Thomas Hardy Country

We reluctantly left Tintagel and slowly began making our way across the south of England towards the road we wanted to take to London.  England is so tiny that it’s possible to cross several counties in one day, and we did. Everywhere we went and everything we saw and experienced, the ports, the ruins, the visible remains and evidence of other ages, the towns, the villages, the people’s accents, the social customs, the traditions, the superstitions, the myths and legends, combined to create an atmosphere that is too big to be wholly encompassed by mere words.

On the day we left Tintagel, we did our usual trick and waited until evening to begin looking for a bed for the night.  Being a couple of green guys from elsewhere, we didn’t know where we might find a hotel or motel or B&B. So we continued on driving,  hoping to stumble upon something.  By the time we drove into Langport we decided we couldn’t go further without falling asleep. We pulled up at an inn that was situated on the main road. There was no footpath. As with many houses and buildings in the towns and villages in England, the front or side wall of the building marked the edge of the road.

We untangled ourselves from the car, walked in through the inn’s front door, and then left after deciding that the steep, winding, narrow staircase and the prospect of no evening meal wasn’t for us. We climbed back into car and drove on, and eventually found exactly what we were looking for at the 18th century Royal Chase Hotel in Shaftesbury, in beautiful Dorset, one of the highest counties in England.

In Shaftesbury, the locals all say two things: one, “This is Thomas Hardy country,” and two, “We have Gold Hill.”

Strangely, apart from saying that there was a statue of the writer and that he set his books in Dorset, none of the locals we met in Shaftesbury seemed to know much about Thomas Hardy, yet they were very insistent that we go to the top of Gold Hill.  So as soon as we had booked into our hotel we drove to the top of Gold Hill while there was still some daylight left.  The countryside spread out before us and seemed to go on forever, and into infinity. We stood, and drank in the glorious views.

The next morning we awoke to rain, rain and more rain. We needed to find a grocery shop (we carried some food in the car because quite often we didn’t stop for lunch but ate while we drove), and we needed to find a Laundromat because we were running  out of clean clothes. We found our way to  the shopping centre, parked the car in the main car-park, climbed out into the pouring rain and wind, suffered the indignity of having our one-English-pound umbrellas (which we had purchased in the canal shopping centre at Banbury some days before) blow inside out, and ran laughing to a covered arch that gave way to an alley in one direction, and Tesco’s in the other direction.

“Can you tell us where we might find the Laundromat?” Bob asked a couple of women shoppers. “Wha’ is it you be after?” they asked. And then they said, “Ooh … the laundry–right, you go down here, and then you go down there, tha’ way … no, no, no, no’ tha’ way, tha’ way … you go up tha’ way, then you go along there, and then go ’round a bit of a bend … an’ then it’s there.’

We thanked them for their directions, passed under a large sign that read, “We will help you save money when you spend”, and walked into Tesco’s where we were immediately welcomed by a very polite, very proper, very dapper, very English, floor-manager. He wore  a yellow silk tie,  a smart bowler hat, and a snazzy three piece suit with a deep mid-blue waistcoat.

Amongst our purchases were two umbrellas. Going through the check-out I told the cashier our other umbrellas had blown inside out. She looked back at me blankly, and said in a very broad accent that she could not understand what I was saying.  This came a bit of a shock.  I had always thought my accent was easy to understand, and that I spoke clearly! I have read that, in England, the various accents from the various counties and villages and towns can be so diverse and so broad that not even the people themselves can understand someone who doesn’t come from their own area and speak their own particular native dialect.  What chance has an Australian got?

I paid for the umbrellas and the cashier handed them to me, and said in a serious tone, “Now don’ you be puttin’ them brollies oop in shop mind, it’s very bad luck–so don’ be puttin’ them oop ’til yer outside, mind.” We thanked her, picked up our furled umbrellas, and made our way past the floor-manager who thanked us for visiting Tesco’s and wished us the best of the day, and said, “Now mind you don’t you be putting those umbrella’s up inside the shop. It’s very, very bad luck to put an umbrella up inside a house or shop. So wait until you’re stepping outside to put them up, mind.”

Next, we went looking,  and found the Laundromat. The lady owner was very pleasant. After pointing out which of the washing and drying machines I could use, she continued with her task of washing and folding huge piles of sheets and towels, and we got chatting. She explained that the linen belonged to the town folk, that most didn’t have washing machines or even laundry-rooms in their homes, so they sent their washing to her. She also told me about her many hobbies, and about how she believed in using one’s mind and in keeping it busy because, she said, “As me old Granda use ter say it’s no good parkin’ yer push-bike in the’ garden shed and forgettin’ about it, it’ll only go rusty an’ fall to bits.”

Apart from saying that he had lived practically on the doorstep of Shaftesbury, and that he had been born almost on the doorstep of Shaftesbury, not one of the locals to whom we spoke could tell us exactly where we could locate Thomas Hardy.  I would have dearly loved to go hunting for Thomas Hardy’s houses, but Bob reminded me that time was slipping away quickly, that we still had other places to see and things to do, that we were due back in London on a certain date, and we had no choice other than to get back on the road and move on.


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