The heart of Wessex

'Wessex' (or, more accurately, Dorset) provides a picturesque setting for this month's Discovering Britain walk 'Wessex' (or, more accurately, Dorset) provides a picturesque setting for this month's Discovering Britain walk Helen Hotson
25 Jul
This month, the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)’s Discovering Britain walk takes Laura Cole deep into Hardy country

For more great walks, trails and viewpoints, be sure to check out the new Discovering Britain Facebook page by clicking here.

Discovering BritainThere is a human heart buried in Stinsford churchyard in Dorset. It once belonged to Thomas Hardy, the Victorian poet and novelist who wanted to be buried in his birthplace instead of Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey, as was tradition. As a pretty macabre compromise, his heart was cut out and interred in Dorset and his ashes placed alongside Chaucer, Dickens et al.

‘Hardy was always a contrary figure,’ explains Alistair Chisholm, co-author of the Partly Real, Partly Dream Discovering Britain walk in East Dorset, ‘even when he had climbed to the height of society from humble beginnings, he didn’t bend to fashion.’

Legend has it that the heart isn’t all there – that one of the author’s cats was found eating it before it could be placed in the urn. The cat was killed and buried alongside the leftovers, or so they say.

Hardy, who in his work always found dark humour in the quaintness of human rituals, might have found the whole business quite funny. Burying Hardy’s heart in Dorset is a quirky enactment of the idea that Hardy’s essence lives in the fictional ‘Wessex’, a county he fabricated from the surrounding geography and culture.

When we think of Hardy, we think of landscapes, his settings are more like characters than backdrops

The trick of ‘Wessex’ is that it feels as though it’s all there, ready to be seen. Hardy was often so true to the geography of Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset that his books can be mapped straight on to cities and villages of the south-west. His raw depictions of landscapes, however, were often collations of different areas, drawn together for effect.

His most pagan novel, The Return of the Native, is well known for its exploration of rural heath culture as well as the relationship between wilderness and the individual. It features a vast rolling landscape, ‘Egdon Heath’, which was ‘a place perfectly accordant with man’s nature – neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony’.

Egdon is not a real heath, but was inspired by fragments of heathland in and around Dorset. In a way, it is a tribute to the sprawling heathlands that once covered 50,000 hectares of the Southwest long before Hardy was alive. By exploring the area he grew up in, the walk visits the real heathland features that may well have inspired his fiction.

‘When we think of Hardy, we think of landscapes,’ says Chisholm, ‘and changeable ones – his settings are more like characters than backdrops and nature was always a formidable force rather than a benevolent friend.’

He is standing on the edge of an expansive heathland, Bhompston Heath, which falls in ruffled hillocks to the Frome valley below. This high crust of land stretches to Hardy’s cottage, around half a kilometre behind, and is thought to have inspired many of the feral and encroaching scenes on Egdon: ‘She followed the path towards Rainbarrow, occasionally stumbling over twisted furze roots, tufts of rushes, or oozing lumps of fleshy fungi, which at this season lay scattered about the heath like the rotten liver and lungs of some colossal animal.’

On a summer’s day, it is hard to imagine Bhompston as the desolate place Hardy often depicted. In the slanted light, the knee-high shrubs are gold and green. In rain, however, the heath’s exposed features and rough gorse could make this place sopping and bleak.

Either way, the effect of Bhompston heath is to feel small in a living panorama. The sides of valleys along the walk’s route are pockmarked with swallet holes – geological features caused by the chalk bedrock weakening until the ground collapses in on itself. It looks uneven, dishevelled and old.

‘It’s quite easy to get lost out here – even for a tour guide,’ says Chisholm with a glint in his eye. ‘The nature of the landscape can be disorientating.’

Between 3000BC and 1500BC, people of importance were buried in hollows beneath these mounds. There are thought to be more than 6,000 in the West Country alone

The land is older than the author, a fact that Hardy was well aware of. The topography of fictional Wessex is wrapped up in the real ancient history of the Southwest, from which he drew prehistoric features such as the ominous presence of Stonehenge in Tess of the d’Ubervilles and the heathen ‘Rainbarrow’ in The Return of the Native.

‘Rainbarrow’ is a bronze-age burial mound inspired by the three barrows that sun themselves on Bhompston today. Between 3000BC and 1500BC, people of importance were buried in hollows beneath these mounds. There are thought to be more than 6,000 in the West Country alone. Over a century ago the Rainbarrows were excavated by Edward Cunnington and nowadays they make pleasant, rugged spots for Hardy tourists and other, less Hardy-inspired visitors.

Running parallel to the rainbarrows is another of Hardy’s ancient muses, a Roman road. When it was built, in around 40AD, it would have run from Dorchester to Badbury Rings, a local Roman fort.

‘It is a very straight, linear route really built to impress locals as the Romans invaded the area,’ Laurence Weston, an Area Ranger for West Dorset, explains in the Discovering Britain guide. ‘Taking into consideration that the landscape would have been much more open than today, it would have been very easy to see a large army, shining in armour, ascending the hill. Everyone would have seen this and been in awe of the might of the Roman military.’ Until recently, the road was overrun with gorse and shrubs. It has now been cleared for visitors to enjoy.

These old features on the heath and the undercurrent of ancient history, inspired Hardy to place his characters on a longer timeline ‘where that everything around and underneath had been from prehistoric times as unaltered as the stars overhead’. In fact, the very name ‘Wessex’ encapsulates this – it was the name given to the south of Britain when it was under the rule of the Anglo-Saxons. In doing so, Hardy gave his narratives a sense of scale against an immense and mysterious timeline of human existence. Walking by these features, it is hard not to get a sense of one’s insignificance. The author understood that the history of Egdon Heath – like the real-life Bhompston Heath – began long before his characters arrived.

wessex-homeHardy's cottage, once a more isolated structure than it is today, was used by smugglers to hide their wares (Image: Laura Cole)

Not only does the area host prehistoric features, the heath itself was man-made. They may seem primeval but most heaths were carved out by Bronze-age settlers when vast tracts of forest were removed for burning. Continual grazing and harvesting plants for fuel eroded the soil, which soon became acidic, sandy and lacking in nutrients. In the low-quality environment, the only things to grow were robust plants like gorse, heather and shrubs, which our ancestors used for more fuel and animal bedding.

The incessant reuse of plants meant that trees were prevented from succeeding heathlands. Adders, smooth snakes and rare birds such as nightjars and warblers began to thrive in the unique habitat. In the last century however, increased farming activity and Forestry Commission plantations have replenished the soil and heaths have been diminishing.

Looking around, the turf and furze now give way to strips and squares of pine trees that were planted intensely by the Forestry Commission in the 1950s and 60s, a common fate for lots of ex-heathland. It is thought that as much as 70 per cent of Bhompston Heath has disappeared.

Local heath management schemes have been set up to try to deforest pine plantations and burn back growth to keep the soil infertile. This seems odd at first, given that deforestation is so associated with environmental damage. However, the idea is to regenerate Dorset heaths for their value as habitats. Dartmoor ponies have been introduced in some enclosures too – in Hardy’s time feral ponies like these would have grazed on the heath and kept growth to a minimum.

Two years ago, there were plans to build a wind farm near the setting of Far from the Madding Crowd. The proposal received huge opposition from Hardy fans

The Hardy’s Egdon Heath Project has led this restoration. While the original heathlands of Dorset would have stretched 50,000 hectares, the idea is to restore the heath to a point that might have been recognisable in the author’s lifetime – by which time farming and tree planting had already begun to take hold. In this way, his novels have provided a sort of geographical yardstick by which to measure regeneration.

This kind of environmental standard also has an impact on development. Two years ago, there were plans to build a wind farm a few miles north of the heath, near the setting of Far from the Madding Crowd. The proposal received huge opposition from Hardy fans. It awkwardly placed conservation and environmentalism at loggerheads. Because of the geographical specificity of Hardy’s books, Dorset locals have considerable leverage to conserve local Wessex culture and landscapes.

The idea of Wessex-ness is reflected across other aspects of Dorset. While Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset together inspired Wessex, it is Dorset that has embraced Hardy association the most. ‘Not only are numerous books and websites dedicated to this fictional place,’ explains geography teacher and co-author of the Discovering Britain walk, Dick Bateman, ‘but people in Dorset may listen to the local radio station, Wessex FM, receive their water from Wessex Water, purchase their cars from Wessex Motors, become a costumer of Wessex Electricals or simply relax at the Wessex Leisure Club.’

Of all the history buried near Dorchester, the barrows, the old roads and the man-made heaths, it is Hardy’s heart that continues to shape the place today. The work of locals and fans ensure that the fictional Wessex is a tangible presence in the area’s history and its future.

WALK Details
• Location: Southwest England
• Type: Rural
• Distance: 5.25 miles
Click here for more details

Unearth more of our nation’s history and find more great walks, trails and viewpoints around the UK at or via the new Discovering Britain Facebook page.

This was published in the August 2015 edition of Geographical magazine.

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