was traveling alone by train and bus to places I’d never been before, finding my own B&B accommodation, and taking long countryside walks to arrive at many sites on foot.

Max Gate

I found that much had changed in 15 years. The main difference is that both properties have now been given the full National Trust treatment, with an offsite visitor centre and café down the lane from Hardy’s Cottage, and the upper floors of Max Gate now open to the public after the end of private tenancies in 2011.* This could be perceived as a good thing or a bad thing: Everything is more commercial and geared towards tourists, yes, but also better looked after and more inviting thanks to visitor income and knowledgeable volunteers. Fifteen years ago I remember the two sites being virtually deserted, with the cottage’s garden under black plastic and awaiting a complete replanting. Now it’s flourishing with flowers and vegetables.

*In 2004 only a few ground-floor rooms were open to the public. I happened to spot in the visitor’s book that novelist Vikram Seth had signed in just before me. When I made the caretakers aware of this, they expressed admiration for his work and offered him an exclusive look at the study where Hardy wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I got to tag along! The story is less impressive since it’s been a standard part of the house tour for eight years now, but I still consider it a minor claim to fame.

The thatched cottage doesn’t possess anything that belonged to the Hardy family, but is decorated in a period style that’s true to its mid-1800s origin. Hardy was born here and remained until his early thirties, completing an architecture apprenticeship and writing his first few books, including Under the Greenwood Tree. Even if you’re not particularly familiar with or fond of Hardy’s work, I’d recommend an afternoon at the cottage for a glimpse of how simple folk lived in that time. With wood smoke spooling out of the chimney and live music emanating from the door – there are two old fiddles in the sitting room that guests are invited to play – it was a perfectly atmospheric visit.

Afterwards, we headed to Portland, an isthmus extending from the south coast near Weymouth and known for its stone. It’s the setting of The Well-Beloved, which Hardy issued in serial form in 1892 and revised in 1897 for its book publication. Jocelyn Pierston, a sculptor whose fame is growing in London, returns to “the Isle of Slingers” (Hardy gave all his English locales made-up names) for a visit and runs into Avice Caro, a childhood friend. On a whim, he asks her to marry him. Before long, though, following a steamy (for Victorian literature, anyway) scene under an upturned boat during a storm, he transfers his affections to Miss Bencomb, the daughter of his father’s rival stone merchant. The fickle young man soon issues a second marriage proposal. I read the first 30 pages, but that was enough for me.

St. George’s Church, Portland, in a Christopher Wren style.

[I failed on classics or doorstoppers this month, alas, so look out for these monthly features to return in October. I did start The Warden by Anthony Trollope, my first of his works since Phineas Finn in 2005, with the best of intentions, and initially enjoyed the style – partway between Dickens and Hardy, and much less verbose than Trollope usually is. However, I got bogged down in the financial details of Septimus Harding’s supposed ripping-off of the 12 old peasants who live in the local hospital (as in a rest center for the aged and infirm, like the Hospital of St Cross at Winchester). He never should have had his comfortable £800 a year, it seems. His son-in-law, the archdeacon Dr. Grantly, and his would-be son-in-law, gadfly John Bold, take opposing sides as Harding looks to the legal and religious authorities for advice. I read the first 125 pages but only briefly skimmed the rest. Given how much longer the other five volumes are, I doubt I’ll ever read the rest of the Barchester Chronicles.]

My other appropriate reading of the trip was Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, in which Claudia Hampton, a popular historian now on her deathbed, excavates the layers of her personal past and dwells on the subjectivity of history and memory. She grew up in Dorset and mentions ammonites and rock strata, which we encountered on our beach walks.

Bridport isn’t so well known, but we thought it a lovely place, full of pleasant cafés, pubs and charity shops. It also has an independent bookshop and two secondhand ones, and we had an excellent meal of dumplings and noodle bowls at the English/Asian fusion restaurant Dorshi. It’s tucked away down an alley, but well worth a special trip. Our other special experience of the trip was a tour of Dorset Nectar, a small, family-run organic cider farm just outside of Bridport, which included a tasting of their 10+ delicious ciders. We had splendid late-summer weather for our three days away, too – we really couldn’t have asked for better.

Three secondhand books purchased, for a total of £4.10.

23 responses

  1. Lovely post, Rebecca. You chose the perfect week. I’m very fond of Dorset. It’s not so prone to the ravages of tourism as Devon or Cornwall, and it’s lovely walking country. There’s a wonderful hat shop in Bridport where my less hirsute than he was partner bought a couple of hats a few years ago. They had several different pith helmets in their window which is not a sight you see very often!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed, T. Snook Hatters! We took a photo of the shop window but didn’t happen to find it open any of the times we were in town. My husband is very fond of hats and most often seen wearing one.

      We encountered loads of traffic on this trip, and the sites we visited were busier than expected given that schools are back in session. We wondered if all the retirees waited until now to take their breaks. I agree it’s nowhere near as bad as Devon, though.

      After our cider tasting we walked back to Bridport across the fields, which was more difficult than it should have been because we had bought 4 L of cider in the shop 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your remind me of my trip to Hardy’s Dorset, probably about the same time as your first one, when neither of his houses there was open to the public. I like the shot of the dog kennel outside his birth cottage: you probably saw at Max Gate the pet cemetery full of graves of his beloved dogs. If you’re interested in the sense of place in DHL, beyond his usual Midlands haunts in the UK (and of course many other places abroad), I’d recommend a trip to W Cornwall, less frequented by tourist hordes, where he spent part of the years of WWI with Frieda in a remote cottage near Zennor; I did a series of posts on it at my place a while back (I live in Cornwall, and visit that part often). Shame you gave up on the Barchester novels; I didn’t expect to like them much, but found much in them to admire when I read them last year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A visit to the pet cemetery is a must at Max Gate, and I was pleased to see that the most recent tenants added one for their dog in the 2000s.

      I’ve been to Nottingham/Eastwood and to Taos for DHL sites, but I would also like to go to Zennor sometime. I know Helen Dunmore wrote a novel based on Lawrence’s time there.


      1. Yes, H Dunmore’s novel is called Zennor in Darkness, and DHL and Frieda play a fairly important role in it. He was very taken with the wild, pagan Celticness of West Penwith, and dreamed of establishing his utopian Rananim community there (didn’t happen). I hope it’s not presumptuous to give a link to my DHL posts here:
        There are few places in Europe and beyond he didn’t visit and write about, so it would be a big job to try to visit and experience them all…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I love Dorset and that area. I remember the hat shop in Bridport! We never went to the two Hardy houses though, although we went to the Hardy monument – only to find that a) it was in scaffolding and b) it was the wrong Hardy (Nelson’s one)!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that Hardy monument is confusing! We saw it in the distance from many of the places we stopped, but I’ve not been closer to it.

      How funny that we all noted the hat shop!


  4. What a wonderful trip. I especially like the Book Shop sign.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I do love Dorset, as it’s my Ancestral Home. I particularly like hanging around on Egdon Heath! But I spend more time on the coast there. Lovely post and trip and what wonderful weather you had.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not a cloud in the sky in any of these photos. Who would believe it!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I enjoyed this little jaunt. Like everyone else it seems, I’m keen on Dorset, and all the Hardy connections.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Always love bookish travel posts!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What fun! Wonderful post. Dreaming of doing just such a trip one day!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Paul at Halfman, Halfbook | Reply

    Has been cracking weather here, until Sunday!! Wild and Homeless books is a great bookshop, always like browsing in there. There is another Thomas Hardy House just down the road from me in Wimborne.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t know about the Wimborne house!

      We only had a few minutes to browse Wild and Homeless one afternoon, but it looked like a good shop to get lost in on a rainy day.


  10. What a great trip and beautiful pictures! I especially like the one of the church with the gravestones.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was such an unusual architectural style to find in that setting that we just had to stop for a tour.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. […] after all – but these days I generally find them tedious. Two years ago, I DNFed Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, and I ended up mostly skimming A Pair of Blue Eyes after the first 100 pages. In any case, it fit […]


  12. […] booked a last-minute overnight in Bridport later this month, so I looked up what I bought on our trip there in 2019. I promptly picked up the two unread books (by Lightman and Orwell) for before we go […]


  13. […] on a recent overnight trip to Bridport, Dorset – a return visit after enjoying it so much in 2019. Several elements were repeated: Dorset Nectar cider farm, dinner at Dorshi, and a bookshop and […]


  14. […] anyone who’s read and loved Hardy’s major works, or visited his homes, this feels absolutely true to his life story, and so evocative of the places involved. I could […]


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: