I hesitate to write this article. If I describe the beauties and secrets of Dorset, it may attract people, when one of its charms is its emptiness. Dorset is the runt of the south-west litter, overshadowed by its big brothers Devon and Cornwall. It lacks a motorway, an artery pumping in people from other parts of the country. The county may be full of visitors in July and August – its beaches packed, queues at its teashops – but the rest of the year it is blissfully quiet; 1930s quiet, even Iron Age quiet. I like it like that.
I first came to Dorset when I had just moved to England from the United States after university. A friend and I walked parts of the coastal path from Weymouth to Lyme Regis, staying along the way in Abbotsbury, where we admired the swans and the shaggy thatched roofs. At Lyme we followed in Meryl Streep’s footsteps, as so many do, standing at the end of the windy Cobb doing our best impressions of John Fowles’ famous French Lieutenant’s Woman. I had no idea that, 25 years later, I myself would set a novel there, about the fossil hunter Mary Anning. I just loved the Atmosphere. Almost 30 years on, I still feel that about Dorset in general, especially out of season. It has Atmosphere with a capital A.
A few years later, I got to know Dorset much better, when my boyfriend – now my husband – and I started visiting the county regularly, Ordnance Survey maps in hand. Being new to public rights of way, I was astonished that the land was so accessible. Indeed, Dorset has more public paths than many other UK counties. We have walked through many a mucky farmyard with a wave to the farmer, where in the US I would have been greeted with a shotgun and a righteous indication at the ‘NO TRESPASSING’ signs, usually full of bullet holes.
It is the landscape that makes Dorset so special to me. There is little industry in the county, and the land is used for agriculture, with a feeling of having changed little in several centuries. We have a house in the Piddle Valley, and the road leading to it passes through a small valley between two green hills, crisscrossed
with Celtic field boundaries and the remains of Roman terracing. They are
not high and rolling, but are scaled to human size; you won’t get puffed climbing most Dorset hills.
When out walking, I feel held by the land, snug and comfortable. At the summit of the hills, the land opens out briefly to expose a patchwork quilt of small woods and fields bounded by hedgerows. Even in autumn and winter there is a stunning amount of green. That does not mean Dorset is twee. Parts of it have an edge to them – that Atmosphere. The famed Jurassic Coast, 95 miles long from Swanage to east Devon, is jagged and unpredictable. Earlier this year at one of its most visited sites – Durdle Door, a surprising rock formation in the sea near Lulworth Cove – part of the coastal path suddenly broke away. Luckily it happened at night, else people would have died. And there are regular landslides along the beaches, which turn up famed fossils but are hazardous and unpredictable. Humans have lived here for thousands of years but not managed to tame all of Dorset. Even Corfe Castle – the county’s most famous castle – looks more like a natural rock formation than a man-made structure.
Carved in stone
One of the edgiest places I like to visit in the county, where man and nature are entwined in an uneasy embrace, is the Tout Quarry and Sculpture Park on Portland, the almost-island off Weymouth, known for its prisons and the Bill that sticks out towards sea. Tucked away among stone companies, it is an abandoned quarry in a place so isolated that if Portland had a mafia, that’s where they would dump the bodies. In this unlikely site, though, sculptures are being slowly hewn from the rocks. Walk along its paths and you’ll suddenly discover you’re looking at a stone arm, or a face, or a spiral. Antony Gormley has carved a figure on a rockface there called Still Falling.
Tout Quarry has an out-of-season feel even in the summer. You’re likely to be alone as you wander, except perhaps for the tink-tink-tink of a lone sculptor at work somewhere. You probably won’t find them – though the quarry is small it’s easy to feel lost. Then you turn a corner and come out high above the sea, with the wind whipping past and a spectacular view of Chesil Beach stretching out before you.
Much of the time my family doesn’t go for the spectacular, however. We simply set out walking into the land, in our wellies, with a bottle of water, a bar of chocolate and a bag for foraging. In autumn we pick mushrooms, checking them carefully in several manuals to make sure they’re edible, then sauté them in butter for tea. We pick sloes after the first frost and make sloe gin. Sometimes we find hazelnuts to roast – if the squirrels haven’t got to them first.
The county to yourself
It is quiet in the fields and woods; often wet. We see few people, though there is usually a farm in the distance, a focal point that clicks the landscape into place. There are lots of sheep and cows, who stare and chew, reluctant to move unless we come too close. The hedgerows die down a bit in autumn, though they still tower on either side of the tracks and lanes. Often we aim for a pub for lunch, and they too are quiet, a little dusty and dark but for the bright green flash through the window.
Perhaps because it is so empty of people, I feel tempted to fill Dorset with characters from my novels. Three of my books now have featured heroes or heroines from the county. Those who move away never really leave Dorset behind. And for those who remain, their Dorset burr of an accent makes me smile with recognition – its gentle swing and buzz suits the landscape perfectly.
I am not the only writer to find inspiration and solace in Dorset. John Fowles, as mentioned, lived in Lyme Regis, where Jane Austen also holidayed – she set part of Persuasion there. TE Lawrence, of Lawrence of Arabia fame, had a peculiar, isolated cottage you can visit called Clouds Hill; his bedroom is lined with aluminium foil.
And of course, the ghosts of Thomas Hardy’s characters are everywhere, in every deserted churchyard and rutted track and rain-swept hill. By this stone monument (the Cross-in-Hand near Batcombe) Tess ran into Alec D’Urberville after walking 30 miles in a fruitless attempt to see her inlaws. On that road, Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene first met. Though he wrote about all of the seasons, I always picture Hardy’s novels as set in autumn, when it is not quite cold, and the days are “soft”, but there is a wistful turn in the air and the green of the trees and grass is a little faded. Hardy too was attracted to the Dorset Atmosphere. Who wouldn’t be?