I arrived in Dorset on Friday afternoon to find the house and garden bathed in remarkable sunshine. It felt like a midsummer evening. Will and Maggie were driving down for the weekend, and my neighbours Ed and Christine were coming over for supper to celebrate 9 years since they moved to the village.
I snapped a couple of photos on instagram that evening… …and that was the last we saw of the sun. The following morning a heavy fog lay in the valley, and rain was falling. We abandoned plans for Bridport market, never that fun in the wet, and decided instead to head to the tiny cottage, that none of us had visited before, which was Thomas Hardy’s birthplace, at Higher Bockhampton, just the other side of Dorchester. A good thing for a day like that.
If you visit, be sure to take the path through the woods to the cottage. They are beautiful… the perfect approach. In the thick melancholic mist, totally quiet, with only the sound of birdsong, it felt like walking through the opening pages of a Hardy novel.
You approach the house from above. It nestles in a narrow valley.
Hardy’s family were builders, and his grandfather built the cottage. Here Hardy wrote his first two novels, Under the Greenwood Tree, and Far from the Madding Crowd.
It was a beautiful place. Perfect.
We called in at Stinsford, to find his memorial in the churchyard, along with Hardy family graves, and the beautifully-carved gravestone of the poet Cecil Day Lewis.
Next on the journey: Max Gate, Hardy’s house that he designed and built on the outskirts of Dorchester. Hardy trained as an architect. I think it’s a good thing he wrote.
The house was horrible.
Partly… to be fair to Hardy, because it is furnished in faux-Hardy-style like some grim old people’s home from the 1970s…Partly, because of the gruesome attic where his wife Emma retreated for the last decades of her life, coming down only for an hour in the evening to sometimes have supper with Hardy. It was completely freaky:
But above all, it was basically just one of the nastiest houses I’ve been in for a very long time. Everything about it was badly planned, claustrophobic, awkward. I really hated it (can you tell?). The sort of place where you visit and want to take a bath as soon as you get home. Such an extraordinary contrast to the beautiful, serene little place we had just been at.
You can tell why I’m not very good at English Literature. I’m sure that a lot of readers of the blog will know a lot more about Thomas Hardy than I do, although I love those of his novels that I’ve read. But certainly I never want to return to Max Gate again in my life. The National Trust guides, incidentally, could not have been friendlier and nicer.
We stopped for a brilliant lunch at the Buttercross Bakery in Poundbury, run by my friend Clive Cobb. Good to be in a place that felt alive again. I designed the Buttercross with Clive. The exterior is pure red-brick 18th century classical. Inside, we decided to leave the concrete blocks and steel frame exposed – pure and unadulterated, like Clive’s simple plain beautifully-baked food. Not to everyone’s taste, but it feels curiously real amongst the cornices and sash windows of Poundbury. It has a great atmosphere. Call in if you are passing.
The Parsonage was still shrouded in a deep mist.
We went for a melancholic walk, exploring the derelict 19th-century stable block in the village…
And heading down the valley in to the gloom.
I don’t think I can end the blog on quite such a grey note. Time to wake up. Hehehehe.
Well, you remember my crazy purple dining room?
Which now has a pair of bright orange curtains which I’ve moved from my old study upstairs…? Bonkers. My job lot of junk-auction Piranesi engravings is being framed as I write. But I had decided I wanted to carpet the room, with a proper wool carpet. If you’re going mental 1960s country-house-look, you’ve got to go the whole way. I wanted it to be olive green.
To complete a completely bizarre day, we stopped off at Carpet Right in Dorchester on the way home.
It’s a brilliant place. Here’s me and Sean ordering my carpet samples. Not quite where you’d expect to find me buying my carpets, eh? Think again. I somehow suspect the FLASH SALE poster is there permanently, don’t you? We were the only customers.
They had exactly what I wanted.
Say what you like about my dreadful taste. I’m loving it. I’m ordering that carpet next week. I think it is important not to use an underlay. I want to see the shadow of the floorboards coming through the pile, don’t you? The curtains need extending, so I’ll order a deep chocolate brown bullion fringe.
Maggie pointed out that colour inspiration was right outside the window.She had a pretty good point.
We woke up on Sunday morning. Guess what. More mist. We had breakfast and abandoned Dorset. Too much fog already. We had the smoothest drive back to London and a delicious lunch at the Bibendum Oyster bar and a happy mooch around the Conran Shop. Reminding one that the best of life is all about contrasts, and it’s never a good idea to let the gloom penetrate a whole weekend. Have a great week!