Let the Poetry Begin!
We lived in a large, converted barn of thatch and stone in Dorset. Barton Barn was the old Squire's barn, settled comfortably between the inn and the church, in the village centre.
Some time in the mid-nineteenth century Thomas Hardy was born, in a small cottage not two miles away. He went to Stinsford school and attended Stinsford Church, where his heart is buried. The rest of him is interred in Westminster Abbey. ' Max Gate', Hardy's home is only two miles away. If you were to ask a local where they lived, they might say, "In Wessex, you know, Hardy Country, near Dorchester." They might even say that Tess walked through West Stafford to get to Talbothayes, where she worked as a milkmaid and first met Angel Clare.
Such is the confusion between myth and reality in Dorset. Wessex doesn't officially exist anymore. The village has neatly trimmed lawns and is peopled by retirees and professionals. It has granite kitchens and a gastro-pub. There is little of Hardy's Dorset left, but the myths remain.
Recently, Stafford House has been the home of Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, author of 'Downton Abbey'. Could this further confuse things? Did Mr Bates, the valet, court Anna in some dark corner of West Stafford churchyard? Maybe Thomas Barrow and Miss O'Brien plotted against Bates over a pint in the 'Wise Man'?
Ruth and I were really there, after 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' and before 'Downton Abbey', lost in love and wondering about the future as the millennium mid-night came and went. Meanwhile, the old barn looked on...
In the mists of Middle England
Merge Melbury and Budmouth town,
And Egdon Heath and Casterbridge.
Here, Dorchester meets Borsetshire,
Where Piddles became Puddles,
And Martyrs met on Mondays,
Where hired hands sowed and mow
The Wessex wheat,
On weekdays and on Omnibus.
And in this whirl of pith and myth -
The milkmaids who fight it,
The farmers who like it,
The workers who work it -
The Barton Barn presides.
And haunted paths,
It knows the lives
Of Dorset men and girls,
The farmyard fowl,
The barnyard owl,
The flutter of feathers,
The kick of kine.
Like rooted Church,
And mossy moat,
Like hill and massive oak,
Of Dorset stone
And angled beam.
And there, inside, treads Tess.
Tess with Angel.
She and I,
Who live our own mythology.
At midnight, through the windows,
Two feet deep,
Like Hardy’s folk in aspic steeped,
We hold each other tight and sigh -
And, fearful, watch the century slip by.
I was born in England soon after the war. I moved , with my family to Australia in 1966, where I was a soldier (briefly), a public servant, an opera singer, and an English teacher.