The iconic Durdle Door on Dorset's stunning Jurassic Coast

Discovering  Thomas Hardy's fictional county
of Wessex on foot

Alan Wooding and his wife Jo, enjoyed HF Holidays' impressive West Lulworth House on a walking break

I must admit that I've been a fan of Victorian author Thomas Hardy since falling in love with actress Julie Christie as a teenager when she starred in the 1960s film, Far From The Madding Crowd. 

      Filmed in and around Dorset, one of Britain's most picturesque counties, Ms Christie was cast in director John Schlesinger's cinematic masterpiece as the beautiful Bathsheba Everdene in a film which recreates Hardy's classic tale in all its glory. She plays a headstrong woman who inherits a farm and is then pursued for her hand in marriage by the likes of fellow actors Peter Finch, Terence Stamp and Alan Bates. 

      With Hardy's beloved Dorset homeland to the fore, I was recently invited to explore the wild uplands, rolling hills and quaint semi-fictional Wessex villages close to the south coast downs by HF Holidays – (0345 470 7558) – with the intention of learning more about one of Britain's most prolific Victorian authors and poets.

      Staying at West Lulworth House – one of 18 such UK properties owned by the 105-year-old holiday company – from it's lofty position, the four-star residences is located just a 200 metre stroll from the picturesque Lulworth Cove on Dorset's historic Jurassic Coast. 

      On arrival for our four night stay we were warmly greeted by HF Holidays' enthusiastic walks leader Sandy Franklin who immediately invited us to join her Thomas Hardy Discovery group. As we had originally planned to undertake a self-guided Thomas Hardy tour, we jumped at the chance and joined ten fellow guests – but what none of us expected were the dreadful walking conditions… but more of that later! 

      Also on hand at the reception area was keen cyclist Lucinda Rhodes from Cambridge who was there to offer valuable information to 17 self-guided walkers and to show them the house's invaluable Discovery Point with its list of maps and various grade walks located on the first floor.

      We quickly settled into our comfortable double aspect en suite room with its views over to Lulworth Cove to the south and to the coastal path which leads to Durdle Door to the west… and within a couple of hours we were tucking into one of those famed Dorset cream teas!

This plaque to Thomas Hardy was spotted in Dorchester High Street while two of his 

finest novels were avilable to read in West Lulworth House discovery centre

   West Lulworth House is managed by husband and wife team Mark and Lisa Abbott, but as he was called away to look after another HF (Holiday Fellowship) property in Somerset at short notice – Selworthy in Minehead – the day to day running was down to Lisa who really made everyone feel at home. 

       One thing that HF Holidays prides itself on is its cuisine and as everyone was on a full board basis, it certainly doesn't disappoint. There is a huge choice at both breakfast and dinner while locally produced meat and vegetables are very much a big priority. In fact on the final night there was a five course dinner featuring the very best that Dorset has to offer.

     Naturally midday lunches are of the picnic variety as everyone is either walking or sightseeing so these are ordered the night before and, apart from a choice of sandwiches, there is also a massive choice of 'extras' (fruit, pies, cereal bars, etc).

      West Lulworth village and its nearby Cove are justifiably popular with walkers, fossil hunters and bird watchers alike while HF Holidays' house itself dates back to 1881. It was originally built for the former Mayor of Weymouth Sir Richard Howard who owned a paddle steamer which cross-crossed The Solent, taking passengers, supplies and cargo to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight.

      The property was purchased by HF Holidays in 2013 while it underwent a full refurbishment two years later. It now has 22 en suite bedrooms and can accommodate a maximum of 44 guests, although some are located in the annex. 

      When renovated, West Lulworth House gained a new lounge and dining room while it has a sunny south facing garden and an outdoor swimming pool (open May to September), while there is free parking for guests in the public car park directly across the road opposite the house.

      Like all HF Holidays' Country Houses, West Lulworth House is tailored for walkers, cyclists and outdoor enthusiasts with a boot room and drying room, a Discovery Point plus a rather sociable bar.

      As well as outstanding walking, the UNSECO World Heritage Jurassic Coast around the Lulworth area has many fine beaches including Middle Beach to the west and that world-famous geological wonder, Durdle Door. 

      The massive rock arch is found after a steep uphill walk along the coastal path from Lulworth Cove's car park – it's approximately a two hour round trip and is said to be made by more than 250,000 visitors each year – while the 'door' itself is absolutely stunning, the sloping pebbled beach ideal for sunbathing, swimming and snorkelling.

      The eastern beaches of Mupe Bay and Arish Mell lie below land owned by the military and while these are open to the public when not in army use, you really need to check the opening times before accessing that particular area!

      Lulworth Cove itself is a near-perfect circle which has been carved by the waves into the soft rocks. There is a free Heritage Centre next to the public car park which is worth a visit while facilities in the Cove itself are limited to a selection of pubs, cafés and souvenir shops. You can also hire sea canoes and kayaks with which to discover the hidden inlets and coves along the rugged coastline. 

Our Thomas Hardy's walks often led to very wet feet!

Despite a heavy mist rolling in off the sea, we joined walks leader Sandy on a short stroll down to the Cove and up to Stair Hole – a mini version of Durdle Door – prior to dinner on the first day while entertainment that evening was the 2005 film of Hardy's Under The Greenwood Tree starring Keeley Hawes (The Durrells), the late Tony Haygarth and Steve Pemberton (Benidorm). 

      The following morning we boarded a Mercedes Benz coach driven by Callum and were dropped off close to the village of Higher Bockhampton (formerly Upper Bockhampton) and Hardy's Birthplace Visitors Centre close to the brick, cob and thatched cottage where he was born in June 1840. 

      Now looked after by the National Trust, the cottage was built by Hardy's grandparents and he lived there with them, his parents Thomas Snr and Jemima, two sisters and a brother. The cottage overlooks heathland – immortalised as Egdon Heath – which he later includes in one of his most powerful novels, The Return of the Native.

      Shortly after leaving the Thorncombe Wood area we were at the mercy of the elements as we headed along a path which Hardy regularly used next to the River Frome on his way to the village of Stinsford which he called Mellstock in Under the Greenwood Tree. 

      With the river having burst its banks due to heavy overnight rain, I soon had two very wet feet as the water invaded my walking boots. But we paddled on to view St Michael's Church and the grave of Hardy's first wife Emma Gifford (1874-1912). It is said that Hardy's heart is also buried there even though his body lies in a Poets Grave in Westminster Abbey.

     We continued to walk across rain-soaked farmland, encountering oozing mud and soggy pastures which became the location of Hardy's Far From The Madding Crowd while we also climbed heavily wooded tracks in Puddletown Forest to reach an ancient burial site which Hardy named Rainbarrow. 

      Hardy's characters and locations were certainly brought to life by walks' leader Sandy's fine descriptions. Then crossing the Roman Road we discovered the place where Eustacia Vye lived, the Rushy Pond close by and where she met her lover Wildeve... and then there was the pub which also featured strongly in Hardy's stories.

      In total we walked 9.32 miles but in those conditions it was more like 15 and one wag even suggested that it was more reminiscent of the Somme than a countryside walk!

      We also passed through the village of Tolpuddle, home of the six Tolpuddle Martyrs who were banished to Australia for seven years after leading a revolt against the establishment with a march to London, their actions being the basis of today's Trade Union movement. 

      That evening we were treated to a rather special talk by Dorchester's long serving Town Crier, Alistair Chisolm, an active and extremely entertaining members of the Thomas Hardy Society. His theatrical delivery and wonderful diction certainly kept everyone amused. 

      Unfortunately my wife managed to twist her knee coming out of St Mary's Church in Puddletown right at the end of the walk and that curtailed our involvement in the next two day's Thomas Hardy walks.

       They were from Cerne Abbas and Melcombe Bingham which would feature the locations and characters in his novels The Woodlanders and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, his heroine Tess having clearly been an intrepid walker!

      However we did manage to make the climb and take the coastal path to Durdle Door as well as visiting the National Trust sites at Corfe Castle and the beautiful Kingston Lacy with its fine collection of artworks and landscaped gardens.

Thomas Hardy was born in this Higher Bockhampton cottage in 1840.

The pathway regularly used by Thomas Hardy (pictured above) and his wife Emma to attend church was  flooded while below is the River Frome bridge at Higher Bockhampton. Emma Hardy's grave is believed to contain her husband's heart while he is bured in London in Westminster Abbey's Poets Corner.

      Each Wednesday, every one of the 18 HF Holidays residences hosts exactly the same quiz with the questions being set from head office. Consisting of four general knowledge rounds of 15 questions each, making a total of 60 in all, at West Lulworth House we were joined by three other Thomas Hardy walkers to make up a team… and I'm proud to say that we won with a score of 53. 

     We later learned that the winners came from Yorkshire with 59 points while the runners-up with 58 were from Cumbria, but thought our efforts in netting fourth spot overall was still a pretty good result!

     We also made the short trip into Dorchester and Hardy's home at Max Gate where he wrote the majority of his novels – plus over 1,000 poems – and where he died from pleurisy on 11 January 1928, the same year as his second wife Florence Dugdale whom he had married in 1914. 

      Hardy also renamed Dorset's county town as Casterbridge – hence The Mayor of Casterbridge – while his final book was 

Jude The Obscure which received such mixed reviews that he turned instead to writing poetry, many of them romanticising thelove of his first wife Emma even though their marriage had often been a tempestuous affair.

      We also passed Clouds Hill, the tiny isolated 19th century-built cottage close to Bovington Camp near Wareham which was the former home of T E Lawrence, better known as 'Lawrence of Arabia'. He was stationed at Bovington and was a close friend of Hardy's.

      The cottage is now run as a writer's home museum by the National Trust while there was a shed which once housed Lawrence's collection of motor cycles. He died at the age of 46 after suffering head injuries after hitting a tree close to his cottage.

      There has always been one common misconceptionmade by visitors to Dorset relating to the 72-foot tall Thomas Hardy Monument on the summit of Black Down.  It was erected in 1844 –  just four years after the author Thomas Hardy was born!

      It's actually in memory of Vice Admiral Sir Thomas Hardy, a commander at the Battle of Trafalgar and of whom Admiral Lord Nelson spoke those immortal words "Kiss Me Hardy" on his death bed.

Pictured left is Alistair Chisolm, the Dorchester Town Crier and a Thomas Hardy Society expert

Fact File

For more details of all HF Holidays – Catalyst House, 720 Centennial Court, Centennial Park, Elstree, Borehamwood, WD6 3SY – call 0345 470 7558 or visit their website at

A brisk walk from Lulworth Cove finds you at Lulworth Castle, a 17th century mock medieval castle that was once the heart of an extensive estate. Having been gutted by fire in 1929 it was derelict for many years, but has since been completely renovated –

      The iconic ruins of Corfe Castle stand guard over a natural gap in the Purbeck Hills. It's a half hour drive from Lulworth Cove and dates back from the 11th century. Today to is maintained by the National Trust –

     Close to Corfe village is a lovingly restored branch railway line which runs through the Purbeck countryside. Steam hauled trains run throughout the year and you can leave your car in the Park & Ride at Norden (a 30 minute drive from Lulworth), and use the railway to visit Swanage –

      Kingston Lacy is a fine country mansion and estate close to Wimborne Minster. It dates back to 1665 and was built for the Bankes family who also purchased Corfe Castle from royalty in 1635. Now managed by the National Trust, it houses a fine collection of antiques, with many notable examples from the Middle East and Egypt –

Other attractions in Dorset

Kingston Lacy (above) is a fine 17th century mansion while Corfe Castle has always been a major tourist attraction

      Near the village of Wool you find Monkey World which again is just 20 minutes from Lulworth by car.

      Orginally set up to rescue mistreated monkeys from overseas, it's now home to a huge collection of primates –    

      Close by you will find the military premises at Bovington and the Tank Museum with its impressive collection from around the world dating back to the First World War –

     Slightly further afield is Brownsea Island, located in the middle of Poole Harbour. Boats depart from Poole Quay and from Sandbanks.

      The island, famous for Lord Robert Baden-Powell's Scouting movement, is now a nature reserve managed by the National Trust and one of last remaining places in Britain to see red squirrels –

       And finally, no trip to this part of the Dorset coast would be complete without a visit to nearby Weymouth, a fine Regency seaside resort with an ever-popular beach and bustling harbour.