Victorian romance revisited

In the first of our summer series about teachers who spend their holidays delving deeper into their subjects, English teacher Iain MacDonald sets off on the trail of novelist and poet Thomas Hardy.

I Am standing in the hallway in shorts and T-shirt that almost match and blue Doc Martens that don't, a paisley cravat knotted at my throat. I look slightly ridiculous, but I don't care. I'm going backpacking, all on my own, assuming I can lift the rucksack which squats at my feet.

I'm heading first for the remote parish of St Juliot in north Cornwall, where the old curmudgeon, Thomas Hardy, met and courted Emma Gifford, who became his first wife. I want to stand in the porch of the rectory, as Hardy stood at the end of his long, uncomfortable journey from Dorchester. I want to imagine the door being opened by the vivacious, handsome, young lady in brown who was to capture the novelist's heart.

The current owners of the Old Rectory, now a Bamp;B, are sensitive to the literary associations of their home and have agreed to show me round that evening. I'm not the first porch lingerer they've entertained. Some come from as far afield as Japan.

But first I have got to get there. It is the hottest day of the year, and the bus is empty. I have a campsite in mind, identified on my OS rambler's map, and the bus driver helpfully deposits me at the lane-end. By the time I've settled my rucksack, the bus has left me standing in the stunning, pollen-laden silence of a Cornish country lane, surrounded by wild flowers I can't name. butterflies dance before me.

Two hours of up-hill-down-dale, nettle-choked footpaths later and pollen-laden butterflies lose their appeal. I finally find the campsite and all I need is a bit of shade in which to sit down and eat my sarnies. Of course, there isn't any at two o'clock in the afternoon, so it's either my tent, which isn't up yet, or the toilet block. I divest myself of my pack, wander to the utility block to freshen up, linger in the cool darkness till my strength returns, then set to with the tent. I crawl inside, manage one suspiciously warm chicken tikka sandwich and two chapters of Jude the Obscure, and fall asleep for the rest of the afternoon.

At six o'clock, the sun is mellow rather than merciless and the campsite has come to life. I shower, change, and set off for St Juliot rectory. Optimism is restored and dancing butterflies once more appear as delightful tokens of a benign universe.

The byways are deserted and losing the light as I descend into the Valency valley. There are still swallows wheeling above, but bats now flit between the trees. The church comes into view - a square, grey, crenellated tower with small four pinnacles in the Cornish style, set amid a scattering of tombstones. I walk on.

The old rectory nestles in what Hardy described in verse as a "hid hollow", its back to the sea. Amid ancient trees, their tops are blighted by the salt-laden blasts of successive winters, is the gabled porch that greeted Thomas Hardy in 1870 at the end of his 14-hour journey. When Emma answered the door she noticed some blue paper sticking out of his top pocket. It was the manuscript of a poem. I pause, reflect, and ring the bell.

Later, in my sleeping bag, as I try to negotiate with the unyielding ground on which I lie, I am struck by the separation that is effected by such a passage of time - more than130 years in this case. As I stood where Hardy had stood I had felt some connectedness with the great man, but already the feeling is vanishing in the noises of the campsite at night: the zip of an awning; the chink of a dixie; the couple in the next tent who have brought their television.

Tomorrow, I'm Dorchester-bound, to follow the doomed meanderings of Tess of the D'Urbervilles. My octogenarian mother's nonagenarian whist partner warns me that I must be vigilant and wear stout boots, as the Dorset uplands teem with adders. I cast an affectionate glance at my DMs and switch off my torch.

Next week: Sean Lang mixes holidays with history.

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