Thursday, August 25, 2016

Discovering Dorset--In Search of Thomas Hardy's Wessex

Monday, August 22, 2016:
Discovering Dorset--In Search of Thomas Hardy's Wessex

     Ever since I covered Cornwall extensively by public double decker bus, a few years ago, Dorset and Devon have been added to my Bucket List for Places To Go in the UK. Finally, in August of 2016, I made it happen. Far less known than it’s more glamorous neighbors next door, Dorset is different—but has just as many attractions for the intrepid traveler. Added to typical ‘seaside’ towns is a rich literary history that I fully explored on my own three day travels.
     I spent most of the morning getting ready for my departure. My coach was leaving Victoria Coach Station at 10.00am. I intended to leave my place by 8.00 am—so I took a quick shower, ate a muesli and yogurt breakfast, prepared sandwiches with the odds and ends in my fridge and left on schedule. A Tube ride to Victoria, the exchange of some US dollars to pounds at one of the No Commission kiosks, a one stop ride from the Tube to the Coach station and I was right and ready at my ‘Gate’ waiting for departure.
     We left right on the dot of 10.00 am in a coach with wifi with about 10 people on board. National Express Coach Lines have improved enormously over the years—thanks to competition. The coach had AC, reclining seats and a toilet on board. It was like being on a plane with multiple wheels. I took a seat right in front (free seating) behind the driver so that I had a 180 degree view of the scene ahead of me. We made one stop at Ringwood and arrived at Bournemouth, the Dorset seaside city, at 1. 00 pm as we fought traffic en route closer to our destination. My connecting coach was in its bay with passengers waiting to board when I got there. Ten minutes later, we were off and away. It was a 1.20 pm departure with arrival in Weymouth at 2. 45 pm. This time I was way behind in the coach—so did not enjoy the scenery as much.
Finding The George B and B in Weymouth:
     The UK is having an exceptional summer—so I am not complaining. But when I was let off at ‘The Esplanade’ in Weymouth which is the beachside promenade at almost 3.00 pm under the blazing sun with no clue where to go from there and with a small backpack to lug along, it was not a very pleasant arrival. I had a booking at a B and B called The George; but when I had called to find out how I could find my way from the coach station (as I had assumed I would be dropped there), the female owner Carol had simply said, “Oh, I don’t know”. That became her standard answer for any question I asked her during the next three days. She followed it up with “You could take a taxi, I suppose, but you would be nowhere near the taxi station and you cannot just hail them on the street.” Oh great!    
     Long story short, I walked for about 20 minutes from the drop-off point to my B and B. Carol had given me directions but everything took longer to find as she had provided no landmarks once I crossed the tall church tower. It was only by asking for help that I finally found my place. Carol met me at about 3. 15, handed over keys, showed me my room on the first floor (one flight upstairs), pointed out the bathroom just outside my door, gave me the wifi password, told me breakfast was from 8.00 till 9.30 (did not tell me I could get an earlier breakfast if I asked for it) and disappeared. Any questions I posed, met with the “Oh, I don’t know” answer. At 3. 30, I told her I would manage, thank-you and I raced out.
Visiting Dorchester and Thomas Hardy’s Cottage:
     Not wanting to entirely waste my first day in Dorset, I intended to tick off two items on my To Do List—a Visit to the town of Dorchester and a Visit to the Cottage of Thomas Hardy (also known as Hardy’s Birthplace). A look at my rather outdated (I now realize) guide book (Lonely Planet Britain) had informed me that the cottage is open from Thursday to Monday from 10.00 to 5.00 in August. Hence, if I were very lucky, I felt sure I could enter before 5.00 pm. I was very much mistaken—on many different scores.
          I did find the bus to Dorchester—easily. The bus stop was right outside my B and B; but to make matters horrid, there was a bus strike on in Dorset and the drivers were following no schedule—there was no telling when the next one would come. Terribly dejected, I stood at the stop, but then my heart leapt when I got into one in about 15 minutes and reached Dorchester about a half hour later. It was a very pleasant drive that took me into the countryside that Hardy named ‘Wessex’ in his novels and seated on the upper deck, surveying the farmland all around me, the rising hills and dipping dales, I could imagine myself in one of his novels—not much has changed in the countryside since he penned his works.
     I knew that there was no public transport to actually get to Thomas Hardy’s Cottage from Dorchester. If you do not own a car, there is no alternative but to take a taxi. I am quite accustomed to this: most properties owned and run by the National Trust are in the middle of nowhere and no provision whatsoever is made for visitors who come sans cars. Still, I found a cab stand, hired a cab for 8 pounds, took a ten minute journey out of the city of Dorchester into Upper Brockhampton, where Hardy was born, and at exactly 4. 50 (with ten minutes to spare—Go Me!), the cabbie dropped me off at the entrance to a lane and told me that he was unable to drive along the private road. I would need to walk to the cottage doorstep. Because I realized then that I was in the middle of nowhere, with no transport to get me back, I asked him to come back in half an hour to take me to Dorchester and he agreed. You would agree that it was more important for me to get back—being stuck in the midst of corn fields would make me exactly like one of Hardy’s hapless heroines and I did not fancy that situation! So off he drove!
     I was aghast! The walk would take 10 minutes (no less), but I ran like an Olympics sprinter and in five minutes, I was there. They simply would have to take me in, I convinced myself. But when I reached the little gate to the house—at the end of what seemed like a truly endless little lane—guess what? My guide book was incorrect (did I mention that it is outdated?) and the house is only open from Wednesday to Sunday! In other words, it was closed on Mondays!!!! I had run a wild goose chase! Still, I refused to feel dejected because the same guide book also said that there is nothing of any significance to be seen inside. I was able to walk all around the house, to take in the beautiful gardens filled with lush summer color, to encircle the back of the house, to see the Hardy Monument in stone erected by admiring American readers. It is a picturesque home—not as lovely as Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Shottery, but it is a thatch and cob affair with stucco sides. This was the house in which Hardy was born and in which he wrote two of my favorite novels of all time—Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. After he married and because he fancied himself something of an architect, he designed another home for himself—also in Dorchester—called Max Gate. A far grander affair, it would be pointless to try to find it as it was past 5.00pm anyway. I could return to Dorchester and try to see both houses on Wednesday—or not. Frankly, given its remoteness and the expense involved in trying to reach his cottage, I was perfectly content seeing the place from the outside and looking at pictures of the interior on the internet—again, no great shakes because nothing is exactly as it was in Hardy’s time nor are there any original fitments or furniture within. Hence, I decided to get back and see a bit of Dorchester instead.
     But how to get back? That was the multi-million pound question. My cabbie was not due till 5. 30 pm. It meant a half hour wait in the middle of nowhere on a narrow road surrounded by fields. There was no option: I simply had to stand on the road and try to hitch a passing car. Again, I felt like Tess attempting to get a ride from a passing hay wagon to Wessex! To my good luck, the ladies and kids who had been outside the cottage on a late summer’s walk and with whom I had exchanged a few words earlier, were leaving. I thumbed down their car, asked for a ride to Dorchester where they were headed and climbed in. They were really lovely; and calling the cab company to cancel my return ride, I made it into Dorchester about half past five.
Exploring Dorchester:
     And here’s another thing that any visitor to the UK needs to keep in mind: everything shuts down at 5.00 pm. Life comes to a standstill as sales personnel down their shutters and go home for their “tea”. Although the two ladies dropped me off right at the pedestrian plaza that is the main shopping artery in the town, there was only window-shopping to be done. Suffice it to say, that I wandered around a bit, found really nothing to grab my attention and decided to return to Weymouth instead. With the uncertainty of the bus strike, there was no telling when the next bus would come and I did not want to be stranded in Hardy’s Wessex. Then, to my good luck, after strolling around for an hour, I found a bus stop and lo and behold, a bus (No. 10) was waiting to take me back. I lost no time in hopping into it and half an hour later, I was back in Weymouth—which was also winding down. The crazy crowds of the afternoon that had mobbed the beach had retired for the evening. I walked about the side and back streets in desultory fashion, then caught a bus that took me to my B and B for two stops.
     Once there, I switched on the TV and realized how much I missed it for my house in London does not have one. I decided to take a relaxing shower (loved the updated modern bathroom—so different from my outdated one in London) and then returned to my room to watch About Time on TV (one of my favorite movies as I am a huge Richard Curtis fan) and fell off to sleep. It had been a very full day and I was ready to hit the sack by 11.00 pm when the movie ended. I did some tourist research—which bus to take to get up the coast, timings, etc—and fell asleep. 
Until tomorrow, cheerio...  

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