On my 25th birthday this year I visited Thomas Hardy’s cottage and house, somewhere I’d wanted to go for a long time. Tess of the D’Urbervilles has been one of my favourite classics since I studied it for English Literature A Level and, as Dorset often features in his novels, I couldn’t wait to explore the setting that inspired him.
Owned by the National Trust, the cottage where Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 is nestled away in the Dorset countryside in Higher Brockhampton. When you arrive you can park at the visitor centre where you buy your tickets for the cottage, which is a short 10 minute walk away.
The cottage is very small so they give you a time slot in which to look around the cottage and its garden but, depending on the season, you shouldn’t have to wait too long – we only had about half an hour to kill and there’s a cafe in the visitor centre where you can have something to eat or drink while you wait. Or, if you’d like to explore the ancient woodland surrounding the cottage, there is a longer trail you can take to get there which takes about 30 minutes.
Walking through the woodland, you can just imagine Thomas Hardy wandering amongst the trees gathering inspiration and ideas for his stories. As you approach the cottage its thatched roof emerges from the foliage and, set in a beautiful English country garden, looks very much the pastoral idyl Hardy paints a portrait of in his books.
Built by his great-grandfather in 1800, the cottage has barely changed since the day Hardy’s family left. The ground floor is made up of three quaint little rooms, which demonstrate how modest his upbringing was. At the heart of the home is the parlour where the family would gather by the fire to eat and socialise.
A tiny, narrow wooden staircase in the office used by Hardy’s father for his stonemasonry business leads to the charming bedrooms upstairs with creaky floorboards and very low-ceilings so beware if you’re tall (I didn’t have an issue!) After the death of his grandmother in 1857, Hardy took her bedroom above the kitchen and there is a desk by the window overlooking the garden where he wrote Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd – I definitely had writing desk envy!
In 1885, after working in London as an architect and marrying his first wife Emma Gifford, Hardy moved back to Dorchester where he designed and built his own house, just 3 miles from his family home.
A tall red brick building, Max Gate appears quite austere as you walk up the drive and, with high-ceilings and big, bright, airy rooms, the house is a stark contrast to his chocolate-box childhood cottage.
Downstairs there is a large drawing room and a dining room where Thomas and Emma entertained distinguished guests including Edward, Prince of Wales, W.B. Yeats and Rudyard Kipling.
The second floor consists of bedrooms and three studies, the third of which was added when Hardy extended the building in 1895 as his fame and fortune grew. The third study is very grand but my favourite was the cosier, more modest one in which he wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles. He also wrote Jude the Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge as well as much of his poetry at Max Gate.
When Hardy extended Max Gate he created two rooms for Emma in the attic where she could write, paint, read and sew in peace, which shows how devoted he was to her. In 1914, after 38 years of marriage, Emma died and Thomas’ grief is palpable in the poetry he wrote at that time.
Hardy remarried his secretary Florence in 1914 and he lived at Max Gate with her until his death in 1928. The room in which he died has a slightly eerie atmosphere!
It was amazing to visit the homes which shaped Thomas Hardy as an author and gain an insight into his personal life. Nature and the rural surroundings of Dorset played an important part in his novels and it felt very poignant to be able to walk in his footsteps.
I’d recommend paying Thomas Hardy’s cottage and house a visit, especially if you’re a fan of his novels like me – it made me want to read more of his work now I’ve been invited into, or more like, had a nose around his home.