Writing Places 2017 – Autumn days in Hardy Country: a creative response to contemporary rural life – an essay by Virginia Astley

To mark the end of her residency at Hardy’s Cottage in October, we asked writer-in-residence Virginia Astley to consider contemporary rural life in her essay. She’s been visiting people in the local community and has painted us a picture. Here’s her piece…

It’s another damp autumn morning and dragging Henry Hoover round Hardy’s study I notice how, in their seasonal way, extended families of spiders are starting to colonise various corners and cornicing. I’m really not sure about vacuuming up entire families of spiders, or those daddy long legs scurrying behind the desk – on the one hand I may not doing my job properly if they stay but on the other, I don’t want to be part of insectageddon.  Thinking of Hardy’s poem August Midnight I decide to head downstairs for a dustpan and brush.

Opening the backdoor, with the daddy longlegs and spiders that have not sensibly parachuted back into the warm, I’m aware of the white noise of the A35 – that inescapable drone. What would Hardy have made of this? What would he make of all the visitors: 24,812 to Max Gate and 37,332 to the cottage so far this year. That’s an awful lot of car journeys.

The sound is all-pervasive, even at the cottage itself. I was writing one evening and opened the window. There it was: that chorused hum. Despite being nestled at the end of the valley, surrounded by trees. The cottage is not the sanctuary it once was, the haven Hardy returned to after years of living in London, where he wished to transcribe the song of the nightingale, where his daily walk to Dorchester revived his health. Nowadays, the walks from his cottage to either Max Gate or Dorchester are accompanied by the A35. It’s a long time ago since the nightingale cast his call across the woods.

It’s strange how things somehow become more attractive when we drive to them. More appealing. The grass-is-greener syndrome. I’m as guilty as anyone of this. There’s this mindset that if we travel to something – it will be better. If we drive to the woods it will be a better experience than following the familiar walks around our home. Also guilty of cabin fever, or village-fever, where not leaving the village for more than two days I become almost desperate to do so. But as Hardy himself wrote: ‘It is better for a writer to know a little bit of the world remarkably well than to know a great part of the world remarkably little.’ Maybe Hardy is right. Maybe it’s about tuning in more closely to the special places on our doorsteps. I think too about him recording in his notebook ‘Lonely places in the country have each their own peculiar silence’. But this thought only brings me back to the A35.

All morning the moon has hung in the sky and now at barely half past three a tawny owl calls out through a fretwork of leafless branches. These days the woods are thinner, sparser, still green in odd patches, catching the frost light at the back end of the year. The nights are getting longer, the days greyer. Once again I’ve returned to Thorncombe and the heath beyond. It’s All Hallows and I’m trying to find a new route onto Rainbarrows. Beyond the pines there’s a gap between great high walls of rhododendron. I aim for this and come out onto a high plateau, following the paths made by the cob and grey Dartmoor ponies towards an unusual tree on the horizon. Close-up it reveals itself as a silver birch with many bundles of mistletoe in its branches. But it’s not mistletoe. It looks as though small baskets have been hurled into its branches. I take photos and plan to ask one of the rangers, Kath or Claire, back at the visitor centre.

This is one of the areas close to the cottage that has less noise pollution. Here it’s possible to look down on relatively empty farmland, and at least in the summer when the trees are in full leaf for there to be relative quiet. I recall our walks there this autumn with the writing group. The first, in late September sun, the day after the equinox and my mother’s funeral. I felt relieved to be outdoors, the textures of the heath like some crazy new textile knotted with roots and stumps, all spread about our feet. I remember Carolyn wanting to lie down to experience the smell of the gorse, to gain an insect’s perspective. I’d felt appreciative of Rod’s company. A man who could recite The Roman Road as we walked along it, point out local features, and remember to warn us of the possibility of snakes on what was an unexpectedly warm day. Rod is a keen cyclist and frequently undertakes long-distance cycles. Earlier this year he cycled 1000 mile around Hardy’s Wessex for Marie Curie often cycling at night as that’s when he says it’s safer.

In the last light I head back towards the car park. From somewhere beyond Rushy Pond a blue-grey wisp uncoils into the darkening. I edge round the pond and drop down the slope beyond to where another, more secret pond lies. Close by, Kath’s van is parked and she and a cluster of volunteers are packing up tools after a day of furze-cutting. Her band is made up of men, all retired. Kath tells me they’ve also been filling in gaps around the pond, before the light failed. If there was a similar activity in their own locality would these men want to help out? In our village my friend, a community archaeologist, organised a dig and most of the volunteers came from outside. No one in the village was particularly interested. Maybe we don’t value what’s on our doorstep. Or maybe it’s because we sometimes need a change of environment. I show Kath the photos of the strange bundles in the silver birch tree. She says they are hexenbesens – witches’ brooms. These are abnormal growths of small branches, caused by either physical damage to the tree, or insects, or fungi. Kath says they hope in five years that Thorncombe woods will have reverted to heathland as it was in Hardy’s day.

Yesterday I walked to Puddletown.  Kath had sent me an email with details of how to reach Puddletown from the cottage. She’d kindly attached a map of the forest, my route high-lighted. But she may just have said, ‘Keep the sound of the dual carriageway to your left at all times’ and I wouldn’t have got lost. And as autumn has progressed and the leaves fallen that chorused hum has grown louder.

More and more people and groups are using the woods closest to the cottage –Thorncombe woods – owned and looked after by Dorset County Council but if you walk a little further there are very few people about. In three hours I only saw another two people out in the forest.

The clocks have gone back, it’s raining and there’s a cold east wind blowing over the roofs of the town. The glow from the amber street lamps does nothing to lessen the feeling of sadness that November brings. I’m meeting with Susie, the present day version of the Mayor of Casterbridge. The council offices are in a spot largely unchanged since Hardy’s day. Around the corner stands the King’s Arms and across the side street lie the prison and St Peter’s church. There is still a jewellers over the High Street. The Corn Exchange with the council chambers is a few doors away.

Susie is warm and friendly. ‘I thought you’d like to see this,’ she says as she lifts an attaché case onto her desk. She clicks the lid open to reveal the ‘official gold chain with its great square links’ as described by Hardy.

The position of mayor in Dorchester dates back to 1629 when John Parkyns was elected as the first mayor. This mayoral chain was presented to the town in 1874. When Hardy based himself in Dorchester to write The Mayor of Casterbridge this chain must have been around ten years old. The individual links are engraved with the names of all the early mayors. Susie says she doesn’t have to clean the chain. It’s sent away for that. It’s remarkably shiny. This is the second time Susie has been its custodian.

Susie stresses her role is a civic one and tells me she’s surprised by how many inspirational people there are in town, quietly getting on with it. Susie believes one person really can make a difference. An example in our town is Dr Ian Stuart who following his own diagnosis with a rare condition set up Cavernoma Alliance UK to support others in similar circumstances. Susie was previously a social worker and later a registrar. She relates a touching story of a young couple – Hardy fans – who came to Dorchester and who she was going to marry in the King’s Arms. She explained to them that the room they were to be married in was the room where Elizabeth-Jane and Susan first witnessed Henchard as Mayor, presiding over a meal with his fellow council dignitaries. They were thrilled when she added that they were being married by the present day Mayor of Casterbridge.

Hardy’s Cottage lies in the rural parish of Stinsford. Hardy celebrates this area of agricultural land, hamlets, flood meadow and woodland in his book Under the Greenwood Tree. It’s also home to Kingston Maurward house, once a grand family house but now a college for land-based studies.

On a bright blue autumn day with a sky the colour of delphiniums Mark and are walking across the Kingston Maurward estate pausing at the smoking shelters and any other likely spots to try and catch up with the students. Mark is the present day Vicar of Stinsford (Hardy’s Melstock) and we first met one Sunday when I attended the church. There were only seven in the congregation but Mark was cheery, made the best of it, and sounded sincere as he broke off here and there to talk about the studio school and about young people in the country. At the end he’d thanked Juliet the organist,

‘Up in the balcony … I love saying that’ he added laughing.

I ask Mark what he feels are the challenges for rural communities. His reply is instant.

‘Loss of pub, shop, transport, lack of affordable housing’.

By the stables we meet a student studying equine care. She tells us she lives on Portland and went to the disastrous IPACA school. Mark knows the school and its chequered history from when he spent three years as curate over there.

Her two friends, also studying equine care, tell us they live in Bridport, which they describe as ‘Boring. Full of old people.’

As we leave them, Mark talks a little about his time on Portland. He mentions the CD’s accompanying the services. How either they’d be too slow, too fast, run on too long or cut out too early. I liken this to the dreadful barrel organ at the museum, the one that was used in Puddletown church from 1845-1852. How turning the handle in the museum basement on a summer’s day last year I gained an experiential sense of how bleak it must have been to try and sing along to this. With the steadiest turning in the world it was impossible for this to sound anything approximating music. It makes me think of Hardy’s Uncle James, who, when the vicar disbanded the church band and installed a barrel organ, turned the handle of the beast. A terrible demotion.

We walk down the length of the parkland to a building at the edge of the campus. This is the forge where the welding and blacksmith course runs. On the way we meet five agricultural students. They all live in villages. All say they enjoy village life, that ‘everyone is friendly’. One lad adds ‘There’s plenty to do … I live right by the woods’.  It’s a relief to find some lads that appreciate their village lives.

In the evening I’m too tired to get to the Mindfulness group now running in our village pub. But it’s a large successful group. And run by two women who attended classes themselves in Bridport and Dorchester. I love this, that they are now sharing this with the village, in the pub! But it’s making me think that maybe it’s time I started doing something. That maybe I could lead some walks for people with dementia round our village. But I must get to bed. Tomorrow I’m back at Max Gate.

Photos: Virginia Astley and Hardy’s Cottage

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