Sticking to the Thomas Hardy theme, my next visit (on the same day) was to Max Gate, the house he designed himself – having trained and worked as an architect before his writing career took off – and which was built by his father and brother. He lived here for over 40 years and had a series of three studies on the first floor in which he wrote some of his best known novels and a vast quantity of poetry. He died here in 1928 although the room in which this took place and in which he wrote much of ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ was not yet open to visitors during my visit. I was just a few weeks too early to have access to it. Something else that will be open to future visitors is a renovated shepherd’s hut that has been wheeled into a corner of the garden and is similar to the kind of hut that Gabriel Oak would have used in ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’.
The house itself, on the outskirts of Dorchester, couldn’t be more different from the small higgledy-piggledy cottage in Bockhampton. It is a much larger and more solid-looking brick-built Victorian villa, although it has expanded over the years and was a simpler two-up, two-down house before Hardy’s career took off and he could afford further add-ons. I guess you really know you’ve made it when you can convert the old kitchen into a bicycle room as the Hardys did!
Little of Hardy’s furniture survives in the house, although there are a few pieces including a bureau bookcase and a green scroll-arm sofa. However, as with Hardy’s Birthplace, the National Trust has compensated by scattering a lot of informative literature about the house so there’s plenty to read as you wander around the rooms, breathing in the hallowed air in hopes of inhaling some of Hardy’s talent (or is that just me?!) Among the printed material on display in the drawing room, for example, is a booklet of comments made by the many illustrious visitors to Max Gate, who included such well-known names as JM Barrie, HG Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, EM Forster and Gustav Holst (spot the odd one out!)
Another highlight of the drawing room is the stuffed dog in front of the fireplace, settled there in honour of Wessex, an important occupant of Max Gate during Hardy’s time and one on whom the National Trust has produced a dedicated booklet alongside the small guidebook to the property. Wessex was a fox terrier, bought for Hardy’s second wife Florence, and supposedly a menace to anyone who set foot inside the house (or in fact into the grounds as the postmen seemed to have trouble with him). It was regularly commented by visitors to Max Gate that Wessex had ‘behaved disgracefully’!
Wessex actually has pride of place in the pet cemetery in one corner of the gardens alongside many of Hardy’s other pets, including a number of cats, several of which seemed to have come to an untimely end on the railway. Being hit by a train (or in the case of Snowdove literally sliced in half by one) appeared to be an occupational hazard for the Max Gate felines.
There is very much a hands-on approach in Max Gate, with visitors encouraged to sit in the chairs, use the old typewriter, create their own poems at one of the study desks and even make their own tea and coffee in the old kitchens. Children might also be interested in the various knitted creatures that seem to occupy the garden. A mystery knitter has created several brown wool animals that are dotted around the grounds to be sought out by the eagle-eyed.
It is interesting that the wool was brown as this could also hint at the identity of the anonymous guerilla knitter who took signage into his/her own hands and put a knitted National Trust tourist sign for Max Gate on the nearby A35 on Hardy’s birthday in June. There had been some controversy over the Highways Agency’s own refusal to direct travellers to Max Gate from the nearby A-road so the mysterious woolworker certainly made his/her point with the home-made sign.
The house certainly deserves to receive more visitors as it has a very different feel from the usual NT property, with its more relaxed approach and interactive experiences. I just wish Wessex still lived there as he would have livened things up even more!
Still no bookmark, I’m afraid, as again only The Thomas Hardy Society ones were available. Fingers crossed I have more luck at Carlyle’s House in London, which is set to be my next stop in a few days’ time.
Highlights: Relaxed atmosphere and detailed information on the house, Hardy and his guests
Refreshments: Tub of Vanilla Bean Purbeck Ice Cream, consumed in the garden
Purchase(s): Guidebooks (one on the house and one on Wessex)
Companion(s): The Dusty Jackets book group
NT Connections: Hardy’s Birthplace (another of Hardy’s former homes)