A circuit across wooded heath and farmland to the place where Hardy, quite literally, left his heart.
Distance 5 miles (8km)
Minimum time 2hrs
Ascent/gradient 328ft (100m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Woodland and heathland tracks, muddy field paths and bridleways, firm paths, road, 15 stiles
Landscape Woodland, tree-clad heath, open meadows, waterway, rolling farmland
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 117 Cerne Abbas & Bere Regis
Start/finish SY 725921
Dog friendliness Not allowed in Hardy's garden or cottage; deer shooting year-round in woods - keep dogs close
Parking Thorncombe Wood (donations) below Hardy's Cottage
Public toilets None on route; nearest north west on A35
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1 Take the steep woodland path to the right of the display boards, signposted 'Hardy's Cottage'. Turn left at the fingerpost and follow the winding route down to a crossroads of tracks, marked by a monument. Turn left for Hardy's Cottage.
2 Retrace your route up behind the cottage and bear left, signed 'Rushy Pond'. At a crossroads take the path signed 'Norris Mill'. Where the path forks bear right. Cross a track then head down between rhododendrons. Emerge on to heathland and stay on the path. Follow markers down to the right. Descend, cross a stile and bear right. Cross a pair of stiles and turn left up the field, towards a house.
3 Cross the road on to a farm track. Bear right before some barns, cross a stile and continue up the track. After a gate bear right over a field. Cross a pair of stiles in the hedge, then go straight ahead across the fields and a drive, passing Duddle Farm on the left. Cross a bridge and stile down into a field. Go straight on and bear left, following the track round the hill. Cross a stile by a converted barn and walk up the drive. At the fingerpost keep straight on through a gate, signed 'Lower Bockhampton'. Bear left through another gate then walk down the field to a gate at the far corner. Go through and straight on, with the river on your left. Go through the farmyard to the road.
4 Turn left by Bridge Cottage. Cross the stream and immediately turn right, on to a causeway. After ½ mile (800m) turn right, signed 'Stinsford'. Walk up and turn left into the churchyard, just below the church. Pass the church to your left, and the Hardy graves to your right. Leave by the top gate and walk up the road. Pass a piggery and turn right along the road. Turn left at the end to the main road by a house.
5 Turn right, up the road. After the entrance to Birkin House, bear left through a gate and immediately turn right on to a path through woodland, parallel with the road. Descend, cross a stile and bear left to a fingerpost. Next, go through the gate and bear diagonally right up the field, signposted 'Higher Bockhampton'. At the top corner keep straight on through a gate and turn right towards a barn. Pass this and bear right on a track to the road. Turn left, then right by the post box, and right again to return to the car park.
You can't go far in Dorset without coming across references to novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). Writing about a rural scene that was already vanishing at the end of the 19th century, he did more than anybody to establish an identity for the county, which he thinly disguised as a fictional Wessex. His complicated tales of thwarted desire and human failing, littered with memorable, realistic characters and evocative descriptions of recognisable places, have become literary classics.
Hardy was born at Higher Bockhampton in the cottage built by his great grandfather, set in a lovely garden. The cottage is now owned by the National Trust, however a much better collection of Hardy relics is held in Dorchester's museum, which includes a re-creation of his study. Hardy went to school locally and later in Dorchester. He joined his father playing fiddle in the lively Stinsford church band. Apprenticed as an architect, he befriended the dialect poet William Barnes, but it was several years before his own poetry started to appear in print.
In 1867 he retired to Dorset for health reasons and began writing seriously. His first published novel was Desperate Remedies (1871), swiftly followed by Under the Greenwood Tree (1872), A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873) and Far From the Madding Crowd (1874). Riding on the success of this last book he married Emma Gifford and they lived for a time at Sturminster Newton. Success followed success, and the highlights of this profitable period include The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887, Hardy's own declared favourite), Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) and Jude the Obscure (1895).
In 1885 Hardy and his wife moved to the home he had designed at Max Gate, on the outskirts of Dorchester (his Casterbridge), and he remained there for the rest of his life. Emma died, estranged and childless, in 1912, and two years later Thomas married Florence Dugdale. In 1928, when he died, Hardy was a celebrated grand old man of letters, in fact, a national treasure. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. He had requested that his heart, however, be buried in Stinsford (his Mellstock) churchyard, and so, unusually, he has two graves, the latter lying between the tombs of his two wives.
The Hardy influence is still strong in Dorset. Fact and fiction become blurred in 'Tess's Cottage', and many pubs proudly identify themselves as their fictional counterpart. A long distance footpath, the Hardy Way, links many of his favourite sites.
Visit the formal Edwardian gardens and extensive parkland of Kingston Maurwood. They include a rose garden, a Japanese garden, an outstanding double herbaceous border and an unusual red garden. The Georgian house is now occupied by an agricultural college. There's also a lively farm animal park (including llamas) for children to enjoy and a visitor centre.
The Greenwood tea rooms and restaurant occupy a beautifully restored, thatched barn, right beside the car park. The restaurant is part of Greenwood Grange Farm self-catering complex, converted from barns built by Hardy's father. Benches and tables outside overlook a landscaped garden and pond. Inside it's light and airy, with a central fire in winter. The food is freshly cooked and there are delicious chocolate cakes and pastries to have with your tea. Children are very welcome, but dogs must stay outside.
As you turn up from the watercourse towards Stinsford church, look left for the unusual sight of pictorial thatch. What looks like a bear and other animals have been carved into the newly thatched roofs of a cottage and its garage. In the churchyard look out for the big slate tombstone of Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-72), who also wrote popular detective novels under the pseudonym Nicholas Blake.