Keri Jones went on a walking tour that guided many international visitors around Shaftesbury and, surprisingly, our world-famous Gold Hill wasn’t on the itinerary!
On a warm Friday afternoon in July, fifty people stepped off a coach that pulled up into the Bell Street car park. The group had travelled together with the Thomas Hardy Society from Dorchester to see some of the places featured in the ‘Shaston’ of Thomas Hardy’s, ‘Jude The Obscure’, first published in 1894.
“The Hardy Society is a mixture of academics, local people and lay people with an interest in Hardy,” said Chairman Tony Fincham. “We have a biannual Thomas Hardy Society conference and festival. This year is our golden anniversary. We were founded in 1968.”
He explained that members of the group had travelled to their convention from as far as Canada, the US and Japan. “In fact the Thomas Hardy Society in Japan is older than the society in England. It was the first one founded. Thomas Hardy has always been very popular in Japan, because many people there live in rural communities, which are not unlike England. The tragic nature perhaps appeals to the Japanese.”
Kyoko Nagamatsu travelled from Tokyo especially for the conference. She’s a professor of English literature in Japan and she said that the author is popular there with readers of a certain age. “Middle-aged people like Hardy very much. Not young people.” Kyoko fears that younger Japanese people prefer playing with technology to reading books.
The group was here to make a connection between Hardy’s literature and Shaftesbury’s landmarks and landscapes. Kyoko said that Shaftesbury appeared familiar to her, thanks to the author’s powerful descriptions. “It’s just like I imagined in Japan,” she smiled.
“It interests me that Hardy chose a place where you have these huge vistas, which seem to be part of it all. This is immense,” exclaimed tour guide Rod Drew. Rod began his walking tour in Trinity churchyard, as he reminded the Hardy fans how the central character in Jude The Obscure had walked between the lime trees.
Rod peppered his talk with historical facts, some of which featured in Hardy’s work. “We are now standing in the Abbey Gardens,” said Rod, as the party congregated on the path cutting across Trinity churchyard. We faced the high Abbey wall opposite. “I think they had as many as 200 nuns. It was one of the most prosperous abbeys in the country and was set up by King Alfred,” Rod said.
Rod turned to Hardy’s references to the fair. “The fair was very popular in Shaftesbury. The fair people overwintered here. When they went out on the roads to the villages they were a presence in the town and their children probably attended school during those months,” he said.
The large group slowly filed out of the churchyard and headed towards Abbey Walk. Cameras were clicking away. Some people were walking and reading at the same time – half watching their footing as they strode along clutching open Hardy paperbacks.
Rod grew up here and we paused again as he shared his memories of his primary education between 1950 and 1957. We admired the formidable greensand stonework of the former school at the corner of Abbey Walk and Bimport. There was a strong ‘Jude’ link. Schoolteacher character Phillotson was placed in Rod’s old school. Ironically, Rod said he wasn’t interested in the author at all when he was studying there.
Rod doesn’t think Shaftesbury has changed significantly, apart from the area around Bell Street car park, where he got off the coach. “As a small boy, I just about remember that there was a cattle market right in the centre of the town that crossed the road. The animals were sold on the south side of the road and they were looked at on the north side,” Rod recalled.
“It’s just such a pleasure to have been born in this place. I never really wanted to leave it. I missed it much more than I realised when I was young. I’m the only member of my family of eight who came back. I felt so restless, until I finally got back here,” he shared.
The group walked along Bimport towards a blue plaque-marked property. The marker at the side of Ox House revealed that this 17th-century building possibly once belonged to John Grove. Hardy renamed the house as ‘Old Grove Place’ in ‘Jude’. “We are about to go to the house where Sue and Phillotson lived,” Tony announced to an excited group. “I’m assuming that most people know the bare bones of the story,” shouted Rod, over the rumble of a succession of vans moving down Bimport.
Some members of the party who had brought their copies of ‘Jude’ along on the walk were re-reading sections related to Ox House. “This is the best-known place. It’s where Sue jumped out of the bedroom window because she couldn’t stand the thought of being in bed with Phillotson,” said Tony.
A discussion then quickly started over Sue’s motivation. “She descended from a window,” said Rod. “She could have jumped but she probably just lowered herself and then fell into a heap. Shortly after that she arranged to leave the house and met up with Jude.” Some of the Hardy fans had a clear thirst for information. One man even wanted to know which window Sue had gone through! “No idea,” responded Rod.
Rod and Tony continued to read excerpts of Hardy’s writings as the walk continued. “We try to read them in the appropriate places. This is part of Hardy’s enduring success. You can visit and read his novels 140 years after they were written,” said Tony. As Rod performed more passages from ‘Jude’, I noticed that some of the crowd appeared transfixed. People were actually mouthing the words. They knew Hardy’s text by heart.
This tour wasn’t just about Shaston. Shaftesbury’s elevation and sweeping views allowed the guides to offer a glimpse of other towns featured in the author’s work. As the party took in the panorama from the top of Castle Hill, Rod started. “There are a lot of roofs out there! In the middle distance there’s the town of Gillingham. It’s where Hardy places his character George Gillingham, although he calls the town Leddenton. There is a small tributary of the River Stour called the Ledden and that’s how Hardy was inspired, I guess.”
With the countryside of Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset rolling out in front of us, Rod whipped out a mouth organ to play a traditional local folk tune. Then, after a pause in the leafy shade of St John’s Hill to hear about the Bury Litton churchyard, we walked under the branches of Pine Walk.
Delegate Dr Jonathan Memel told me that he was pleased to be back in Shaftesbury. “I lived for some time just down the hill on the outskirts of Gillingham when I was doing my PhD on Thomas Hardy. That was supported by the National Trust, as I was developing materials for schools in and around Dorset,” Jonathan said.
I was interested that Jonathan was attending after having studied Hardy full-time for a PhD. “Haven’t you had enough?” I joked. I asked him to explain the ‘magic’ of Hardy. “It’s the connection to the outdoors and the landscape,” he said.
Shaftesbury certainly excels in setting and scenery. Maybe we should make more of our Hardy link? “It’s a successful form of literary tourism which lives on,” offered Tony. “It’s not the most obvious place to turn,” added Jonathan. “When I was speaking to people in Dorset, the focus tends to be on West Dorset towards the coast. We have been talking a lot about ‘Jude’. For that novel, this is a really central place. My PhD was about education and Hardy. ‘Jude’ is such a rich novel about education. Hardy’s depictions of schools are so good because he knew of them personally, from working as an architect before he became a novelist.”
I asked Jonathan whether there was scope for more promotion of Shaftesbury’s Hardy connection. “Hardy and North Dorset is definitely something that we could make more of,” he replied. “A lot of this landscape is associated with ‘Tess Of the D’Urbervilles’. Towards the end of ‘Tess’, when she is on the run and fleeing, she goes through this area. That’s something we could do more with. It’s connecting up those open fields with the way that Hardy wrote about them,” Jonathan said.
It’s not the first time groups have come to Shaftesbury to celebrate Hardy. “This is a re-run of the trip we had about three years ago,” said Tony. Shaftesbury is a little bit peripheral to Hardy although it features, particularly in ‘Jude The Obscure’. Geoffrey Tapper, our previous Society Chairman and a former Shaftesbury Mayor died earlier this year. He used to run trips. It’s not central Hardy country but it’s very much part of it,” Tony said.
The walk ended on Park Walk, as the group was reminded that there was just fifteen minutes free time before the coach for Dorchester departed. I was pleased that so many people had told me they had enjoyed their visit to Shaftesbury, without even seeing Gold Hill. And as the famous slope wasn’t on the organised walking tour route, I wonder how many members of this party didn’t see it at all!