Thomas Hardy’s cottage is a quaint, cob and thatch house that sits next to the Thorncombe Woods. Mostly, the cottage feels like it is in the middle of a gorgeous, fairy-tale forest. This is where Hardy was born in 1840 and lived until he was thirty-four. During this time, he wrote the classic novels Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd.
Thomas Hardy’s grandfather built the cob and thatch cottage in 1800. A cob house is essentially a mud mixture of soil, sand, straw, and water. In Old English, cob was a root word that meant lump or rounded mass. Cob lumps are formed by hand, then added to the wall and allowed to dry. Walls are laid about 18 inches or more in height and allowed to dry before adding another layer. Depending on the weather, it could take weeks for the sections to dry and harden. House and cottages were usually started in the spring and hopefully finished before the winter.
Thomas Hardy Becomes an Architect
Thomas Hardy’s father, like his grandfather, was a stonemason and local builder. He ran his business out of the cottage. Hardy’s mother was the bookkeeper. In keeping with the family business, Thomas Hardy finished his formal education at sixteen and became an apprentice to a local architect. In 1862, he moved to London to study architecture at King’s College, but after five years, he returned home to dedicate himself to writing.
You will probably need GPS to find the cottage. The National Trust website lists the actual address as Higher Bockhampton, near Dorchester, Dorset, DT2 8QJ, but you could likely just put in Hardy’s Cottage and the GPS may find it. Mine did. There are no signs to get here, and you will drive through very narrow roads.
Arrive Early for a Place to Park
I recommend visiting early in the morning for the first showing. Within an hour or two the parking lot will fill up and you will have to wait for people to leave before getting a spot. Unless you are a National Trust member or have an annual pass to Thorncombe Woods, there is a parking fee of £1.00 for 2 hours or £3.00 for all day. Two hours should be enough to visit the cottage and to take a long stroll through the forest.
You buy your ticket at the Hardy’s Birthplace Visitor Centre. Not a ticket but more of a time-stamped wood chip. The cottage is old and can only withstand so many people on the upper floor. For this reason, they try to allocate the number of visitors at one time. The visitor centre is relatively new and is open from 10 am – 4 pm daily. Besides ticket purchase, there is also a café, gift shop and toilets. The entrance fee is £7.50 for adults.
Pink or Blue Path
From the visitor centre, there are two trails you can take to get to Hardy’s Cottage. The shorter trail, known as the pink path, takes about 15 minutes to walk. It rises through the heart of the woodland to the gate of the orchard and then descends to the cottage gardens. This is an uphill climb and probably better to tackle on the way to the cottage.
The blue path is the longer route, taking about 30 to 45 minutes to complete. We left this until after visiting the cottage. Starting at the top of the orchard, we meandered through the path in the woods and found a Dartmoor pony grazing beside a fence. Continuing along the path beside the fence, there are wonderful views of the heathlands. A little further along we come upon Rushy Pond, which is home to a variety of wildlife. Part of the path was closed off because of migrating birds in the area. We continued down the hill to reach the beginning of the woodland and the parking lot.
Roaming Dartmoor Ponies
The Dartmoor Pony is a particular breed of pony that lives on Dartmoor in England. The ponies are a hardy breed with great stamina and thrive on Dartmoor despite the harsh winter weather and limited vegetation. There is evidence that the ponies existed on these inhospitable moors over 3,500 years ago. While the purebred Dartmoor Pony is of solid colour, many ponies seen across the moor are multi-coloured and known as Hill Ponies. These ponies may have been cross-breed with a mix of Shetland, Welsh, Arab or Spotted pony. Though once plentiful, the number of registered Dartmoor ponies has dropped to only a few hundred today.
Volunteer’s Have a Wealth of Information
The cottage itself has changed little in the last 200 years. I noticed some decorative anchor plates on the outside walls that would not have been original to the house. The anchors are attached to rods that run through the inside of the cottage to another plate on the opposite side of the building. The anchors help prevent the walls from bowing out. I suspect restricting the number of people allowed on the upper floor at any one time is required to reduce stress on the walls.
However, the furnishings inside the cottage are not from the Hardy family but are original to the period. There isn’t a lot of written information about the cottage or the Hardy’s life. The volunteer guides in the cottage have a wealth of information, and if you ask a question, you will get quite a lengthy and informative answer in return.
The initial cottage was quite small until the Hardy’s built an addition to accommodate Thomas’ grandmother. When she died in 1857, Thomas moved into her bedroom. It was here, at a desk by the window, that he wrote some of his early novels.
The tour starts in the parlour. As one would expect, there is a large fireplace around which family and friends would socialize and keep warm in winter months. There is a stone floor which is quite unusual for homes built at that time, but Thomas’ family were builders and stonemasons. The floor is made up of odd pieces that would have been the leftover from previous jobs.
Next to the parlour is a small scullery that was later turned into an office for Hardy’s father to manage his stonemason and bricklaying business. Thomas’s mother would pay the workers through a small window in the office at the back of the house.
Limit to the Number of People Allowed Upstairs
There are only six people allowed upstairs at a time. This is not a crowding issue but rather to manage the integrity of the building. The floor can only hold so much weight. To manage this, there are six books on a table at the bottom of the stairs. As each person goes up, they must take a book. Once all the books are gone, no-one else can go up until someone comes down with a book. This is also why there are timed admittance tickets. This is a great time to ask the guide questions.
Upstairs you can roam through Thomas’ sister’s bedroom. His sisters, Mary and Kate, shared the room. Next is the parent’s bedroom. A simple room with whitewashed walls. Not large by today’s standard. This is where Thomas was born. There is a small crib next to the bed. It is said that one day, Thomas’ mother came in and found him in his crib curled up with a snake on his chest.
There is also Thomas’ bedroom upstairs that he moved into after his grandmother’s death in 1857. There is no indication where he slept between being a baby and age 17. There were no other bedrooms.
The Grandmother’s Kitchen
The kitchen is where Thomas’ grandmother prepared meals. As this part of the house was originally cut off from the rest of the house, it also served as her living room. The kitchen is quite large and contains both a fireplace and a bread oven which was heated up by burning dried gorse inside it. It was unusual for houses to have such an oven, and neighbours would often come over, socialize and bake bread. The oven has no chimney. Smoke from the burning gorse would escape through the oven door and leave the room through the chimney of the adjacent fireplace. Once hot, it would stay hot long enough to bake. The volunteer in the kitchen was dressed in period garb and was very chatty and entertaining while she baked.
Once you finish with the cottage, you can take your time in the fabulous English garden surrounding the property. In the shed next door, there are tools from the period and a video running in a loop for those who want to learn more.
The Parking Lot is a Mess
Once it is time to leave, the parking lot can be a confusing mess. There is one very narrow street in and out of the parking lot. If the parking lot is full, there is no place for new visitors to park and traffic just stops. There is nowhere for cars leaving to go unless the cars coming in back up. And no one wants to back up. It probably took 15 minutes just to get out of the parking lot!
That being said, this is a lovely, quaint cottage offering a close look into the life and times of Thomas Hardy. The staff is friendly, knowledgeable and eager to answer any questions. We spent a couple of hours at the cottage and wandering the woods. Time well spent. Very enjoyable.