Built at the turn of the 19th century, this small cob cottage was where English novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy, was born. Now owned by the National Trust, it is a great way to experience rural Victorian life, and to learn how his early years in the countryside formed the connection with nature which runs throughout his written works.
In rural Dorset, near the small village of Higher Bockhampton, is an almost impossibly perfect thatched cottage, surrounded by a typical cottage garden and mature, towering woodland. It looks exactly how you would imagine a thatched cottage should look; small and rustic with irregular outbuildings, little windows tucked up in the eaves of the thatch, chimneys sprouting through the roof and creepers growing haphazardly over a central front door.
Built in 1800 by Thomas Hardy’s great grandfather, this idyllic cottage was Hardy’s birthplace and home for a substantial part of his life. Born a rather sickly child in 1840, but with the advantage of a well read mother, he soon excelled at reading and writing. He was a pupil at the local school and then Dorchester Grammar, before becoming an apprentice to a local architect and draughtsman, and it was in this cottage that he would sit at his small desk and write his early poetry and novels.
The cottage still looks much as it did when Hardy was living in it, with the exterior little altered. It is now owned by the National Trust, who have recently added a modern visitor centre – fortunately some distance away from the cottage itself. This is the starting point for any visit to the cottage, and is the only place where tickets can be purchased. With displays about Hardy and Victorian life, as well as how the Trust looks after the landscape, it is a good place to wait for your timed entry slot, as the cottage is so small that it can only hold so many people at a time.
There are two routes to walk to the cottage, a trail through the woods or a more direct and flatter route along a gravelled country lane. The walk through the woods sees you immersed in woodland and beech trees listening to the bird song, the country lane has some lovely cottages to admire and a friendly horse or two in the adjoining fields.
Whichever way you approach, the cottage emerges from behind swathes of lush and colourful foliage, the ground floor barely visible with purple buddleia, bright ox eye daisies and golden irises all competing for attention. Tall leafy trees tower behind, giving the impression that the cottage is hunkering down into the greenery. With worn, pale walls of cob, irregular brickwork and faded thatch, the cottage has mellowed into the landscape around it. Roses spill down over the small porch, ferns sprout up under windows, everything growing is intertwined and jumbled together in a crowd of greenery.
The cottage itself is small and very homely. The first room you visit is the parlour, which was the heart of the Hardy home. With a stone flagged floor and deep window sills in front of the small windows, there is not much light coming in with the plants towering up outside. A huge open fireplace with a cast iron range fills a wall, wooden armchairs are grouped around the hearth, a large wooden dresser filled with willow-pattern china sits against another wall, and brass candlesticks and earthenware jugs complete the look.
None of the furniture in the house was owned by the Hardy family, but the National Trust have done a fantastic job of sourcing authentic period pieces to really enhance the rural Victorian atmosphere. Violins and a wooden music stand fill the space, as Hardys’s father was a keen violinist and taught his son how to play.
The next room is tiny and was once a scullery, but was used by Thomas’s father as an office; he employed nine men in his building firm and would pay them through the window at the back.
A small Victorian fireplace is topped with a large wooden carriage clock, ledgers cover the wooden desk and a large dark bookcase sits snugly in the corner, all pointing to how the room would have been used.
You have to wait to be able to go upstairs as it is just so small that only a few people can go up there at any one time.
When you ascend those narrow, thick stairs with their worn carpet, chipped paint and brass stair rods, you end up on the top floor, where there are three white bedrooms with irregular wooden floorboards all linked together and hiding under the eaves, the thatch visible through the tops of the windows and beautiful views over the garden.
All of the bedrooms are plain and only include the simple necessities of rural life. Rickety brass bedsteads, chamber pots, small wooden furniture and a few books and samplers.
L: The parents bedroom contains a small wooden crib with a wooden snake in it, a reference to Thomas’ earliest memory being that a snake was found in his crib with him when he was a tiny baby, both of them sleeping peacefully, an event to which he attributes his love of the countryside and nature. All four Hardy children were born in this room. Thomas himself was thought to be stillborn but was swiftly resuscitated, a rare event in the Victorian days of high infant mortality.
R: The boys' bedroom is where Thomas shared with his brother Henry, who was 11 years younger than him. Originally it had been his Grandmother’s bedroom and was separate to the rest of the house, but on her death in 1857 they opened up a narrow passageway and the boys were able to sleep here.
Thomas would sit at a small wooden table or on the window seat to read and write about the countryside. His original table, given to him by his mother, is in the Dorset museum; the one here is a replica and you can sit at it and admire the same views.
He liked to write while he was actually in the scene he was describing, and wrote many poems as well as some of his earliest novels here, such as Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From the Madding Crowd.
The third room was his sisters' room, shared by his two younger sisters, Kate and Mary. It was his youngest sister Kate who bequeathed Hardy’s other house, Max Gate, to the National Trust, and who left enough money for the cottage to be purchased a few years later.
Back on the ground floor is ‘Granny’s Kitchen’, which Thomas’ grandmother had as her main parlour and kitchen. With a small bread oven in which she burnt gorse from behind the cottage as her heat source, a large fireplace and a scrubbed wooden kitchen table, there are often costumed volunteers in here cooking meals and treats from the Victorian era for visitors to sample.
The garden is essential viewing after the cottage. When I visited in late August, it was lush and verdant, with everything growing in one huge mass of greenery and colour.
I have seen photos of it at other times of the year, when plants are cut, trimmed and tied, hedges are sculpted and the soil is exposed and tidied.
I far preferred it as I saw it, tumultuous and wild with tendrils reaching out, apples ripening on the trees and colour everywhere.
At the back of the garden is a wood and brick shed, filled with oil lamps, hay for thatch repairs, terracotta pots, beehives and assorted tools.
This is where Hardy’s father would have stored all of the tools for his building work, as well as being the main outhouse for the garden, which was run as a small holding, with vegetables, fruit and herbs all being grown here to feed the large family.
There is a large water pump in front of the house, where you can pump away until the water starts splashing out onto the stones below, something many visitors to the house just couldn’t resist trying.
Once he was a successful author, Hardy built a house in the nearby town of Dorchester. Called Max Gate it is a typical Victorian villa; large and entirely suitable for his status as a famous author of the day, but I can’t help wondering if he missed the soft edges and rambunctious house and garden of his birthplace when he was living in his angular, well-ordered house in a busy Dorset town.
Domicilium is the earliest known poem of Hardy’s, written around 1857, and is about the cottage and the land around it.
Domicilium – by Thomas Hardy
It faces west, and round the back and sides
High beeches, bending, hang a veil of boughs,
And sweep against the roof. Wild honeysucks
Climb on the walls, and seem to sprout a wish
(If we may fancy wish of trees and plants)
To overtop the apple trees hard-by.
Red roses, lilacs, variegated box
Are there in plenty, and such hardy flowers
As flourish best untrained. Adjoining these
Are herbs and esculents; and farther still
A field; then cottages with trees, and last
The distant hills and sky.
Behind, the scene is wilder. Heath and furze
Are everything that seems to grow and thrive
Upon the uneven ground. A stunted thorn
Stands here and there, indeed; and from a pit
An oak uprises, Springing from a seed
Dropped by some bird a hundred years ago.