Last Sunday was Father’s Day and like many families we decided to go for stroll in the afternoon to work off our large celebratory lunch. As the age range of our group was from 10 to 83 we needed a walk that wasn’t too physically challenging but had some points of interest. After a lengthy discussion we agreed on Lower Bockhampton, which is a small hamlet east of Dorchester.
Lower Bockhampton is famous for its association with the Dorset author and poet, Thomas Hardy. Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 a mile away in the village Higher Bockhampton. Hardy regularly walked to Lower Bockhampton to attend school. This peaceful and rural setting inspired Hardy’s 1872 novel Under the Greenwood Tree and the fictional town of Melstock is based on Lower Bockhampton.
After a quick game of Pooh Sticks on top of the village’s of 19th century bridge, we turned right into the waterside footpath that would lead us to Stinsford, less than a mile away.
It is mainly a straight walk on a raised bank following the River Frome, flanked on either side by mature trees and centuries old meadows. This gives the route a secluded feel. Hardy would have walked along this path on many occasions. In Under the Greenwood Tree, Hardy includes a description of this path: “embowered path beside the Froom” – this scene has hardly changed.
After a while the path crosses a wide carrier of water just before the turning for Stinsford Church. Hidden behind the trees on your right is an ornamental lake and the formal gardens of what is now Kingston Maurward College. Hardy made little mention of it although the Pitt family, who owned it, must have been the local notables of his youth. The wide carrier feeds the lake.
Near here s a signpost for Stinsford that directed us right uphill which lead us to St. Michael’s Church, the Mellstock Parish Church of Under the Greenwood Tree.
St. Michael’s Church was Hardy’s parish church as a child. Stinsford was remembered with great affection by Thomas Hardy as it was here that his grandfather founded a small musical group who accompanied services from the church’s gallery. Hardy’s father played with the group as did the young Thomas, who played violin. The church of St Michael is small and comfortable, ranging in date from the 13th to the 17th century, with a 14th century tower. A late Saxon carving of St Michael with outstretched wings is re-set on the outside of the tower.
It’s an interesting church and graveyard to wander around, but be careful of the bees that have a hive in the guttering at the back of the church.
The story of William and Susanna O’Brien, whose memorial is located in the church delighted Thomas Hardy who used it as the basis of several stories. Susanna was the daughter of the Earl of Ilchester and destined to play a role in English society, but she fell in love and married William O’Brien, an actor. The marriage so enraged her father, the Earl that he threatened to disinherit her. William agreed to leave the stage to avoid the loss, the pair having a happy marriage with the grudging blessing of the Earl.
Hardy died on January 11th 1928 at his home of Max Gate in Dorchester. It was Hardy’s wish that he be buried at Stinsford with his first wife Emma. However, after his death, the authorities at Westminster Abbey suggested he be buried in ‘Poets’ Corner’. Once Westminster Abbey had got over the difficulty of Hardy being an avowed atheist, it decreed that, for reasons of space, only his ashes could be buried in the Abbey. This caused his widow much distress, because they had not contemplated the need for his body to be burnt.The vicar of Stinsford called to express his sympathy,and came up with the gruesome suggestion that Hardy’s heart should be cut out and buried where he had asked to be laid.
On the evening of January 13, 1928, Hardy’s local doctor came, accompanied by a surgeon, who removed the heart from the dead man’s body and wrapped it in a small towel. He asked for a biscuit tin in which to place it. The doctor took the tin to his own house that night and brought it back the next day, when the heart was to be transferred to its burial casket.
A story persists that the doctor’s cat had knocked the tin off the mantelpiece and eaten the heart. This was denied by the doctor but later confirmed by his maid, who suggested it was replaced with a pigs heart.
And on that rather macabre note, this is where we ended our gentle walk – at Thomas Hardy’s Headstone.