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Wessex man

Valerie Hall spends an afternoon in Dorset and discovers the reality behind Thomas Hardy's fictional county

Thomas Hardy rambled far and wide through "Wessex", a "partly real, partly dream-country" based on the ancient kingdom of central, southern and western England. Whether on foot, in a train or, when well into his 80s, on his beloved bicycle, he was a great observer and what he witnessed often appeared in his work, from the name "Henery" carved in a church pew to the town of Dorchester itself (Hardy's Casterbridge).

Now, GCSE and A-level groups can retrace his steps by following some or all of the Hardy Trail, an extensive motor route around Hardy locations in Wessex, supported by a new, illustrated information pack, which is free to educational groups. Developed by Margaret Marande, it builds on her guidebook to the Hardy Way, a waymarked 213-mile footpath along a similar route, and is backed by local authorities, tourist boards and the Thomas Hardy Society, with funding from the Rural Development Commission.

Having but one afternoon to sample the trail, I experience the topography of one novel, The Return of the Native, by standing Eustacia Vye-like on Rainbarrows (three Bronze Age burial mounds) and gazing across that "vast tract of unenclosed wild", Egdon Heath (Puddletown Heath).

Nowadays, little of it is as unaltered from prehistoric times as the stars overhead, but here at least it is relatively untouched by plough or afforestation. A nearby pile of "furze faggots" is a reminder that beacons have been lit here, as described by Hardy, for centuries.

My tour also includes Hardy's cottage at Higher Bockhampton, where he was born and lived for 30 years, Stinsford Church and cemetery, where his heart is buried (if you discount recent stories that a cat ate it) and Puddletown Church to see the gargoyles which overflow in Far from the Madding Crowd, washing out the flowers planted by Sergeant Troy on Fanny Robin's grave.

Since much of the action in Hardy's novels is centred on South Wessex (Dorset), the county town of Dorchester is a good starting point for Hardy studies. He lived for 40 years on its outskirts in Max Gate, a villa built to his design in 1885. Owned by the National Trust, it has only recently been opened to the public for three afternoons a week, April to September.

Hardy wrote several novels here, but turned to poetry and was most prolific in 1912-13 immediately after his first wife Emma's death and his discovery of her notebooks. Although these started off happily, they ended, according to the second Mrs Hardy's testimony, with "venom, hatred and abuse of him and his family". He burned them, but fell in love with her all over again and poured out a deluge of poignant love poetry.

The house has a melancholy ambience - "people are grabbed by the sadness of Hardy's marriage to Emma", says Andrew Leah, Max Gate's present tenant. The poem, "Everything Comes", describes Emma's reaction to Max Gate: "The house is bleak and coldBuilt so new for me."

Other poems trace how happy the marriage was to begin with and its descent into disillusionment and estrangement: "I am here and you are there,And a hundred miles between!" Emma insisted on having an attic bedroom built for her, with an adjacent room for her servant Dolly Gale. Mr Leah tells how Dolly found Emma at her last gasp and told Hardy, but he didn't take the news seriously - instead, he ordered her to straighten her collar and go.

Mr Leah, an ex-English teacher, runs seminars for GCSE and A-level groups at Pounds 4.50 per student. Lasting two and a half hours, they include a tour of the house, the pets' cemetery and the garden to see, say, the "alley of bending boughs" and Druid stone mentioned in the poems.

The second part of the seminar, in Hardy's final study, addresses the book or poems currently being studied. Also available is an hour's guided tour including poetry readings, costing Pounds 1.50 for students, Pounds 2 for adults.

Mr Leah and his wife Marilyn draw on their own anecdotes. "For example, relatives of people who were servants at Max Gate have told us stories about famous people who visited Hardy here. One lady's mother was the cook and remembered T E Lawrence talking to the servants and the dog, Wessex -everybody loved Lawrence's blue eyes," says Mr Leah.

Some of Hardy's furniture has been loaned by the Dorset Museum and there are two photograph albums. These show Hardy as a teenager, middle-aged and elderly, sometimes with one or the other of his wives, or posing with his bicycle.

Most interesting are the pictures recording the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1923, showing Hardy looking dapper, his wife Florence, rigid with anxiety, and the Prince with awkward hands and buttoned-up jacket (apparently because he'd told his valet to wear his waistcoat "your bloody self").

Also worth visiting is the splendid new Writers' Gallery in Dorchester Museum, which gives Hardy pride of place. Half of the world's surviving Hardy material can be found here, including original manuscripts and a reconstruction of his Max Gate study as he left it at his death.

Through lively displays and computer interactives, you can explore influences on his work, including the history of the early church in Dorset, riddles, the medieval oral tradition of mummers and Mystery Plays, carols, ghostly tales and smuggling stories.

You discover that activities like wife-selling and violent skimmity riding - both important plot elements in The Mayor of Casterbridge - were common in Hardy's time. And there is a section on Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the only one of his novels that Hardy adapted for performance. Other local writers featured include William Barnes, Jane Austen, John Cowper Powys and Sylvia Townsend Warner.

The Hardy Trail. Dorset Tourism, tel: 01305 221001. The illustrated information pack comprises factual and biographical material with pull-out sheets for each novel, the poems and short stories featured on syllabuses. Practical information includes places to stay and eat at all prices, coach parking facilities, bus and rail timetables and a summary of other attractions in the area

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