Country diary: Cerne valley, Dorset: In pursuit of Hardy’s woodlanders

Cerne valley, Dorset: In 1912, Thomas Hardy lamented the decline of traditional trades but there are neat piles of sawn logs at the roadside and thatched roofs in the villages

One afternoon in late August, we joined others assembling with rugs, chairs and picnics on the spreading lawns in front of the great house at Minterne Magna to see a dramatisation of The Woodlanders, a story that Thomas Hardy had set in this very part of Dorset.

Prompted by the play, we went back a week or two later to the Cerne valley, to see some of the villages Hardy had in mind when he created his settings, and where his people got their living from the crafts of growing and tending apple trees, making cider, sawing timber and fashioning spars for thatching.

In a preface dated 1912, Hardy lamented the fact that such traditional woodlanders’ trades were then declining owing to the increasing use of metals and decreasing use of thatch. But, as you pass through the woodlands today, there are neat piles of sawn logs at the roadside and thatched roofs in the villages. Not far away, at Piddletrenthide, I talked with a man who managed a long-established hazel coppice and still pursues, with inherited skills, the same crafts as some of Hardy’s characters.

We found only one cider orchard, and that a very small one, at Up Cerne. No longer a working village, this is a tiny collection of thatched cottages in banded flint, familiar building material in the Dorset and Wiltshire chalkland. Up Cerne is hidden in a valley beneath rounded hills, where a clear stream leads to lakes in the grounds of the manor and then feeds the river Cerne, which wanders on through Cerne Abbas to join the Dorset Frome at Dorchester.

We knew Cerne Abbas and the giant on the hillside but it was good to find Nether Cerne, tucked away with a little flint church on a grassy space close to the old manor house and the river flowing fast a few yards away. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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