Sunday, March 27, 2016

Rooting Around the Ridgeway

What a wonderful culmination to the South Dorset Ridgeway (SDR)Landscape Partnership, bringing together musicians and literary lovers at Broadmayne Village Hall on 20 March 2016.
The Ridgeway on Bronkham Hill near the Hardy Monument
                Fanny Charles of the FTR kicked off the event by introducing James Sharpe, Manager of the SDR Partnership. He explained that this cultural heritage partnership has at its heart art, literature and music, and is about ‘exploring creativity, continuity and social change in the South Dorset Ridgeway area’. The project was run in association with Artsreach, AONB Dorset and Heritage Lottery funding.

St George's Church, Reforne, Portland (photo taken from The Spirit of Portland
by Gary Biltcliffe -
The Ridgeway Choir and Band treated us to some wonderful music. Phil Humphries explained that the inspiration for this came from the tradition of ‘West Gallery music’. In local churches up and down the Ridgeway, such as at Winterbourne Steeple, Winterbourne Abbas and Abbotsbury, a choir and instrumentalists comprising men, women and boys, of mixed abilities, would come together to sing and play, not only in support of church services but also at dances and other occasions. This is described by ThomasHardy in some of his novels, especially vivid in Under the Greenwood Tree.  West Gallery music was popular from the 1700s to the mid-1800s, after which it petered out, replaced by the organ and more formal choirs.

Water meadows and River Frome at Stinsford near Hardy's Cottage
Dr Alan Chedzoy then performed renditions from William Barnes’ poetry. An expert on both Barnes and Hardy, he explained how Barnes wrote more than 500 poems in the Dorset dialect, painting a picture of village life, before the coming of the railway. For over 300 years, village living had changed very little, being very isolated, with people from neighbouring villages often only coming together on special occasions (at harvest, feasts, fairs, and so on). Yet, in those days, work was a communal thing, not solitary as so often today. There was communal feeling and strong village opinion and politics. But this began to be eroded away with the coming of the railway. Barnes recorded a complete and valuable repertoire of manners, words and sentiments of those times.

Part of the SDR project involved fifteen local writers coming together to find inspiration, under the guidance of poet and writer Greta Stoddart. This Creative Writers Group would meet at different village halls along the SDR, walking the Ridgeway, making notes and working on poems. Greta explained: “The Ridgeway is an evocative place. ‘Evocative’ means to call out, rouse or summon, in the sense of calling spirits or being called by them. It conjures up presences from the past. The act of walking is also physical, allowing the mind to switch off and the consciousness to let go, welcoming other thoughts in. With a meditative stride, in such an alert yet relaxed state, thoughts are allowed to flow.” Listening to the inspired poems read by members of the Group, you certainly grasped this sense of inspiration and emotion.

Chalbury hillfort above Preston
(photo taken from Preston, Bowleaze and Overcombe by D. Joan Jones -

Maiden Castle
Greta feels that the Ridgeway affords height and length, thus offering a different perspective. “Seamus Heaney is good at conjuring up the sense of being in the present and past at the same time (for example, in his poem ‘Bone Dreams’, inspired by Maiden Castle near Dorchester). 

Thinking about stones, bones and time, we become aware of the natural transience of all things. This provides an understanding of our mortal place in the world.” The poets went on to write a communal poem, strung out along the route of the Ridgeway – and we were treated to part of this as an inspired group reading.

 Christopher Nicholson was the last speaker of the afternoon. He has written three diverse novels, but spoke mainly of his love of the countryside and Hardy, which inspired his latest novel Winter, a story based on Thomas and Florence Hardy. He explained: “The old place name ‘Wessex’ was rescued by William Barnes when he referred to it in a Foreword to a book. Hardy picked this up and developed it as a semi-fictional place, ‘partly real, partly dream country’. He later included a map of fictional Wessex in his novels, such was its romantic appeal to him and his readers.

Hardy was interested in ‘deep history’ – an archaeological idea but also psychological. Wessex offered him a sense of Old England, stretching back, evoking folklore, myths and legends, the old stories of his grandparents. It was important and valuable to Hardy and gave him a unifying idea for all his novels. It also acted as a get-out in case anyone accused him of making a mistake: it’s Casterbridge, not Dorchester, after all!. It became an effective marketing tool, still used today in names like Wessex FM, Wessex Alarms, and so on. Indeed, the red burglar alarm installed by the latter at Max Gate would have raised a Hardy smile.
Hardy's home Max Gate, now owned by the National Trust

His novel The Woodlanders is particularly atmospherically rich, yet Hardy’s view of the countryside remained ambivalent; he wrote about the tension between city and countryside very well. He succeeded because he invented this part real, part dream country, which many of his readers (town people) loved. In other narratives, the countryside is variously described as poor but virtuous; a place of boredom that you must escape from; nostalgic (not as beautiful of it once was); full of secret violence and nocturnal skulduggery (Sherlock Holmes had this anti-romantic view of the countryside).

Hell Lane linking North Chideock and Symondsbury
(photo taken from More Secret Places by Louise Hodgson -

Top o' Town, Dorchester (photo taken from She Opened the Door
by Peter John Cooper -
All views contain a certain truth, but it is what you make of it. Hardy was very good at offering us these various views and different notions. For instance, contrast Eustacia Vye with Clym Yeobright in The Return of the Native. Hardy was a sort of returning native, an oddity to local people, having left his birthplace, living the high life elsewhere, then returning to write, with some humour, of local places and characters. There was a lot of mistrust and suspicion of him locally.”

As a final thought, Christopher concluded that biographers are constrained by the facts, while novelists can get inside people’s heads and say what they might have been thinking. In his book Winter, he offers a personal view of Hardy, as exists in his own head, mixing fact with fiction.

To sum up the SDR project, it is about being in the past and present at the same time. It invokes lots of voices: singers, historians, poets (ancient and contemporary), readers and writers. I hope there’s more to come, maybe even a book to celebrate the project, people and places involved.

© Julie Musk, 2016