Thomas Hardy and the Jurassic Coast

Jurassic coast at Chesil beach, Portland

Welcome to the Thomas Hardy Country of ‘Wessex‘, today’s Dorset, where you can re-live the Hardy novels, be amazed by the dramatic Jurassic Coast and wonder at the age of the earth.

Thomas Hardy’s Wessex

The dramatic Chesil shingle beach invites us to explore this delightful county. For the adventurous there are the forbidding Bronze age hill-forts at Eggardon and Maiden Castle where you walk among sad shadows in a place destroyed by the relentless Roman legions. A visit to Kimmeridge, Lulworth Cove or Durdle Door, will revive every English school-child’s memory of school field-trips and geography lessons.

Thomas Hardy's cottage birthplace
Thomas Hardy’ s much visited birthplace at Bockhampton, near Dorchester.

But there’s no getting away from the influence of Thomas Hardy’s haunting novels throughout this area. The novels are full of descriptions of the countryside as well its characters.  Many visitors are drawn by the desire to keep alive the romance of Hardy’s ‘Wessex‘.

   “There is always another character in all Hardy’s novels about Wessex, and that is the countryside,”

Mike Nixon – Secretary of the Thomas Hardy Society.

If you’re willing to be slowed down, this place is full of warmth and welcome. There are charming villages with quaint names like  Sixpenny Handley, Fontmell Magna, Whitchurch Canonicorum and Langton Herring. In the few small towns like Shaftesbury (Hardy’s Shaston), Dorchester (Hardy’s Casterbridge) and Beaminster (Tess’s Emminster) the air hangs dreamily with these novels.

Thomas Hardy country -the hills of West Dorset
Hardy Country- the hills of West Dorset.

The Wessex Novels

Ronald Blythe says of Hardy, ‘He is the supreme poet of regret, of what might have been.’ His stories reflect the hard life of country folk in the early 19th century. Who can fail to feel sympathy for poor Tess, whose life turned out so disastrously in ‘Tess of the D’ Urbervilles‘. As readers, we turn to other Hardy novels hoping to find, like Tess, at least a glimpse of a happy ending, yet we are disappointed.

‘Readers of Hardy’s novels are only too aware of how vividly he imagined the possibility of a completely bleak world. He shows us again and again what it is like to be in a world where all that is human is crushed by the inhuman; and yet the same novels are haunted by glimpses of beauty and affirmations of courage  that are every bit as real as the over arching architecture of despair.’  

Malcolm Guite – writing about Hardy in ‘Faith, Hope and Poetry’

 Of course life was hard for simple country-folk then. Hardy must have been influenced by the sad story, before his time, of the Tolpuddle martyrs, just 8 miles from his birthplace. But his own bleak philosophy of life and his unsuccessful marriage may explain the negativity of the novels.

Hardy country at Shaftesbury's 'Gold Hill'
Much photographed ‘Gold Hill’ in Shaftesbury.

After the criticism he received over ‘Jude the Obscure’, Hardy gave up writing novels to concentrate on writing poetry, his true love. His poetry is much more positive.

These are happier days than those of Hardy’s sad novels. Today Dorset is a quiet place, off the beaten track with few large towns, a glorious Jurassic coast and a strong tourist industry.

Dorset’s Jurassic Coast

Jurassic coast at dramatic Durdle Door

Like a giant Jurassic dinosaur the rock formation Durdle Door dips its head in the sea, while the island of Portland stands on the far horizon. Did Hardy use this dramatic scene in any of of his novels. as he did for Lulworth Cove in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd‘?

Jurassic coast - Man 0' War Bay
Man o’ War Bay with the ‘Man o’ War’ rocks guarding the beach!
Jurassic Coast - fossil hunters on the beach

Mary Anning’s Fossils

Hardy wrote his stories of an England of two centuries ago, but the whole Jurassic Coast here tells its own, much older, geological story. These old rock formations and the fossils emerging from the eroding cliffs tell the tale of earth’s own dramas and changes over the millennia. Deservedly this coast was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2001.

There is more Jurassic drama at Charmouth beach (above photo). Surely another place fit for a Hardy novel! Many of us have looked for fossils here, inspired by Mary Anning’s 1800’s discovery of an Ichthyosaur fossil in these cliffs. The giant ‘Golden Cap‘ looms to the east – the highest cliff in Southern England. These Jurassic clays have revealed many secrets and no doubt there are more to come – at least every amateur fossil hunter thinks so!

Where were you when I laid earth’s foundations?’

Job 38:4

These ancient Jurassic cliffs are cause for thought. They put our present world troubles into perspective. Earth has been through many crises in the past and it is still here today. It’s Creator is still in control. Its future is safe in his everlasting hands and so is my own small insignificant life. Something neither Hardy nor many of his characters seemed to fully know.

Thank you for joining me. I recommend these links:

The Thomas Hardy Society and The Jurassic Coast website

7 thoughts on “Thomas Hardy and the Jurassic Coast

  1. I have spent many holidays in Dorset, especially when I was a child as it was my father’s favourite place. He spent a couple of years as a novice friar at Hillfield Friary near Dorchester and we often returned there to visit his old friends.
    The Mike Nixon quote is correct – Hardy’s knowledge and love of the Dorset landscape is what shines out of all his books.

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  2. Another interesting post, Richard. In reading it, I found myself remembering the tragic stories of some of the people in my childhood village (in the countryside of Jamaica). The hardships of life (individual and collective) I saw perhaps rendered Hardy’s novels hauntingly familiar because I read and reread them during my adolescent years. Dreams shattered by the oppressiveness of poverty, religion, and lack of opportunity, or a simple mistake that was not forgiven.

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    1. What a profound comment, Cynthia. Your experience in Jamaica is still the norm for many people in our needy world. Having spent three years living amongst simple tribal village people overseas I share your heart for the poor and under-privileged.

      Liked by 1 person

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