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.
In return, this town quite loves Hardy.
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.