Thomas Hardy and Dorset’s Thatch
An author’s view of the craft
In Victorian fiction, the urban world is perhaps best described in Charles Dickens’ timeless classics. But the ups and downs of country living, had no better advocate than Thomas Hardy.
His works are probably unique, in having some of his characters engaged in activities associated with the craft of thatching. The author having already provided us with some very useful information, in the Materials and Tools section. Making thatching spars; with the help of Marty South, from The Woodlanders, features in ‘Fixing multilayered Roofs’. And his other, more famous heroine, Tess has shown us the art of binding sheaves in the harvest field and drawing thatch, in a mid winter barn. Found in Harvesting Cereal Thatch & Combed Wheat Reed… The author also had Gabriel Oak, thatching ricks all night long, in Far From The Madding Crowd. A little artistic licence was used here no doubt, but it is technically accurate. All these activities were more than familiar to Hardy; living in the heart of what is still, a very rural county.
But buildings as well as words also remain. Among the multitude of thatch, still found in Dorset; the South Wessex his stories were mainly set in, a number associated with Hardy are still to be found…
On the heath.. The most famous building is his birthplace at Lower Bockhampton. This was built by Hardy’s great grandfather, in around 1800. The Hardys were a family of builders. The author arrived, in the middle bedroom, in the summer of 1840. This image was taken by the local Dorchester photographer William Pouncy, who knew Hardy well. Taken when Hardy still had decades to live. The roof shown here is a neat combed wheat reed thatch. With repairs on the gable end. Very similar to the roof provided by the National Trust today. The open heathland shown here is gradually being restored, after years of being buried under conifer plantations.
By the church… At Puddletown, near his birthplace. This was immortalised as ‘Weatherby’ in ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’; published in 1874. The work that really established Hardy, as an author. His aunt’s thatched cottage is long gone, but more remain, that he would have known. Many near the church. Here he had both ‘Sergeant Troy’ and ‘Fanny Robin’ find a last resting place.
In the Woods… A lighter tale by far, is ‘Under The Greenwood Tree’; the tree still stands, a couple of miles from Hardy’s birthplace. Near the tree is the gamekeeper’s cottage, with the diamond shaped windows; the home of ‘Fancy Day’. This was always tiled, but the nearby former stables are thatched. New, when the author was born, this little building now houses the two sparmakers, pictured in the page on Fixing Multilayered Thatch. Two bundles of their spars are outside, awaiting collection…
Mothers side… Hardy’s mother had a great influence on him, instilling a love of nature and place. She was born and married, in the tiny village of Melbury Osmund. The thatched homes of her parents and shown here, her grandparents, still stand; along with quite a few others. Hardy knew this village well; making it ‘Little Hintock’, in ‘The Woodlanders’. The village were he had ‘Marty South’ make all those thatching spars…
In Dorchester… A much darker story is contained in one of his ‘Wessex Tales’. Where in ‘The Withered Arm’ a meeting is arranged at Hangman’s Cottage. Abode of the ‘Casterbridge’ executioner. Here Hardy also had ‘Michael Henchard’ pass by one dark night; while he was still ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’. This cottage still exists, the former home of Dorchester’s hangman. Hardy saw a previous occupant, publicly at work; an experience that affected him greatly. The cottage is thought to date from the early medieval period.
Down south…This old cottage, now a museum, is situated as far south as Dorset goes; on the Isle of Portland, or ‘The Isle of Slingers’, in Hardy’s later work, ‘The Well-beloved’. This cottage acting as the home of the hero’s lost loves, the decendants of ‘Avice Caro’. The Edwardian thatch shown here, is of water reed. As in other southern maritime counties, local reed beds were exploited. Neighbouring Weymouth still has reed beds at Radipole. In years past a shilling, paid to the town clerk, allowed for a day’s cutting. At the other end of Chesil Beach, lie extensive reed beds at Abbotsbury. In production since at least the middle ages.
In the Blackmoor Vale… Hardy’s most tragic heroine, eventually ends up on the gallows. However, poor ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ has two thatched cottages and a pub, to recall her memory. Tess’s home village of ‘Marlott’, is based on Marnhull, in the ‘Vale of Blackmoor’. Here the real Crown Inn still offers refreshment; this was the ‘Pure Drop’, where her wastrel father drank. A short distance, off across the fields, lies ‘Tess Cottage’. The story goes that late in his life, the great man was found gazing at this house. The owner, on enquiry, was told by Hardy that this was the cottage he had had in mind, for his ‘Tess’ to be born in. In his book he had her sending money home, to pay for the complete rethatching of the family cottage. Including new rafters and ceilings, twenty pounds was needed. The last thatcher was not paid, so there’s no credit to be had. Both pub and cottage date from the seventeenth century.
The Pure Drop…Still open for business.
Miles away… At Evershot or ‘Evershead’, a less well known ‘Tess Cottage’ stands. Here the heroine broke her journey, walking to ‘Angel Clare’s’ home. Hard by the church, this thatch consists of local water reeds, from Abbotsbury. Our man would have seen a roof of combed wheat reed.
Hardy trained as an architect; twenty or so West Country churches still have some very conservative work, designed by him. As was the house he built for himself, Max Gate. Hardy may have been born under thatch, but he made sure his final home was of the latest design, and tiled. He died here aged eighty seven. No one has described the Victorian rural scene and those who lived within it, more eloquently…