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Dorset: in Thomas Hardy country

The imprint of the famous novelist is all over charming, historic Dorset, discovers Ann-Marie McQueen.
Swans are fed at Abbotsbury Swannery, Dorset.
Swans are fed at Abbotsbury Swannery, Dorset.

It hit me as I was walking along the tidy little main street of Evershot, a picturesque village in west Dorset: the scent of forget-me-nots and buttercups mingling in the fresh spring air. They grew alongside wild nettle and garlic, which had been used in the soup on the menu at the local inn where I'd dined the night before, but was not quite adventurous enough to try. Stone walls lined the street, moss and ivy growing along their chilled exteriors, trees shaded the road out of the village before it opened up into the bright, uncharacteristic spring sunshine.

Taking it all in, I cast my mind back to the cottages in the village, with their green and purple doors, thatched roofs and lace curtains in the windows, and the man who had doffed his hat as we crossed each other earlier that morning, just after I had passed a dusty, iconic red British phone booth. I wondered: can England really be this English? My own personal - and first-time - amazement at the British countryside aside, as a summer destination Dorset is ideal. Rich in history, almost everywhere a short drive from the folding ridges of the English Channel seaside, and just two hours from London by car.

This is Thomas Hardy country, although I had a hard time believing the author and poet, also an architect, could conjure up his famously dark plots in such a cheerful setting. All the better if you are a fan of the man's writing - and even if you are not. I, for one, swore off Hardy after growing increasingly disturbed by his grim Jude the Obscure a decade ago, and yet found every tidbit about him - and there were many scattered about during my visit - fascinating.

Hardy's imprint is everywhere in this charming county, starting with Acorn Inn, a 16th-century coaching inn in Evershot (his Evershead, in the fictional Wessex), which he dubbed The Sow and the Acorn in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. There I sampled a local brew called Otter Ale, rich and delicious and just slightly chilled, made all the more tempting by a cheerful-looking otter that had been frosted into the glass, and enjoyed one of their fresh, terrine-style meals.

My visit coincided with an uncharacteristic May heatwave in Britain, and I took advantage by spending as much time outdoors as possible. There is fun exploring to be done at Saint Osmund's Church in Evershot, which dates back to the 12th century although most of it has been rebuilt - the chancel arch is one of the last vestiges. I couldn't tear myself away from the tilted gravestones, the etching of names long worn away. On the way back I popped into the tiny Village Bakery drawn in from the main street by the scent of its freshly baked artisanal loaves.

With 180 registered voters, Evershot is the kind of village where you'll hear a clop-clop and turn around to see a girl leading a workhorse down the main street. In the rare event of a robbery, the village will band together for a whip-round that will raise more money than was stolen. And it is the perfect base from which to venture farther afield, testing a theory attributed to Hardy that "it is better for a writer to know a little bit of the world remarkably well than to know a great part of the world remarkably little."

That meant a day trip to Lyme Regis, the sloping coastal fishing village 45 minutes away near the Devon border. Lyme Regis was made famous as the setting for The French Lieutenant's Woman, the 1969 John Fowles book made into a film starring Meryl Streep in 1981. The swath of ragged, jutting landscape along the shoreline is typical Jurassic Coast - so called because its cliffs reveal rock layers dating from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous eras.

A must-stop, perched high atop the cliffs, is the whitewashed Hix Oyster & Fish House, launched several years ago by the respected London chef Mark Hix. Over a dozen freshly shucked oysters followed by an entire chilled crab, blue sky all around, I determined there might not be a better lunch spot. Make a reservation first though, as this is one hotspot. Lyme Regis has definitely gone trendy and upmarket, filled with a curious mix of latte stops and shops offering organic baked goods, trendy togs, gifts, curios - and lots of fudge. I made my way down the winding streets (I suggest being dropped at the top, it is a serious incline in the other direction, particularly for a casual meander) towards the beach below, where families had laid out picnics beside the blue waters, not far from the famous harbour wall known as The Cobb.

There is loads to do in these parts: the more adventurous can trek along terrain carved out of landslips, from Devon to Dorset, along the Axmouth to Lyme Regis Undercliffs National Nature Reserve. Up the coast, at the 28km stretch of Chesil Beach, amateur geologists can collect rocks dating back to the Jurassic period. Families can drop into the famous Abbotsbury Swannery, the world's only sanctuary for mute swans, first established by Benedictine monks in 1040. At noon and 4pm, visitors can attend mass feeding sessions - there can be as many as 600 birds at a time - and from mid-May to late June, watch as hundreds of tiny, furry little cygnets hatch into the world.

Further up the coast, by Lulworth, is the massive rock arch known as Durdle Door. Back inland, one could dedicate a couple of hours to the cobbled sidewalks of Sherborne, another postcard-worthy town boasting several castles. It is centred around the stately and sprawling Sherborne Abbey Church, which is considered one of the best examples of Perpendicular Gothic architecture in Britain. I was taken with the almshouse across the street, snapping photos of the arch series in its interior courtyard.

But back to Hardy. What a confusing man, I thought, looking around the airy drawing room at Evershot's - and Dorset's, for that matter - jewel, the Relais & Chateau Summer Lodge Country House and Spa. Champion of the underpriviliged, critic of stratified Victorian society, yet he designed this elegant addition to the house? If you could have one meal with anyone, living or dead, I pondered, perched on an overstuffed chair, preparing to devour a salmon mousse amuse-bouche, right now I would say Thomas Hardy.

A popular country retreat, this Red Carnation Hotel has been decorated and detailed under the precise eye of the South African owner, Bea Tollman. And so it boasts a proper country atmosphere: lots of brocade and draping, cord, fabric-covered walls and, in the pub, pillows with foxes and dogs embroidered on them. There were also loads of personal touches, a hallmark of the boutique chain: in my room a dish of plump English strawberries so red that at first I thought they were fake; and on a tea tray tucked into a cupboard in my room's desk, a tin of mouthwatering shortbread cookies. My room was in the coach house, my window overlooking gardens and the pool, which is neatly covered by a glass-panelled house. I doubt many people head to Summer Lodge for a workout, and it's a good thing: although alone I felt crowded in what can only be called a miniature gym. There is also a capable, albeit also diminutive spa - just two rooms - where I unwound with a lovely 75-minute hot stone massage.

The grounds are a wonder as well: among the pansies and the cats are a curious fountain, circular hedge maze and giant-sized chess set. The food was lovely, even if the offerings felt a bit meat-and-potatoes heavy, and the service attentive. A favourite of Londoners wanting to get away from it all, word of Summer Lodge's luxury appeal has already spread to the UAE. Last year a party of Emirati royalty relaxed there. In May the retreat hosted a group of male members from a prominent Dubai family attending a shooting competition in nearby counties.

This is most definitely shooting country, pheasants mainly, and I couldn't help but feel for them as I wandered through Melbury Estate, a short walk down the road. Owned by Lady Charlotte Townshend, one of Britain's richest women, the estate stretches across thousands of acres. It connects Evershot with the exquisite village of Melbury Osmond, which, as the British say, looks like the top of a chocolate box and is well worth the 90-minute walk there and back again.

Britain's right-of-way laws mean the public can traverse Townshend's property on foot, although they must first climb over a slight ladder on either side of the stone wall, just beside a gate with a pair of fierce-looking lions on each pillar, and be sure to stay on the road. Within the first few minutes, after walking past a herd of ready-to-shear sheep grazing on the brilliant green grass and several deer peering out from behind a cluster of trees, I had determined this walk was the highlight of my Dorset visit. And that Hardy, hailing from such a place, with such a lasting legacy, is definitely getting a second chance. amcqueen@thenational.ae

The flight Return flights on Virgin Atlantic Airlines (www.virgin-atlantic.com) from Dubai to London Heathrow cost from US$471 (Dh1,730), including taxes. The stay Summer Lodge (www.summerlodgehotel.com; 00 44 1935 48 2000), a luxury, five-star boutique hotel in Evershot, is offering three nights' stay for the price of two, excluding August and other possible blackout dates. Prices start from $522 (Dh1,918) per night including taxes and breakfast.

Getting around Tour Dorset in style, starting with a pickup at Heathrow in a luxury sedan, via the personable Ian Hayward, owner of IJH Executive Cars. (www.ijhexecutivecars.com; 00 44 1935 827799)

Updated: June 26, 2010 04:00 AM



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