25 October 2020

Dorset is beautiful, wherever you go . . .

Song and lyrics by the Yetties (also performed by the Wurzels if that’s your pleasure). And, indeed, it is strikingly beautiful. Marvellous coastlines, stunning clifftop paths, luscious green fields and gorgeous deep blue skies (when the sun is shining).

As mentioned in last week’s dispatches, we had a wonderful four days in Dorset which provided an excellent and much-needed break. We had booked a National Trust cottage right on the coastal footpath which turned out to be even better than we had imagined. It was small and quaint but very comfortable and set in the most idyllic setting imaginable. Beech Cottage is part of a thatched former farmhouse, one of St Gabriel’s Cottages, on the site of a former hamlet. The cottages are utterly isolated nestled at the foot of Golden Cap, the highest point on the south coast.

The cottage is approached by way of a very narrow lane, so narrow that the vegetation scrapes both sides of the car as you navigate your way along the track. On our arrival it was rainy and dismal but Ms Playchute, who was driving at the time, considered this to be no hindrance. After we arrived she conceded that she had always fancied being a rally driver – my ashen face and white knuckles suggested that I might not be the best person to serve as her navigator.

We did make our way up Golden Cap on the evening of our arrival but the mist and mizzling rain obscured the view – we could just about make out the waves breaking against the shore below but not much else. The following day, though, the sun shone and, for the rest of our stay, the weather was fabulous – bright, bright blue and clear sunny skies.

On the Tuesday we took ourselves off on a tromp across the fields to the charming seaside community of Seatown and then back along the coastal path and up (and over) Golden Cap (again). We encountered lots of fellow trompers and we all agreed how fortunate we were with the weather and how stunningly beautiful the views were. I have to say, though – Golden Cap is a very steep climb.

That afternoon we took ourselves down the coast to Lyme Regis, a lovely (and popular) seaside town. Lyme Regis is situated at the heart of the Jurassic Coast, so called because of the wealth of fossils found here. It was in the cliffs near Lyme that the famous Ichthyosaur was discovered in 1819 by Mary Anning, the daughter of a local fossil collector. She went on to find a complete Plesiosaur and the well preserved remains of a flying reptile.

Lyme’s existence depended upon the Cobb, a small artificial harbour dating from the time of Edward I. Lyme is exposed to south-westerly gales, and the Cobb acts as both a harbour and a breakwater. Because of The Cobb, Lyme Regis became a shipbuilding centre and important port: as recently as 1780 it was larger than the port of Liverpool. The Cobb is internationally known as the place where Louisa Musgrove fell from steps known locally as “Granny’s Teeth”, in Jane Austen’s novel “Persuasion”. It also features in the John Fowles’ novel “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and the film of the same name starring Meryl Streep.

Dorset is also Thomas Hardy country, of course, and on Wednesday we ventured out to Athelhampton House, a place he visited regularly. His father, a stonemason, had worked on the house and Hardy was here, apparently, having dinner on the evening war was declared in 1914. The house is one of England’s finest Tudor Manor houses and the gardens are certainly worth a visit (which was the main reason we went). Even accepting that it was autumn, however, and thus the tail end of the season, the gardens felt somewhat neglected. The house is privately owned and it feels as if they don’t quite have the resources to employ all the gardeners such an estate might require. Still, it was a lovely day out and, again, the weather smiled upon us.

After the visit to Athelhampton we wandered down the road to Higher Brockhampton and Hardy’s birthplace. Sadly, due to Covid the cottage is not currently open to the public so we had to make do with getting lost in the surrounding woods and looking at the cottage and garden from outside the fence. We had been here about forty years ago on one of our relatively few excursions without the boys but it would have been nice to see how much our memories have become disjointed in that time.

Thursday morning we made our way down the coast to Abbotsbury Subtropical Gardens which were lovely.

The history of Abbotsbury is interesting. Although the London Journal recorded in 1752 that ‘all the people of Abbotsbury, including the Vicar, are thieves, smugglers and plunderers of wrecks’ the village began to change in the years following with the construction of Abbotsbury Castle on a site overlooking Lyme Bay. A walled kitchen garden was built soon after and in 1808 the open fields surrounding the gardens were enclosed and immediately a major programme of woodland planting was instigated by the 3rd Earl of Ilchester.

The range of plants in the garden was expanded especially by the 4th Earl of Ilchester who was a diplomat on foreign service, a leading botanist and an expert on the flora of Europe and more species have been added since then. After a period of decline during the period between the wars, the gardens have been extended further and restored following damage suffered in the great storm of 1990.

After Abbotsbury we repeated a driving tour we had done forty years previously visiting various places associated with Hardy and/or mentioned in his various novels and poems. Amongst the highlights:

Stinsford (Mellstock) – Hardy was christened at the church here, and his first wife Emma is buried in the churchyard. Hardy himself wanted to be buried with her, but only his heart is interred in Emma’s grave.

West Stafford – The church in West Stafford is the likely marital place of Tess and Angel Clare in Tess of the d’Uberville’s.

Woodsford – Hardy’s father was engaged to repair the thatched Woodsford Castle in 1856. Hardy helped prepare the plans for the remodelling, and on the basis of this work he was offered an apprenticeship to the architect John Hicks, owner of Woodsford Castle.

Moreton – In the cemetery here is the grave of Hardy’s friend TE Lawrence; Lawrence of Arabia.

Bere Regis (Kingsbere) – The town features in Tess and Far from the Madding Crowd. Tess set up her family’s bed under the Tuberville window in the south wall of the church, and inside the church are the tombs of the Tubervilles.

Puddletown (Weatherbury) – Hardy’s grandfather and great-grandfather were Puddletown natives, and the church gallery was celebrated by Hardy in Under the Greenwood Tree. In Far From the Madding Crowd, Troy spent the night in the church porch.

Cerne Abbas (Abbot’s Cernel) – The village, more famous for the ancient figure of a giant carved into the hillside, featured in The Woodlanders and Tess of the d’Ubervilles. The tithe barn in Cerne Abbas may also be the model for the great barn in Far From the Madding Crowd.

Wool – Woolbridge Manor was Hardy’s Wellbridge Manor, where Angel Clare and Tess spent their honeymoon.

A splendid day out.

After an exhausting morning and early afternoon sitting in the car, Penelope decided fish and chips were required for lunch. We then spent the rest of the day trying to find a venue which was open and which could provide such sustenance. Eventually, at about half past five that evening we turned up at West Bay to find a harbour-side shack offering such fare which we gobbled down while sat in the car overlooking the harbour. Lovely.

On Friday we had to set off for home again but on the way stopped for a wander around Keyneston Mill gardens. This is a “smelly” garden which was fascinating but not quite what we had expected. It’s clearly a relatively recent development and is, essentially, a perfumery – they use aromatic plants to produce fragrances. Although it was late in the season and much of the colour and beauty of the gardens was over, the smell of the various plants and, especially, their leaves, was fabulous.

After a cup of coffee and a gorgeous salted caramel brownie it was on the road and home again. A wonderful break much appreciated.

Only two quick items from the You Could Not Make It Up department this week.

The “world-beating” Track and Trace system continues to provide great value for money. This week folks in Kent were sent for testing to a non-existent testing centre in Sevenoaks. Yep. Since the start of March the government has spent £10 billion (!) on Track and Trace and it still doesn’t work.

And in one of the highlights of the week Michael Gove, one of the muppets behind the whole Brexit fiasco, claimed in the House of Commons that UK security would be better once the UK had left the EU and no longer had access to data and shared intelligence. Essentially, according to Gove, who has no principles other than the pursuit of his own self-aggrandizement, everything will be better once we have left the EU. Not surprisingly, this did not go down too well with those of a more sentient nature. As one crossbench peer in the House of Lords put it:

Without the ability to exchange data and intelligence across frontiers, law enforcement will be increasingly unable to cope. Everything from extradition to notification of alerts, crime scene matches and criminal record searches will be much slower, at best.

We’re looking forward to a splendid weekend – our friends Dave & Sue and Sue & Stuart are up for a visit and we’re off to Michael Heseltine’s splendid garden just down the road.

Meanwhile, keep happy, keep smiling, keep isolating as much as you can, wear a facemask when you go out and keep your distance. And keep safe.

Lots of love to you all,

Greg

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