‘I’m related to Thomas Hardy,’ says the English Heritage official in an off hand remark as I buy a guidebook to tour the Old Castle. ‘A few of us are round here.’
I’m in Sherborne, a picturesque rural village in Dorset, England, having come to see Hardy’s ‘Wessex’ in real life, and so, not surprisingly, the famous novelist casts a long shadow around these parts. His book Far From the Madding Crowd was recently remade into a feature film starring Hollywood’s finest Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen, and much of it was filmed in Sherborne and the surrounding area. The golden-stoned town, almost preserved in time, stood in for Casterbridge, using the ancient abbey, the town green and the historic private school for key moments in the enchanting story.
Hardy’s speciality was lamenting the decline of rural England. As the industrial revolution took over he saw a whole way of life (what we’d now call “uber-local”) slip away. But it strikes me, as I spend a few days in the town, uncovering its history, that the decline Hardy was so worried about seems to have never quite come to pass.
In the summer months, Dorset is a lush country paradise, woven through with winding lanes, edged by strong ancient trees and delicate forest flowers. Tucked away below Somerset and Wiltshire, you’re in the heart of old England. Nearby sits the mysterious monolithic circle of Stonehenge and the 5,000-year-old Iron Age fort of Old Sarum. You’re on the edge of the Jurassic coast – 153km of coastline hide 185 million years of history. Walks along the coastal paths reveal the iconic white chalk sea stacks at Old Harry Rocks, the still, shallow waters of Lulworth Cove and wide-horizon views across the English Channel.
While most tourists head straight for Cornwall, Sherborne’s residents carry on much as they have for the last few decades, quietly keeping this pristine town to themselves like a well-kept secret. My tour guide, Cindy, has been here 50 years and has seen very little change, other than a few shops changing hands.
Sherborne – meaning ‘sparkly river’ in Old English – was a Saxon settlement that has, over the years, had a surprisingly significant role in England’s long history. While Hardy’s Wessex is a fictional place (‘a merely realistic dream-country,’ he writes in Far From the Madding Crowd) that knew no bounds, Sherborne was once capital of real Wessex, when it was the domain of the first English king, Alfred the Great, long before the Norman Conquest in 1066.
It’s thought that Alfred’s brothers are buried in the famous abbey (you can see their bones through the floor) and that the great King attended school here. By that point the Sherborne Abbey was already over 300 years old, (established as a monastery in 705 for the first bishop of Sherborne). Now a parish church, albeit one in the guise of a grand cathedral, it’s home to the heaviest peal of bells in the world. Back at the Old Castle, just a ten-minute walk from town, I discover it was built by Bishop of Salisbury, Roger of Caen, adviser to King Henry I in the 12th century.
Dorset’s position on the south-west coast meant it was a busy thoroughfare for soldiers, knights and explorers to and from London. The Bishop chose a verdant spot. In every direction soft, green hills roll away like gentle waves, while white cow parsley dots the field edges like a foam crest, and on a sunny English summer’s day – admittedly they’re rare! – it feels like there could be nowhere prettier in the whole country, or even the world.
Bishops of Sherborne prospered in the castle for centuries and the town became wealthy from the weaving trade, until 1592 when Elizabeth I gifted the castle to her favourite explorer Sir Walter Raleigh.
This was the Golden Age, when England was fuelled by riches returning from the Americas; and Raleigh was one of the golden boys – a celebrity of the time. But the courtier soon found himself exiled to the castle after the queen discovered his secret marriage to one of her ladies in waiting. He ran out of cash after a failed expedition to find the fabled golden city El Dorado, and moved into the less salubrious hunting lodge nearby. Up at the Old Castle, which now consists of atmospheric ruins, I can see clearly across to the lodge and decide to walk the short distance between the two. Other than the trains on the railway I cross over, and a couple of Land Rovers going by, this green landscape is exactly how it would have been a hundred years ago.
The hunting lodge that Raleigh retreated to is now Sherborne’s New Castle, owned by the aristocratic Digby family for the last 500 years. Where Downton Abbey has the Crawleys, Sherborne has the Digbys. The estate is privately owned but open daily to guests. It’s a gentle walk up a grand drive, past a gorgeous lake that is as flat as a mirror, with the odd swan floating perfectly still on it, like something out of an oil painting.
The Digbys were given the estate when Raleigh met a sticky end (thanks to King James I, who took over after Elizabeth died).
After having to give up the Old Castle during the English Civil War, the family added wings to the hunting lodge and centuries later employed famed gardener du jour, Capability Brown, to create the lake and impressive gardens.
From chapels in the abbey to pubs, I come across the Digby name all over town. Over the years, they’ve poured an impressive amount of income into keeping Sherborne as pretty as it is. Like Downton Abbey, their stately home was used as a hospital during World War I, and has seen plenty of croquet parties, elegant dinners, and hosted many royal visits. In fact, the family has supported the English monarchy for hundreds of years, and as I wander round the house I take in a fascinating collection of antiques, tapestries and paintings.
Many of Raleigh’s things can be seen here, such as the pipe he was smoking when he was beheaded. His wife, so legend goes, was so beside herself with grief, that she had his head mummified and carried it with her for the rest of her days. After taking in the extended history of the castles, I head round the installed lake to find Sir Walter Raleigh’s seat, a tiny stone battlement he created to watch the main road from the busy port of Plymouth. Raleigh introduced tobacco to England, and took to smoking his pipe out here. He also planted many exotic plants that he brought from the Americas in the grounds, including the England’s first potatoes. It’s a beautiful spot, near a rushing river, under the trees.
Sherborne’s role in English history isn’t limited to the aristocracy, it also played its part in huge events from the last century. The Sherborne School for Boys was founded in 1550 and has an impressive list of alumni. Coldplay’s Chris Martin, actors Jeremy Irons and Hugh Bonneville – who plays Lord Crawley in Downton Abbey – were all former students.
The most famous, however, was Alan Turing, the codebreaker who played a seminal role in a breakthrough moment of the Second World War. Scenes from the recent film about his life, The Imitation Game (starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing) were shot in the same medieval cloisters and corridors of this prestigious institute, where Turing spent his youth. His initials can still be seen carved into old school desks and the school archivist even digs out his OBE medal to show me.
Set back from the town green, the school arches round the abbey like a cherished hug, two parts of a whole. The abbey’s magnificent stained glass, organ and history are a huge draw for tourists. It’s not often such a stunning building has survived the turmoil of England’s chopping and changing of religions. To hear the intriguing history of the abbey and the town, visitors can join a tour from the tourist office twice a week, for only Dh30. The Sherborne museum located on a side alley from the town green (and where they used to hang traitors) is also an interesting peek into the long history of the town.
It’s refreshing to discover that Sherborne’s high street is full of locally owned shops rather than the big name chains. I walk past countless cafés and delis offering local produce from local farms. The town’s only butcher’s is over 100 years old. There’s still a weekly market just as there has been for hundreds of years. It would have been little different in Hardy’s day.
At one end of Cheap Street, (which means market) I find a medieval conduit or what would have been an al fresco bathroom for the monks. Over the years it has become a reading room, a police station and a stock room for war supplies, but it’s never lost the grand beauty of its medieval stone carvings. It sums up the town rather nicely for me, no matter what it’s been over the years, the key parts of it, the heart of it, have remained the same, protected from the elements. I think Hardy would be proud of this not-so-modern Sherborne. I can see why the locals wouldn’t want to change a thing. It’s their own little gem in one of the most gorgeous corners of England, which is far from the madding crowd. Just how Hardy wanted it.