Molly was looking for an improvement. A big one. I thought that I had
done well. Very well. I had made a full recovery from the gruelling five-mile trek from Higher Bockampton to Puddletown. Molly called it the five-mile doddle. She was telling me that if we were to carry on walking at the same rate then by the time we got to the finish I’d be an old man; 108.
Drastic measures were called for. To accompany the new high fibre, energy inducing, fat and flavour free diet, an assortment of pills was served guaranteeing to increase my performance and help delay the need for at least one hip replacement; at least that’s what Molly said. Worse was to follow. No more picking me up from the pub, I would have to walk. She can be a hard woman.
I confess. Despite living so close to the home of the second most famous writer this country has produced, I knew precious little about him. Now I was given a feast of Thomas Hardy. For starters there was the visit to the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester. This was followed by an assortment of books from the library. There was also a taste of some beautiful scenery watching the film Tess of the D’Urbevilles. What a shame that it was filmed in Normandy.
Amazingly as well as being blessed as both living in the same county we had something else in common. The title of his first novel, which he was unable to find a publisher for, was the same as I had given to my autobiography, should I ever write it, namely The Poor Man And His Lady. Sadly there the similarities ended. In his glittering 60 year literary career he wrote a staggering 14 novels, 50 short stories a 3 volume epic and 1,000 poems. The only piece of work I had published was a letter to the local newspaper warning of the perils of bikes without lights, written under my pseudonym: Name and address supplied.
After weeks of preparation I was ready to face our next assault: a nine-mile test of endurance that hopefully would see us conquer Bere Regis. The instructions were clear. No more bad jokes.
As we set off from Puddletown all the signs were good. The cloudless blue sky seemed to belie the weather forecast for wintry showers. Molly was impressed with me. There was no sign of any bad humour. Perhaps it was the dawn start. We soon reached Admiston Farm. After climbing the hill we had fine views of the green, fertile Frome valley, otherwise known as the Valley of the Great Dairies. It was here that in the novel Tess would find peace and solace from her sombre existence. Molly was busy snapping. Maybe she would be happier if I bought her a camera. Cattle were grazing in the fields below. Molly said they must be Fresian. I said that I wasn’t that warm myself and that was it she was off. I was walking alone. I was in a world of my own. Was I bothered?
My only companions were the birds and their melodious songs. I like birds. I wish I knew more about them, like so many other things in life. I started to sing; “ The birds like leaves on winter wood, sing hopeful songs on dismal days. They’ve learnt to live life as they should, they are at peace with nature’s ways.” Don Maclean was a brilliant writer. Very briefly I had more company in the shape of two deer that I had disturbed. Any cheap jokes about stag nights would have been wasted. I was still alone. Molly long gone. Suddenly my “at peace with nature’s ways” was shattered. This was something that I was not prepared for; the sound of gunfire. My pace quickened but the cracks were getting closer. Now I was bothered. And then I realised I was lost. My life was in danger. I was then running for my life, but the gunfire was getting louder. I shouted to tell my pursuits to just tell me where the path was and I’d leave but all I could hear was the frenzied shooting. And where was Molly? Suddenly she appeared. “Where have you been? I’ve been so worried” she cried. I hugged her and told her that whatever happened she mustn’t feel guilty for our foolhardy walk. Then she struggled free and to my dismay was calling me something like a silly old sausage. Belligerently she told me that the gunfire was coming from a paint balling expedition being held yonks away, wherever that was. So why then was she so worried? I had the car keys.
Thankfully the track passing the pines of Pallington Clump was well defined and coupled with Molly’s hand gave me a welcome security. I even started to enjoy the views of the heath land and of the coastal downs beyond. After crossing the Affpuddle track we entered the extensive forest. From here we passed under the National Grid five times before briefly abandoning the Hardy Way. We then joined the Jubilee Trail, which took us into Briantspuddle. It was not that we had planned it that way. It was just that we had got lost. It proved to be our good fortune. For most of its past Briantspuddle was little more than a couple of farms. However in the early 20th century Earnest Debenham, of the famous shop chain, changed the face dramatically by building a model farm and creating a new population between the ancient villages of Affpuddle and Turnerspuddle. The result is that it must be one of the most picturesque unspoilt villages in Dorset.
After leaving the village crossing over the water meadows, the River Piddle and passing through the tiny hamlet of Turners Puddle, our journey was delayed. A herd of cattle was being moved to their new home on Black Hill. A fine looking immaculately groomed stallion with his winter coat looked on with his adoring looking filly by his side. No not me. We were walking beside a stud farm. Cordoned off into pairs in their own individual fields, these beautiful creatures watched as the procession crawled the hill. Leading the spectacle were the cattle. But these were not ordinary cattle; they were the Red Devon cattle that would have roamed in Hardy’s day. In second place was something that Hardy would not have known, a land rover that was inching the animals onwards. Struggling to keep up and bringing up the rear was Molly and I. The lovers did not seem to be impressed. Most of them, after seeing the star attraction, had galloped off obviously on a promise of something much more exciting.
Eventually reaching the top, the cattle must have been pleased with their new abode. A home with a view. And what a view! Looking to the right was a glorious panorama stretching as far as the eye could see; over the heath land, then the Frome water meadows and in the distance the coastal plains and the edge of the Purbecks. Looking to the left and the views were equally spectacular; a never-ending scene of the rolling hills of rural North Dorset and before that sitting snug in the valley lay the village of Bere Regis. Molly said how excited she felt that we would be seeing a lot more of the surrounding countryside in our days to come. I said I felt thirsty.
Bere Regis is Hardy’s Kingsbere sub Greenhill. The village itself was established in its present position as a small settlement during Saxon times. In 1788 most of the village was destroyed leaving few houses of earlier date. Pride of place historically probably goes to the Turberville family who came in the reign of Henry V111 and remained for centuries. They are more famous because Thomas Hardy chose them as the basis for his D’Urbeville family.
As we walked through the woods we were joined by the sound of an old friend; the A35. Thankfully we didn’t have to cross it. For in 1988 the village had the privilege of being granted the building of a bypass. Today as we walked along its High Street with its traffic calming humps, it had a sleepy feel. I still felt thirsty. Very. Our next stop was the 17th century Drax Arms. Somehow it seemed to fit the village perfectly; an old fashioned local with a warm welcome. Accompanying the cider was the excellent Blue Vinney soup. I found it difficult to leave, very difficult. My legs were refusing to work. With Molly’s help though we had one more trip to make.
The church of St John the Baptist, with its many connections with Thomas Hardy and the Turbevilles, is one of the most visited parish churches in Dorset. The sign on the green proudly announced that there had been a place of worship here for over 1,000 years. We were warmly invited to attend. How could we refuse? The most striking feature of this beautiful old building was the twelve figures in Tudor costume staring down at the congregation.
That evening, slumped in an armchair with a glass of cider in my hand I reflected on the day. I had made the journey from Puddletown to Bere Regis many times but only once before by foot. That was many years ago as part of a 50 mile school walk. That seemed an awful long time away. I wouldn’t admit it to Molly but I had really enjoyed it, in spite of her badly overreacting to my jokes and the gunfire. I wondered what Thomas Hardy would have made of it. So much of the landscape would have changed from his time but surely he would have approved of how much unspoilt country there was left. I also felt encouraged that there was now less than 200 miles to go; 199 to be precise. And then I drifted. The great man himself was shaking my hand congratulating me on being the first man to complete the Thomas Hardy Way. Hoards of photographers jostled for a picture. Then the dream became a nightmare as the news broke that had I not stuck to the designated route. The dream was now a nightmare. I’d been rumbled. I started to run. Shots were being fired. I stumbled and somebody grabbed me. I was struggling violently. Then I awoke. And there was Molly. It was time for another pill.
Footsteps Part 2
Bere Regis 1863 as Hardy would have known it
Bere Regis nestles in between the hills
Barney rues the day... or an apostle in Bere Regis church - the head- ache!