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Thomas Hardy’s places

In bright autumn sunlight, M and I drove today through Dorset, to photograph some of the actual places that Hardy describes in Far From the Madding Crowd. I was fulfilling a promise to Charlie Maddaus of Maine, who is currently teaching the novel to his students (see comments on an earlier post). In what follows I have put Hardy’s place-names in italics.

We drove through Sherborne (Sherston Abbas) and south to Middlemarsh (Marshwood). Then up onto a high ridge that runs above Cerne Abbas (Abbot’s Cernel) and so down into Dorchester (Casterbridge). Here we turned east out of the town, and soon reached a stone bridge – Grey’s Bridge – over the River Frome (Froom). This is where an exhausted Fanny Robin fell, and was guided by a large dog to the Union, or workhouse, and where Troy later waited for her in vain.

Grey's Bridge over the Frome, near Dorchester

Grey's bridge over the Frome, near Dorchester

Some two miles further on we left the modern highway and turned up the old road that climbs Yellowham Hill (Yalbury Hill). It was in the woods here that Liddy’s sister lived; that Joseph Poorgrass got lost; where Troy and Bathsheba, driving home at dusk, met Fanny; and where Gabriel slept in a hay-wagon. The road climbs quite steeply, and is over-arched by trees. It has a lonely feel. A little further on is Troy Town (Roy-Town), where there is a farm and one or two houses – but no sign of the “Buck’s Head” inn, where Joseph got drunk on his journey with Fanny Robin’s coffin. There was nothing definitive to photograph on this stretch, however.

Returning to the main road, and then missing the exit to Puddletown (Weatherbury), we drove on to Bere Regis (Kingsbere). Above the village rises Woodbury Hill (Greenhill). Taking a narrow side-road, and then a stony track, we reached the top of the hill where a flat green field, surrounded by ancient earthworks, marks the site where the annual Sheep Fair was held, and where Troy, disguised as Turpin, appeared in the circus tent. From the edge of the field there are wide views over Dorset farmland – large fields and wide-spread hills. Apparently a fair was still held there within living memory.

Bere Regis - village store and inn

Bere Regis - village store and inn

The view from the Sheep Fair field, Woodbury Hill

The view from the Sheep Fair field, Woodbury Hill

Now we turned west again and returned to Puddletown (Weatherbury), the village at the centre of Bathsheba’s story.  Its heart, in the old days, was the Square, where market stalls were set up between the cottages and the churchyard.

The market square, Puddletown

The market square, Puddletown

A few yards up on the right stands St Mary’s Church, in whose porch Troy spent a night, where Fanny was buried, and where Bathsheba and Gabriel were finally – and secretly – married.

The porch, St Mary's church, Puddletown

The porch, St Mary's church, Puddletown

The nave, St Mary's church. Note the box pews, the choir gallery, and the fine timber roof.

The nave, St Mary's church; note the choir gallery and box pews.

Many of the book-rests in the pews, and especially in the choir-stalls, bear carvings of names and initials, some neat, some ragged; and on one, under the balcony, is the name “Henery” – spelt with an extra ‘e’ just as Henery Fray does in the novel.

The carved pew.

The carved pew.

High on the church tower are the gargoyles, one of which flooded Fanny’s grave.

The "gurgoyles".

The "gurgoyles".

The old malt-house which once stood behind the doctor’s house and was probably the model for “Warren’s”, is no more. Likewise, the circular, brick-lined sheep-washing pool beside the river Piddle was bulldozed away some years ago. Waterston Manor, thought to have been the inspiration for (but not the location of) Bathsheba’s farmhouse, is hidden by high hedges.

We made a quick trip, a mile or so east of the village, to take a peek at Athelhampton House – Hardy’s Athelhall. A fine old house, privately owned but open to the public – on payment of a substantial admission fee.

Athelhampton House

Athelhampton House

We returned towards Dorchester, then turned north up the long valley of the river Piddle – which, it must be said, is a modest stream; quite piddling, in fact. Strung along it, and almost running into one another, are the villages of Piddlehinton (Lower Longpuddle) and Piddletrenthide (Upper Longpuddle). We pause to photograph the church at the latter, then headed back to Sherborne and home.

All Saints church, Piddletrenthide

All Saints church, Piddletrenthide

It will take another trip to find Norcombe Hill, where Gabriel first met Bathsheba. It is over on the other side of the county, near Beaminster (Emminster). Later, perhaps, we shall re-visit Lulworth Cove (Lulwind). where Troy left his clothes on the beach and swam out to sea.


I am departing from my usual themes of literature and language, because I have just finished reading Richard Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion”. The very fact that I even opened this book will, no doubt, condemn me in the eyes of many – particularly, I suspect, those who have never read the book themselves. It is a knee-jerk reaction of the fervently religious to attack, blindly, anything which questions – or, still worse, threatens to undermine – their particular faith and beliefs.

Dawkins, of course, does not have it in for any one religion; he has it in for all religions. As a convinced Darwinian, he sees them as an aberrant phenomenon in the evolution of the human species – one that, hopefully, we will eventually discard; particularly if we can learn to stop indoctrinating our children before they are old enough to think for themselves.

I grew up in the Christian England of the 1930s – before mass immigration had changed ours into a ‘multi-cultural’ society. My parents were not particularly devout, but I was christened and went to Sunday school and, later, joined the Youth Fellowship. In due course I was confirmed and grew into a convinced Christian, taking my faith very seriously. For me, in that place and at that time, the word ‘religion’ meant Christianity. One knew, vaguely, that there were people in other parts of the world who had different beliefs; but one lumped them together under the general term ‘heathens’, and comforted oneself with the thought that there were missionaries who would eventually bring them to their senses.

Then, in my twenties, I started to travel. I went out to the Far East to work, and found myself confronted – and out-numbered – by people who had belief-systems totally alien to my own, and who, in each case, were clearly convinced that theirs was the only true religion. Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Parsees, Taoists – these were not benighted heathens, but often highly cultured and intelligent people. A thought began to grow in my mind: “We can’t all be right; so maybe none of us is right!” I tried to persuade myself that perhaps the Ultimate Truth was only revealed partially, in different ways and at different times, and that there might be validity in all religions. But in the end this didn’t wash, and I became more and more certain – after many years of thought – that, far from God creating Man in his own image, it was actually the other way about.

One problem remained, though: how, I asked myself, does one explain the moral sense – the belief that certain behaviours are ‘good’ and others ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ – if there is no God? I am rather proud to say that, long before I read Dawkins, I came to the same conclusion as he does: that the source of the moral sense is, ultimately, genetic; that it can exist without the need for religious belief. It follows, it seems to me, that where a religion ‘lays down the law’ on what is good and evil, it is generally merely codifying something that is ‘built in’ to our collective psyche anyway.

This, then, explains briefly why I am a humanist and an atheist. I cannot do it with the elegance and thoroughness of a Richard Dawkins; but I am persuaded by him that I should have the courage of my convictions and declare my beliefs.

“But,” you may say, “you are an atheist. You have no beliefs.” On the contrary, I believe in many things: in the wondrous complexity of the world we have inherited; in the imponderable vastness of the universe; in the limitless potential of the human mind and imagination; and in the possibility that humankind will one day outgrow the need to do terrible things in the name of religion.

More can be read about Dawkins’ views on

Unusual trades: ever met a congreve maker?

Having recently caught the genealogy bug, I have been diving into my family history. It’s astonishing what you can turn up these days, without ever leaving your computer desk. I’ve now got a pretty complete picture of my family back through five generations – and have traced one particular line back to 1580.

What is particularly fascinating about the censuses, from 1851 onwards, is that they usually show the occupation of the person named. And of course, in the nineteenth century, the great majority of working folk had some sort of craft or trade.

Among my forebears I found a book-binder, a cabinet-maker, a boat-builder, a brick-maker, a miller, a sawyer, a backsman (foreman in a coal-mine), a straw-plaiter (for hat-making), a bombazine-weaver, a dress-maker – and quite a number of plain ‘labourers’.

One job particularly intrigued me. My great-grandfather had, as his neighbour in Norwich, a man who was listed as a ‘Congreve maker’, while his son was a ‘Slive maker’. What on earth was a congreve? A kind of coat? A bottle? I decided to do some research.

It turns out that during the Napoleonic Wars there was a certain artillery officer named Sir William Congreve who invented a kind of military rocket for firing at the enemy. When the wars ended, in 1815, it seems likely that he turned the pyrotechnic skills he had acquired to the invention of an early kind of friction match – which was known as a congreve. And that’s what my ancestor’s neighbour was making, using sulphur, potassium chlorate and antimony sulphide. A pretty explosive mixture, I would have thought.

And a ‘slive maker’? I can only think that this is a variant, or a mis-spelling, of ‘sliver’ – a thin strip of some kind (there is an old verb ‘to slive’ meaning to split). So my guess is that the son was making the match-sticks – for Dad to put the heads on.

Incidentally – have you noticed how many people say ‘slither’ when thay actually mean ‘sliver’?

Postscript: I have now discovered that, although Sir William did indeed invent a great many things, it was actually a John Walker, a chemist in Stockton-on-Tees, who invented the friction match – but he named it after Congreve, presumably because of his fame as a rocket pioneer.

More Thomas Hardy

I went for a walk last week on the ridge above Abbotsbury. This Dorset village lies a few miles south-west of Dorchester (Hardy’s Casterbridge). From the ridgetop one can see for miles – west over Lyme Bay, north over the fertile fields of the Marshwood Vale, and south-east to the long strand of Chesil Beach (Pebble Bank), with the sea on one side and the swan-laden water of the Fleet on the other. Beyond it, the hump of Portland (the Isle of Slingers) and the town of Weymouth (Budmouth). It was a fine autumn day, and the views were splendid.

Surprisingly, I don’t think Hardy had a special name for Abbotsbury. It’s an interesting and picturesque village, with its ruined abbey, magnificent tithe barn and, just down the road, the swannery founded by the monks and still thriving today.

BBC TV did a new serialised version of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” recently. I have to say I didn’t like it. The opening sequence, with a group of uniformly-pretty young ladies performing a sedate dance on a grassy hilltop seemed a million miles from Hardy’s description of a rustic village ritual, with as many old women as girls among the dancers. For me, it set the tone of the whole production: rather sanitised, lacking in Dorset earthiness – and with an unnecessarily lush musical background. Not one of the BBC’s best.

The picture shows the view of Abbotsbury we had as we climbed back up from the beach.

Abbotsbury village, Dorset

Abbotsbury village, Dorset

Here’s to Wrawby!

I confess that, until two days ago, I had never heard of the village of Wrawby in north Lincolnshire. And it is even less likely that anyone there would have heard of Stowell, the hamlet in Dorset where I live. How a link between the two places arose is a classic example of internet magic.

I had been asked to do a short entertainment ‘spot’ at a charity lunch, organised in the next village to raise funds for a local hospice. I took it into my head to do a ‘tribute’ piece to Gerard Hoffnung – a humorist, musician and cartoonist who flourished in the 1950s (before dying tragically at the age of 34). In particular, I wanted to reproduce some extracts from a hilarious address he gave at the Oxford Union debating society – a speech which fortunately was recorded at the time. I had a transcript of part of this, but needed a copy of the recording itself to refresh my memory of the whole. And I needed it in a hurry!

So I Googled ‘Hoffnung’ – and got many addresses of sites to visit. There were plenty of biographical notes, and several that offered to sell me CDs of the recordings – but these would not have arrived in time. Then I stumbled upon the website of Wrawby in Lincolnshire – an impressive and efficient site which told me a lot about the village and which included – for some slightly obscure reason – the text of the ‘barrel of bricks’ anecdote that was the highlight of Hoffnung’s speech. It also offered, in return for a small contribution to community funds, the opportunity to download an audio file of the entire speech. In no time I had paid my donation, downloaded the file – and received an encouraging email from Richard Robinson of the Wrawby Internet Dept.

At lunchtime today (18 September) I did my Hoffnung piece – and I think it went down pretty well, even if it did not raise the gales of laughter that greeted the original in Oxford over fifty years ago. So – thank you, Wrawby, and thank you, Richard. If I ever get up your way again (I was in ‘Rebecca’ at the New Theatre in Hull a couple of years ago) I will look you up.

Queeny’s grave

Wandering in the churchyard at Martock, a village not far from where I live, I came across a tombstone with a rather touching story behind it. The inscription, almost obscured by time and the growth of lichens, read:


negro from Barbados

departed this life

July 20th 1790

Aged 18 years

The story, as far as I have been able to piece it together, is that one Captain Anstice, a seafaring man and a resident of Martock, returned from a voyage to the West Indies, bringing young Queeny with him – most probably having offered her employment as a servant in his household. This was a not uncommon practice at this time. Sadly, though, poor Queeny soon succumbed to the climate, or perhaps to some illness to which she had no resistance.

The vicar at the time refused her burial in the churchyard, on the grounds that he had no proof that she was a baptised Christian. So Captain Anstice, who seems to have been a kindly man, arranged for her to be buried in his own garden, and put his own surname on her headstone. Only when a new and more liberal vicar arrived was Queeny finally re-buried in hallowed ground.

I found myself imagining the feelings of this young girl, the daughter presumably of slaves on a Barbados sugar-plantation: the mixture of excitement and apprehension as she faced the prospect of a long sea voyage to a strange land, where she would live among ‘white folks’; and her fear and desolation as, far from family and all she had known, she fell ill and died, with all her hopes unfulfilled.

A sad tale. But at least her brief life is still commemorated, 218 years later.

All is not gold

Following on from my last post – I wonder why the goldfinch is so called? It has, of course, a bar of yellow on its wings; but far more striking, to my mind, is its red mask. But then, I suppose the ‘Red-faced Finch’ would be less euphonious, if more accurate.

Curiously, the American goldfinch is actually gold, or at least yellow, almost all over and is therefore more appropriately named. Yet the name must have been brought over from Europe by the first settlers. In fact, I can almost see that rugged, fur-capped pioneer peering up into a tree and muttering, “Heck, now that really is something like a gold finch!”

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