Reminiscing of Hardy Country

river-frome-dorchester
River Frome, Dorchester.

There is nothing quite like bringing a story to life by walking in the footsteps of its characters, taking in the sights that they too would recognize. I had the fortunate opportunity to do just that not too long ago, touring Hardy Country, the area surrounding Dorchester that English author Thomas Hardy called home. Better known as “Wessex” in his writings, the area provided the back-drop to many of his stories.

hangmans-cottage-dorchester
Hangmans Cottage.

 

 

The literary tour of Dorchester proper highlighted various landmarks used by Hardy. At the site of the old prison, I learned of how a young Hardy witnessed the hanging of a woman. Later, this woman would serve as inspiration for Hardy’s character, Tess, from Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Many other references to Hardy’s works could be seen throughout Dorchester, including the Hangman’s Cottage which appeared in “The Withered Arm.” Viewing these sites was more than a backdrop to the works of Hardy; it gave perspective. In such a bucolic setting, it was hard to imagine the traumatic events often written about by Hardy. This is in part his genius, I suppose, underscoring that beneath the surface there is always a dark side waiting to be exposed.

Nestled in a small valley outside Dorchester, I happened upon the Hardy family cottage where the author spent his youth. The location was remote even by modern standards; in Hardy’s childhood it must have felt as if it were one thousand miles from anywhere. The simple thatched roof structure, with its low ceilings, clung to the valley as a morning fog, melting in with the surroundings. More than just a great example of Hardy’s humble beginnings, it also delineated the progress of technology in his lifetime. From a simple cottage in 1840 to his home at Max Gate, the effects of technological change were very clear. In essence, the trips between Hardy’s childhood cottage and his home at Max Gate showed the dramatic changes in society witnessed by Victorian England.

max-gate-garden-from-hardys-study
Hardy’s study overlooking garden at Max Gate.

My final stop was at St. Michael’s Church in Stinford, where Hardy’s heart (sans body) is interred. The parish graveyard was small; enclosed by a stone wall it was quiet and demanded respect. This old cemetery felt hallowed by the age of the tombs and those buried there, and in some respects has its own Poet’s Corner of sorts – buried within feet of Hardy is Cecil Day Lewis, former Poet Laureate of England and father of Academy Award winning actor Daniel Day Lewis. Hardy chose to be in the same grave as his first wife, and his second wife was later buried atop both of them, an eerie ménage-a-trois for the afterlife.

Dorchester and its surroundings are alive with the life and foils experienced by Hardy and his characters. As I turned my back to the town, I felt a bit of passing nostalgia knowing that I may never return, much as the Mayor of Casterbridge must have felt as he enacted his exile from the town that came to disregard his existence. But a visit there is no further away from the bookshelf. When I read Hardy, I’m taken back to Dorchester, the imagery of his words bringing the town and its people to life again, my memories resuscitated with each turn of the page.

Grave Matters

It’s October, and Halloween is edging around the corner, soon to embody all that is fall. I also see it as perfect timing for a post that is a bit more on the lighthearted side, and still literary in its theme.

Graveyards: they are places of quiet solitude by day, but as night falls, become haunting in their appearance, attaching themselves to our innate fears of mortality and the other-world. These are themes that loom large in literature, and coincidentally, led me to think about some of my favorite such places.

By far, the graveyard that is most memorable to me is the quaint churchyard cemetery at St. Michael’s in Stinsford, just outside Dorchester in the United Kingdom.

graveyard
St. Michael’s churchyard, Stinsford, UK.

It’s a quiet place, whose old, moss and lichen-enhanced tombstones stand testament to the perpetuity of human mortality.

thomas-hardy
Thomas Hardy grave, St. Michael’s churchyard, Stinsford, UK.

It’s also the final resting place of two literary greats: Thomas Hardy (his heart only – the remainder of his earthly vessel is interred at Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey) and poet-laureate Cecil Day Lewis. If you’re a writer, it’s amazing company to spend the after-life with.

There are many other graveyards to consider of course. Poet’s Corner is a must-see for the literary-minded. But I tend to prefer those that are tucked away from view, offering scenes that have melted into the past from which they came. It is the timelessness of these places that sends the chill down my spine as my feet fall upon hallowed ground made even more venerable by the history framing its existence.

Some of my local favorites include Philadelphia’s famed Laurel Hill Cemetery (renowned for the architecture of its memorials), and the Old Pine Street Church, also in Philadelphia, which dates back to our colonial past. There are many more – too small and quaint to list out of respect for these places – that harken back to colonial days or even earlier. Many of these sites dot my local woods, from homesteads that have since receded back into the earth to join their previous occupants.

What are your favorites? Graveyards abound in literature and are all around us. It is the dead’s way of lingering on in the land of the living. With Halloween fast approaching, take the time to find those unique hallowed spaces that stir your intrigue and get you in the spirit of the season.

 

Welcome, welcome, welcome!

Thanks so much for stopping by. The site is a bit new. But keep on coming back for more!

My aim is to deliver original material at least on a weekly basis, be it a bit of poetry, a sneak peek into my up and coming novel, or random musings on literature and the writer’s life.

I hope you enjoy reading as much as I’ve enjoyed crafting the words that will soon be splashed across the site.

Talk to you soon,

H.A. Callum