There are few other places that encapsulate Thomas Hardy quite like Evershot, located in the heart of his Wessex. Step back in time and wander around the village taking in the views that have hardly changed since Hardy strolled around the village himself.
Thomas Hardy’s Wessex
All of Hardy’s major novels are set in the south and south-west of England in a region he was to call Wessex, named after the ancient Saxon Kingdom of the same name. Until Hardy revived the name, Wessex had become more or less defunct.
In his later novels, Hardy enclosed a map of Wessex showing the fictitious place names he had created to replace the actual village and town names of his beloved countryside.
Thomas Hardy – Early Years
“The business of the poet and the novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things.”
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), was the eldest child of Thomas Hardy, a small-time builder/stonemason and Jemima Hand Hardy, a servant from the age of thirteen up until her marriage.(Jemima was born at Melbury Osmund, the village next to Evershot.) They married, under pressure from their families, just six months before the birth of Thomas.
At the age of sixteen, Hardy was initially apprenticed to a local architect, James Hicks and eventually moved up to London in 1862 to study architecture at King’s College London. He became assistant architect to Arthur Blomfield, who is well known for his restoration of numerous churches along the length and breadth of Britain.
Thomas Hardy and Emma Gifford
In 1870 Hardy was commissioned to renovate the Church of St Juliot in North Cornwall and it was here that he met the rector’s sister-in-law, Emma Gifford, who was to become his first wife four years later.
The married couple moved into Max Gate, in 1885, a house on the fringes of Dorchester (Hardy’s fictitious Casterbridge), designed by Hardy and built by his brother. It was here that he wrote a number of his later novels including the Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Jude the Obscure (1895) and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891).
Thomas Hardy continued with architectural work alongside his writing. In 1893 he was commissioned by the 5th Earl of Ilchester to extend and alter the Dower House, built in 1789, in Evershot. The property is now a luxurious hotel known as Summer Lodge.
It’s not surprising, when you look at his upbringing and family, that Hardy’s writing is full of insights into human nature and the constant ‘ache of modernism’. He was a vocal critic of the declining status of rural people around Britain due to the effects of the industrial revolution.
Evershot (Evershead) and Tess of the d’Urbervilles
“She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself. To all humankind besides Tess was only a passing thought. Even to friends, she was no more than a frequently passing thought.”
The village of Evershot, referred to as Evershead in Hardy’s novel was formerly a small market town and is the second highest village in Dorset situated approximately 600 ft above sea level.
By the 17th century, there was a thriving weekly market and an annual fair. The Mansion, depicted above, dates to c. 1725 and can be found at the top of Fore Street close to the Church of St Osmund.
However, like numerous towns and villages around Britain, for example, Marlborough in Wiltshire, it was to suffer a major fire. In Evershot, this occurred in 1865 and over twenty buildings were destroyed on Fore Street (the Main Street) leaving numerous families homeless.
Many of the properties were rebuilt over the following decades by the Earls of Ilchester who resided at the nearby Melbury Park estate. The village shop is typical of the 19th-century bow fronted design that was in vogue at the time.
Located on the opposite side of Fore Street is the Acorn Inn, originally called the Kings Arms, a quintessential 16th-century coaching inn, with excellent food to boot! As previously mentioned, Evershot, in the dark and distant past, was a thriving market town and at one point there were no less than six pubs to choose from.
Thomas Hardy obviously loved the Acorn too as it was the inspiration for ‘The Sow and Acorn’ in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
And lastly, if you continue walking up Fore Street and past the village church you’ll discover, on the right-hand side, the cottage that has now been renamed Tess Cottage in tribute to the heroine of Hardy’s novel.
Tess “made a halt…and breakfasted…not at the Sow and Acorn, for she avoided inns, but at a cottage by the church.”
Evershot as a Filming Location
The attractive Fore Street has been featured in the period drama Emma – The 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Jeremy Northampton and Greta Scacchi based on the novel of the same name by Jane Austen. The high street was dressed as “Highbury” with straw, sheep pens etc.
Montacute House – It’s one of the most attractive surviving Elizabethan houses in England and is a great place to visit regardless of the weather. The property is now maintained by the National Trust which operates a cafe serving excellent lunches and cream teas.
Sherborne (Abbey, north of Blackmore in Hardy’s Wessex) – There’s a wealth of things to do and visit in Sherborne, an attractive historic market town. The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin is well worth a visit and still retains a number of Saxon features. Just down the road, you’ll discover Sherborne Castle built by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1594.
Cerne Abbas (Abbot’s Cernel in Hardy’s Wessex) – is a historic village that grew around an abbey that was founded in 987, the ruins of which can be viewed today. The village is also home to the Cerne Abbas Giant -a huge nude male figure wielding a club cut into the chalk hill.