The cottage stood in a wood in deepest Dorset. It was small, almost dainty. It could have been the setting for a bedtime story, perhaps something involving gingerbread or cloaked wolves.
When I pushed open the door, I found myself in a book-lined room. I had the sense that the occupant had just stepped out and would return momentarily. I listened for footsteps, perhaps a voice from the stairs. But the house was still. Birdsong drifted through the open window. On the far wall were black-and-white photographs. They deepened the unreal sense of the place. They showed a young man with piercing eyes in the traditional headdress of the Bedouin of the central Hejaz – an Aladdin, perhaps, in a West Country wood.
Now owned by the National Trust, Clouds Hill was the last home of TE Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – whose exploits among Arab partisans in the Middle East made him famous. The celebrity was unwelcome. And so he changed his name to TE Shaw and retreated here to Dorset, that most rural of English counties, to this little cottage in the parish of Turners Puddle, by the River Piddle. In the last years of his life, Dorset gave him what he needed – simple bucolic beauty, peace and quiet. In the evenings, as the shadows lengthened, Lawrence would climb the hill behind the house to enjoy the views across heathland towards the meandering valley of the River Frome and the village of Moreton where he would soon be buried.
Among the illustrious visitors to Clouds Hill was Thomas Hardy, the county’s famous novelist, and the author of Far From the Madding Crowd. This region, Hardy wrote, ‘was partly real and partly a dream country’. When I came to live here some years ago, it was easy to fall for the Arcadian image, some distillation of an idealised notion of England, a world of country lanes and manor houses, of dappled woods and chalk downs, of village greens and tolling church bells. There is an innocence and delight about it that appeals to a childhood nostalgia. When I introduced The Wind in the Willows to my daughter, we read it on walks through the landscape in order to savour each chapter in a setting that mimicked those in the book – Mole’s field, Ratty’s riverbank, Badger’s wood, the dusty paths leading to Toad Hall.
But the reality is more challenging and more exciting. There may still be cream teas and thatched cottages but in the past 20 years the county has come alive with entrepreneurial initiatives fed by a new generation keen to escape crowded living and city rents. And with them they have brought a fresh energy.
Dorset’s saving grace has always been its distance from London, two to two-and-half hours by car or train. It escapes the suburban feel of the Home Counties, of commuters and golf clubs. It is not overrun by Londoners looking for weekend retreats like Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds. Here, arrivals are people who want to make it their home rather than a second home. Most four-wheel-drives are still muddy tractors not shiny Range Rovers.
It has always been stubbornly itself, a quirky spot where the melodic place names sound like the invention of a mischievous novelist: Ryme Intrinseca and Toller Porcorum, Melbury Bubb, Purse Caundle and Iwerne Minster, Droop, Folly and Plush, Piddletrenthide, Puddletown, Puncknowle, Witchampton, Melcombe Regis and Langton Matravers, the last two sounding like a hapless couple in a Twenties farce. Even the names of some of the old Dorset families could have been invented by Dickens: the Strangways, the Gollops, the Strodes, the Trenchards, the Brodepps, the Welds.
Part of its dreaminess is the sense that it has never really signed up to the mainstream world. It is one of the few English counties without any motorways. It has no cities, and barely any big towns – Bournemouth and Christchurch were only levered into its south-eastern corner from Hampshire in the boundary changes of 1974, and frankly to this day no one really thinks of them as Dorset. There is no cathedral, no university, and the county has never fielded a first-class cricket side, not that anyone cares. There are not even that many people. Across a thousand square miles, Dorset is composed entirely of small towns and villages, unspoiled and unselfconscious. In Dorchester, its genteel old-fashioned capital, there are barely 20,000 residents.
What it does have is beauty. I feel my heart swell every time I leave the house. But the more I explore, the more I am reminded of that GK Chesterton quote about England, that it was only pretending to be a small country. There is not one landscape here, but hundreds. There are the lowing cattle and soft meadows of the Blackmore Vale; they say the smell of cattle is the incense of north Dorset. There are sweet hamlets clustered along quiet streams and towns of honey-coloured stone gathered around ancient abbeys. There are the rugged uplands of Purbeck, ringed by dramatic cliffs and guarded by the ruined stump of Corfe Castle. There are the heights of Cranborne Chase, a former royal hunting ground, once heaving with highwaymen, where views stretch over 40 miles from Salisbury Plain to the Isle of Wight. There is the Jurassic Coast, where eager schoolchildren can find the footprints of dinosaurs, the Dorset Downs, where drovers’ trails run between long horizons and vast skies, and sea-sprayed coastal towns evoking memories of childhood holidays. There are windswept prehistoric hill forts, where sheep patrol the ramparts from which ancient Britons once anxiously watched Roman legions marching into the valleys below.
The Romans loved Dorset and that is always a good sign. They turned up with wine and olive oil, built grand villas and swanned around in their togas. I feel they would be proud of the way, two millennia on, it is rediscovering a passion for good food and good living. All over the county, designers and architects have descended on crumbling old hotels, stripping away half a century of magnolia paint and disappointment, throwing out the gas fires and flock wallpaper to create new emporiums with restaurants by ambitious chefs passionate about provenance. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s pioneering endeavours and focus on local organic ingredients at the original River Cottage led the way for others to follow. Mark Hix came home from London to create his Oyster and Fish House in Lyme Regis. Since shut and then relaunched last summer on the same site, it has tables looking out over the famous Cobb where Meryl Streep had her solitary moment in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. She could probably have done with a plate of Hix’s fresh crab with rosti and wood sorrel.
In 2020 chef Harriet Mansell opened Robin Wylde restaurant in an old Lyme Regis pottery workshop, having first experimented with a pop-up. Here too the emphasis is on ingredients fished, foraged or farmed locally, served with West Country wines as well as Dorset ciders and meads. This summer she opens a second spot, a wine bar called Lilac. A short jaunt away, above Burton Bradstock beach, is the nine-room Seaside Boarding House, co-owned by a former managing director of London’s Groucho Club. The cocktails are devilish and in the dining room fresh fish is served with a side order of wide sea views.
Further round the coast, past the rambling ivy-clad Priory Hotel at Wareham, past the ramshackle Crab House Café at Wyke Regis where the oysters come straight from the sea to your table, and the Shell Bay Seafood Bistro on Purbeck, is The Pig on the Beach at Studland – all playful Victoriana held in check with a warm informality and enlivened by watery adventures. But of course it is not just about the shoreline. Head inland for The Green in my local town of Sherborne, with a Michelin Bib Gourmand nod, or south to Brassica in Beaminster and the nearby village of Corscombe where Hix opened country pub The Fox Inn in December.
Small-scale producers are the culinary backbone of Dorset. Solkiki, a family-run business producing ethically sourced organic vegan chocolate (bars of smoked orangewood dark milk and pickled sakura cherry blossom white chocolate), has been showered with international plaudits and could be the archetype of local enterprise. In Dorchester, Fordington Gin began as a kitchen table start-up and ended up winning Silver at the World Gin Awards. Not far from Clouds Hill is English Oak Vineyard where you can picnic among the vines with its prize-winning sparkling wines. Cider of course is the classic West Country tipple, best sampled at Dorset Nectar near Bridport. Close by, Anne Hanbury, who trained as a gelatiere in Bologna, has created Baboo Gelato, making artisan ice cream with the glut of fruit on her doorstep, while up at Winterborne Kingston, Beanpress Coffee Co is roasting estate-grown beans for cafés and restaurants across the county. Finally, with pastures full of sheep and dairy herds, cheese-makers such as the Book and Bucket Cheese Company, founded more than two years ago, have popped up all over. Dorset is a treasure chest from which all sorts of marvels are tumbling out.
Not long after I arrived here, I decided to walk to the sea, a three-day hike. I met an African chief once who said you can only understand through the soles of your feet. So I stepped out of my front door, shouldered my rucksack and set off across the fields to Marnhull where Tess of the d’Urbervilles was born and where she pleaded with the parson to give her child a Christian burial. Hardy’s characters still haunt this landscape.
I walked southward through Sturminster Newton where the author and his wife Emma lived for a year in a large semi-detached Victorian villa in what might have been the only happy year of their married life. Forty years on, he would remember the surrounding river meadows as ‘golden and honeybee’d’. I went on past Piddles Wood, where two deer started from the shadows, and the Iron Age fort atop Banbury Hill, over the bowered lane of Gipsy’s Drove crowded with white butterflies – past Knackers Hole and up the long, steep flanks of Chitcombe Down, where the blackberries looked promising, to the top of Bulbarrow Hill. Up here is one of the finest views in England, a vast sweep of patchwork country – the fields parcelled by hedgerows, the villages linked by twisting lanes, the rooftops of Woolland and Ibberton tucked beneath the ridge. Red-tailed hawks were hunting from the heights, their outstretched wings fluttering long feathery fingers. The sun had arrived and you could see the Quantock Hills, 40 miles away. Glastonbury Tor pricked the horizon. To the east Cranborne Chase shouldered a cloud-scattered sky. It was one of Hardy’s favourite views. He called it languorous. It has that wonderful stillness, that drowsiness of rural England.
A leaf-strewn path through Puddletown Forest brought me to Higher Bockhampton, where Hardy was born in a thatched cottage on the edge of the wood, and then to St Michael’s Church in Stinsford where his heart was buried beneath a yew. Someone had left a bouquet of wildflowers. Then I followed the channelled waters of the River Frome, where a delicate light leaked through the cathedral vaults of beech trees, and beyond across marshy fields to the village of Moreton and Lawrence’s grave in the church cemetery. A cat appeared from between the headstones to rub its neck against my leg, like a lonely reincarnate. The little cottage at Clouds Hill was three miles away.
The next morning I walked the last miles towards Purbeck and the coast. The Channel sparkled and sails tilted towards Swanage. On the heights of Flower’s Barrow, I lay on my back against the ridges of an Iron Age fort, watching the swallows dive over the cliffs. Blue wildflowers decorated the grass and the hawthorn bushes were russet with berries. A ketch lay at anchor in Worbarrow Bay, moored in a sea of light. Enid Blyton used to holiday three times a year in Purbeck, staying at a hotel at Studland. Many of the adventures of the Famous Five, buoyed along by lashings of ginger beer, are set along this coast.
I was thinking about Churchill who, among a host of dignitaries, had been at TE Lawrence’s funeral in the church in Moreton; in death the whole world seemed to have hunted him down in his Dorset retreat. The two men could hardly have been more different – Churchill a swaggering public figure, Lawrence reclusive, self-sustaining, poetic. But Churchill admired Lawrence, describing him as ‘extraordinary’, a man ‘outside the jurisdiction of the world… untamed and untrammelled by convention’. I realised at Clouds Hill that was how I thought about Dorset, this sweet untrammelled place, just a little outside the jurisdiction of the world.
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