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Dorset’s Literary Trail

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Dorset is a quietly spectacular county that has been appreciated for centuries by the literary greats. The perfect setting for any rural plot, the Dorset Downs and Purbeck Hills have featured as the backdrop for many novels. If you are considering a break to this corner of the country, there are lots of picturesque Dorset holiday cottages that are a wonderful base to further explore this county.

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy's cottage

One of Dorset’s most famous inhabitants Thomas Hardy, who was born and bred in Dorset, set many of his novels in the region of Wessex. You can visit both the cottage Hardy was born in and Max Gate, the cottage Hardy designed and built for himself. Speaking to The Thomas Hardy Society, we are better able to understand the author himself:

“It has been said many times that the Dorset landscape and the towns and villages are in many ways an extra character in so many of his novels and much of his poetry. And it is fair to say that even today, 150 years on from when Hardy first became a published writer, those landscapes, towns and villages can still be viewed as he saw and wrote about them.”

“Hardy's Cottage is where he was born and clearly influenced and shaped his love of the Dorset landscape. He also wrote his first two important novels here, 'Under the Greenwood Tree' and 'Far From the Madding Crowd'. Additionally the thatched cottage is in an idyllic setting at the end of a wonderful walk through unspoilt woodland.”

“Max Gate was designed by Hardy, who trained as an architect and built it in 1885, and is an interesting, brooding , late Victorian detached house, where he wrote, arguably, some of his greatest novels ('Tess' and 'Jude the Obscure') and many of his most memorable poems. Both buildings are highly recommended to visit, and both are National Trust owned.”

Though his studies took him to London, he inevitably returned to Dorset. Known as a novelist, Hardy wrote poems prolifically, with the collection of Wessex Poems taking 30 years to write and inspired by his home county.

For those looking to follow Thomas Hardy’s fictional world, many towns in Dorset go under a different name. Dorchester is really Casterbridge in The Wessex Tales while Puddletown goes under the guise of Weatherbury in ‘Far From the Maddening Crowd’. Thomas Hardy also somewhat confusingly has two burial places. While after his death there was a call for him to be buried in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey, it was known that Hardy wished to remain in Stinsford next to his first wife. In order to fulfil both, Hardy’s second wife ordered his ashes to Westminster while his heart forever remains in his beloved Dorset.

When asked which of Hardy’s literary works are most evocative of his home county, Mike from the Thomas Hardy Society was quick to recommend: “To get a feel of the Dorset countryside I would recommend three potential novels, they are: ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ and ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’.”

William Barnes

William Barnes Statute, Dorchester

William Barnes was the champion of the Dorset Dialect. Though his formal education finished at the age of 13, he was profoundly interested in language, studying Latin, Persian, Greek as well as modern German, French and Italian. He pushed for the purification of the English Language from its Greek influences, calling for words such as botany to be changed to wortlore, to be better understood by those without a classical grounding.

While working as a school master in Dorchester, William Barnes met Thomas Hardy, who was apprenticed to the architect next door. Hardy and those in the architect’s office would often argue about grammar and William Barnes was called upon to settle these disputes.

Enid Blyton

Corfe Castle that inspired Enid Blyton

The Lake District may be synonymous with Beatrix Potter but Dorset’s relationship with Enid Blyton is as entrenched. Though not born in the county, Enid Blyton spent years holidaying in this corner of the world and was so inspired by it that she set some of her most famous works here. While the Grand Hotel was the accommodation of choice when Enid came down to visit, Blyton and her husband actually bought the Isle of Purbeck Golf Course.

‘The Five on Treasure Island’ was published in 1942 as the first of the famous five series and Corfe Castle is the inspiration behind Kirrin Castle in the books. Corfe Castle can still be visited by steam train and is the perfect activity for Blyton enthusiasts. Brownsea Island also makes an appearance in the Famous Five Series as Whispering Island and is now owned by the National Trust.

Although recent editions of Enid Blyton’s books have seen many edits, due to changing public views, the nostalgic sense of adventure remains the same. Enid wrote for children of every age, starting with ‘Brer Rabbit’ and ‘Noddy Goes to Toyland’, before moving on to the ‘Magic Faraway Tree’ and ‘The Famous Five’.

T. E. Lawrence

T E Lawrence portrait

Despite the famous writing ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ being set abroad and most of his other publications follow his exploits while travelling abroad with the military, T E Lawrence settled in Dorset and died in the county. While he was under scrutiny due to his international fame, it is clear he did not enjoy the attention. Clouds Hill is rural and remote and he lived in a very small building that was saved from ruin. Now owned by the National Trust, it is an example of the ingenuity of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, with four rooms converted into the perfect home for this private and infinitesimally interesting man.

Lawrence died at the age of 46 in a motorbike accident very close to Clouds Hill. He is buried in Moreton and his legend as Lawrence of Arabia lives on.

Image Credits: Phillip Capper Elliott Brown Chin tin tin Lowell Thomas