We walked from Dorchester to Abbotsbury, first heading out to see Maiden Castle and then down to meet the South Dorset Ridgeway.
It was, to be honest, a very long walk.
Seems in Hardy’s time Maiden Castle was still known as Mai Dun, or big hill. Or perhaps he was just showing off.
Two miles out, a quarter of a mile from the highway, was the prehistoric fort called Mai Dun, of huge dimensions and many ramparts, within or upon whose enclosures a human being as seen from the road, was but an insignificant speck. Hitherward Henchard often resorted, glass in hand, and scanned the hedgeless Via—for it was the original track laid out by the legions of the Empire—to a distance of two or three miles… —Mayor of Casterbridge
It was big, extraordinary, everything promised by English Heritage and one of the few hill forts still in use when the Romans arrived here and conquered it in 43 BC.
Maiden Castle in Dorset is one of the largest and most complex Iron Age hillforts in Europe – the size of 50 football pitches. Its huge multiple ramparts, mostly built in the 1st century BC, once protected hundreds of residents. When it was first built, the gleaming white chalk ramparts would have towered over the surrounding landscape.
Excavations here have revealed much about Maiden Castle’s history, such as a Neolithic enclosure from about 3500 BC and a Roman temple built in the 4th century AD. The archaeologists also found evidence of a late Iron Age cemetery, where many of those buried had suffered horrific injuries.
We continued on to the South Dorset Ridgeway. The photographs show the beauty of it, but hardly do justice to the weight and feeling of both Mai Dun and the many barrows that cluster here as you stand and look out across the landscape. In the camera views, they are barely visible. Even Mai Dun, which circles the whole of the hill in the first few pictures hardly seems there, far less so the mounds of earth and chalk weathered now, and covered with grass and wildflowers.
Yet many barrows sit along the ridgeway. It is thought that perhaps this liminal space of the journey grew in its importance to the Bronze age people who lived here, connected as it may have been to the movement from life to death and resulting in the many barrows that line this ancient track as they do that around Avebury. But barrows are everywhere, along the tops of many hills, and down in the middle of fields… it is a sacred landscape that is hard to capture through a lens.
An incredible place to walk however. Mai Dun remains visible on the horizon for a long time, and the many barrows appear and then fall away with more always ahead.
We even found a handy barrow guide at the Hardy monument–not built for the author but for Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, Flag Captain of HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.
I’m not sure how many times Mark said ‘kiss me Hardy’.
I was only there for the barrows. For the Hell Stone (a completely misguided Victorian creation using ancient stones, but still, ancient stones) and the Hampton stone circle (so overgrown you can barely see any of the stones, and that we would have missed without the OS map).
But I do know Abbotsbury never looked so beautiful, and not just due to hunger and sore feet. Coming down from the Ridgeway it is stunning, settled as it is at the base of the hill with Chesil Beach and the sea behind it.
“What an old-fashioned place it seems to be!” said Elizabeth-Jane, while her silent mother mused on other things than topography. “It is huddled all together; and it is shut in by a square wall of trees, like a plot of garden ground by a box-edging.”
Its squareness was, indeed, the characteristic which most struck the eye in this antiquated borough, the borough of Casterbridge—at that time, recent as it was, untouched by the faintest sprinkle of modernism. It was compact as a box of dominoes. It had no suburbs—in the ordinary sense. Country and town met at a mathematical line.
To birds of the more soaring kind Casterbridge must have appeared on this fine evening as a mosaic-work of subdued reds, browns, greys, and crystals, held together by a rectangular frame of deep green. To the level eye of humanity it stood as an indistinct mass behind a dense stockade of limes and chestnuts, set in the midst of miles of rotund down and concave field. The mass became gradually dissected by the vision into towers, gables, chimneys, and casements, the highest glazings shining bleared and bloodshot with the coppery fire they caught from the belt of sunlit cloud in the west.
—The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)
Casterbridge is in fact Dorchester, and perhaps it is not quite as it was in Hardy’s day, but yet it is not all that different either. It no longer is bounded by mathematical line, but continues quite compact and quite beautiful from afar, as seen from the top of Maiden Castle. It is still a similar mosaic-work of colour framed by green.
Its main museum was lovely, particularly the welcome from staff and the Roman section of mosaic, the first I have ever walked over. Gives you chills that does. It had a truly splendid selection of artifacts from the Neolithic through the bronze age and into Roman times. I was full to overflowing with the weight of history having just read Ray & Thomas’s Neolithic Britain, which I can’t really recommend highly enough. This made it extra exciting to see the Newton Peverill jadeite axe, an impossibly beautiful object brought to Britain almost 6000 years ago from the Italian Alps. Also amazing to see some of the objects excavated from the many Bronze Age barrows clustered here along and around the Southern ridgeway, though some had been borrowed by the British Museum. Given its embarrassment of looted riches, that hardly seemed fair.
Two other favourites:
Again, as Hardy writes in Mayor of Casterbridge:
Casterbridge announced old Rome in every street, alley, and precinct. It looked Roman, bespoke the art of Rome, concealed dead men of Rome. It was impossible to dig more than a foot or two deep about the town fields and gardens without coming upon some tall soldier or other of the Empire, who had lain there in his silent unobtrusive rest for a space of fifteen hundred years. He was mostly found lying on his side, in an oval scoop in the chalk, like a chicken in its shell; his knees drawn up to his chest; sometimes with the remains of his spear against his arm, a fibula or brooch of bronze on his breast or forehead, an urn at his knees, a jar at his throat, a bottle at his mouth; and mystified conjecture pouring down upon him from the eyes of Casterbridge street boys and men, who had turned a moment to gaze at the familiar spectacle as they passed by.
This still feels almost true as well — we had also gone to see the Roman Town House that sits just the other side of the Council buildings along the old Roman wall.
And from there on to Max Gate. I hadn’t known Thomas Hardy was an architect and came from a family of builders — he designed this house and his brother built it in 1885.
I quite loved it, as I loved the guided tour and the stories of his reclusiveness, his dog Wessex who bit all of his guests, but also to my mind unforgivably, his poor servants. The visits from W.B. Yeats, Robert Louis Stevenson (his visitors that I liked). The ‘druid’s stone’ as he called it, that was in fact part of a stone circle surrounding the house, though Hardy never knew it. And the room in which he wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure.
Not to be confused with the large and beautiful sudy he built when he had more money, and in which he spent the rest of his days writing poetry and harassing the gardener.
We saw the plaque to the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and saddened but I suppose not surprised to see the pub across the way named for Judge Jeffreys rather than for them. And the ancient henge of Maumbury Ring, converted by the Romans into an amphitheatre for gladitorial games, later a place of defense in the English Civil War, and a place for hangings. Hardy describes its use a place of assignations, but only sad ones:
The Ring at Casterbridge was merely the local name of one of the finest Roman Amphitheatres, if not the very finest, remaining in Britain.
The Amphitheatre was a huge circular enclosure, with a notch at opposite extremities of its diameter north and south. From its sloping internal form it might have been called the spittoon of the Jötuns. It was to Casterbridge what the ruined Coliseum is to modern Rome, and was nearly of the same magnitude. The dusk of evening was the proper hour at which a true impression of this suggestive place could be received. Standing in the middle of the arena at that time there by degrees became apparent its real vastness, which a cursory view from the summit at noon-day was apt to obscure. Melancholy, impressive, lonely, yet accessible from every part of the town, the historic circle was the frequent spot for appointments of a furtive kind. Intrigues were arranged there; tentative meetings were there experimented after divisions and feuds. But one kind of appointment—in itself the most common of any—seldom had place in the Amphitheatre: that of happy lovers.
Why, seeing that it was pre-eminently an airy, accessible, and sequestered spot for interviews, the cheerfullest form of those occurrences never took kindly to the soil of the ruin, would be a curious inquiry. Perhaps it was because its associations had about them something sinister. Its history proved that. Apart from the sanguinary nature of the games originally played therein, such incidents attached to its past as these: that for scores of years the town-gallows had stood at one corner; that in 1705 a woman who had murdered her husband was half-strangled and then burnt there in the presence of ten thousand spectators. Tradition reports that at a certain stage of the burning her heart burst and leapt out of her body, to the terror of them all, and that not one of those ten thousand people ever cared particularly for hot roast after that. In addition to these old tragedies, pugilistic encounters almost to the death had come off down to recent dates in that secluded arena, entirely invisible to the outside world save by climbing to the top of the enclosure, which few townspeople in the daily round of their lives ever took the trouble to do. So that, though close to the turnpike-road, crimes might be perpetrated there unseen at mid-day.
Some boys had latterly tried to impart gaiety to the ruin by using the central arena as a cricket-ground. But the game usually languished for the aforesaid reason—the dismal privacy which the earthen circle enforced, shutting out every appreciative passer’s vision, every commendatory remark from outsiders—everything, except the sky; and to play at games in such circumstances was like acting to an empty house. Possibly, too, the boys were timid, for some old people said that at certain moments in the summer time, in broad daylight, persons sitting with a book or dozing in the arena had, on lifting their eyes, beheld the slopes lined with a gazing legion of Hadrian’s soldiery as if watching the gladiatorial combat; and had heard the roar of their excited voices, that the scene would remain but a moment, like a lightning flash, and then disappear. It was related that there still remained under the south entrance excavated cells for the reception of the wild animals and athletes who took part in the games. The arena was still smooth and circular, as if used for its original purpose not so very long ago.
The sloping pathways by which spectators had ascended to their seats were pathways yet. But the whole was grown over with grass, which now, at the end of summer, was bearded with withered bents that formed waves under the brush of the wind, returning to the attentive ear Æolian modulations, and detaining for moments the flying globes of thistledown.
But it is clear that Hardy quite loved this town. He writes:
Casterbridge was the complement of the rural life around, not its urban opposite. Bees and butterflies in the cornfields at the top of the town, who desired to get to the meads at the bottom, took no circuitous course, but flew straight down High Street without any apparent consciousness that they were traversing strange latitudes. And in autumn airy spheres of thistledown floated into the same street, lodged upon the shop fronts, blew into drains, and innumerable tawny and yellow leaves skimmed along the pavement, and stole through people’s doorways into their passages with a hesitating scratch on the floor, like the skirts of timid visitors.
Walter Wellmen attempted first to reach the North Pole, and then to cross the Atlantic in an airship called The America–it is the second of these trips where Kiddo found fame. Kiddo’s story is captured in the pages of Wellman’s The Aerial Age: A Thousand Miles by Airship Over the Atlantic Ocean(1911). It is most poetically written by Wellman himself, a bit comes from the notes of laconic wireless operator Jack Irwin, and everything most sympathetic from the journal of Simon Murray, ship navigator. It has been told before in snippets on purr ‘n’ furr, and aviation humour. But here it is in its entirety for, I believe, the very first time as told by the crew in a series of gripping excerpts.
We saw the cathedral long before we reached Ripon the first day. We emerged from our visit to Fountains Abbey and the water gardens up to the long road out of the estate. The cathedral massed there straight ahead of us on the horizon, a shining presence of stone.
It looked like we could walk straight there, I wanted to. Signs warned against this however. Private road, private property. We had to turn left. We never got to see the cathedral quite like this again.
But in our short time in Ripon we saw it countless times, from many angles. It stands tall on its hill, an oddly solid weight of stone trying to soar. Staring up at the great main face of it praised by Pevsner, it feels almost like a different building altogether. Razed to the ground several times over its 1300 years of history, the power of kings and church rebuilt it reincorporating old patterns–built it higher, bigger, but never finished it. No flying buttresses support its rising. A beautiful wood roof arches over the nave and quire in a still immense echoing of cathedral space that made my heart sing.
A small group of riotous monks moved to this valley of the Ure, expelled from the Benedictine abbey of York in 1132. Joining the Cistercian order shortly thereafter, they built the abbey low and sheltered in these hills, folding their religious beliefs into the stones and their humility before God into the landscape. It lies almost invisible until you are directly upon it.
I don’t think you can really see this aspect of it unless you walk there, as others did long ago. Even from How Hill, once a Saxon pilgrimage spot itself and now a substantial sort of folly, the abbey’s great tower is all that can be seen and looks simply like a parish church. I did not believe what I saw could possibly be the abbey. I have no picture in that direction, preferring the light playing across the rounded hills to the east, and the flocks of birds white against the dark earth being ploughed.
Found this quote in Patrick Baker’s The Cairngorms. William MacGillivray has transformed my understanding of both being a walker, and the value of the British Museum.
MacGillivray’s commitment to life as a field naturalist was whole-hearted, and as a result he became a prodigious walker. At the age of 23 he decided to visit the British Museum in London, walking a circuitous route from his home in Aberdeen, covering a remarkable distance of 828 miles in just eight weeks, an average of almost 15 miles every day.
I’m not really one to do a funny challenge — life is challenging enough. But somehow this one from wool& inspired me: wear the same lovely merino wool dress every day, I mean EVERY DAY, for 100 consecutive days.
I suppose I’ve been thinking a lot about cutting consumption. I’ve been trying to grow veg and trying to get ever closer to being zero waste. That has taken time and thought and research and work, so I thought maybe it would be nice to save time by never thinking about what to wear. Tons of women have done it, and I liked reading what they wrote, so I’m writing this.
They talked about it contributing to a life change and new ethics of fashion in light of the many injustices and climate change. I rarely buy anything new for these reasons. But I also liked how they talked about it helping them think less about their appearance, worry less about what others thought, enjoy their jewelry and scarves and belts more, save money/buy less and many other cool things. On completion, Wool& promises to send you $100 (or €) towards a new dress that you can also wear day in and day out.
The dress felt lovely and smooth, even with my sensitive skin. It really did adjust to temperature, and I was cool or warm as needed. It totally wicked away moisture and didn’t smell. It did not require washing often and dried really quickly. I never had to iron it. It was great for hiking, and I have walked many many miles in it. It is maybe a little shorter than when I bought it (a longer one would have been nice), but overall looks good as new, which is actually quite amazing. I only had one major spill to be fair, and washed it out right away. But I’ve never had a dress that could do all that, and I loved it.
January 4th, our last day of holiday, an impossibly beautiful day of snow and glorious sun. This amazing train ride on the Settle Carlisle Railway through the Dales and into the hills, and a walk to see a stone circle and an incredible saxon cross. Lovely, sparkling.
We saw many sides of Ingleborough, but the slopes closest to Horton in Ribblesdale we walked twice. The pavements of Moughton scar are incredible in both mist and sun, the first day the clouds and mist dropped down on us as we picked our way across the limestone of Moughton edge.
But on the this first day of 2022 we went walking higher up Ingleborough and the sun emerged now and then to light up stone and grass and sky. It was a day of wonder. May the sun continue to light up this year of changes and beginnings.
Equally glorious, the millions of years of ice, water, sand and seismic activity that created this place, that brought us here. My geology book had a most lovely illustration.
Our final day of 2021, a hard year, long year, covid year but also a year that brought great change for 2022 and many good things. The day dawned wet, with low cloud. It has been raining heavily. Water thundered down with wild force enough to take the soul and cast it up into the air light as foam.