Hardy's greatest character - the 'Wessex' countryside

Like the Brontes' moors or Wordsworth's lakes, Thomas Hardy's Wessex is a literary landscape that transcends the novels it inspired. It's Wessex, not Tess or Jude Fawley, that is Hardy's greatest character; its moods and destiny are celebrated in novel after novel.

This is what I discovered firsthand on a recent journey through Wessex - the fictional name Hardy conferred on his native Dorset. While Wessex spans much of England's southeastern corridor, its heart is Dorset, scene of the finest novels: ''The Mayor of Casterbridge,'' ''Tess of the D'Urbervilles,'' ''Far From the Madding Crowd,'' and ''Return of the Native.'' Like one of his own determined characters, I was bent on exploring Hardy country: its market and coastal towns, the heather-carpeted heaths, the great chalk downs with mysterious prehistoric figures etched in their sides.

Hardy is the Constable of English literature. In miniaturist detail his novels catalog the ancient rituals of rural English life. Who can forget the cidermaking in ''The Woodlanders,'' the sheep-shearing in ''Far From the Madding Crowd,'' or the milking scenes in ''Tess''? For Hardy, the unifying rhythms of man and nature met in Dorset's landscape. Descriptions of wind shift, soil mix, the contour of hills and hedgerows serve as more than narrative color. They detail the texture of Dorset life, the daily realities that shaped its speech and fired its folklore.

Even as he wrote, Hardy's pastoral Dorset was vanishing, its ancien regime threatened. Roof-thatchers, hagglers, and yeomen were becoming a breed of the past. In charting the social consequences of the Industrial Revolution, Hardy, like George Eliot, predicted the true victim: the land itself. Today, many of Dorset's heaths are encrusted with council housing; its chalk fields pitted with gravel quarries. The Atomic Energy Authority sits on Hardy's own Egdon Heath.

Despite the inevitable thrust of modernization, Dorset remains among the most beautiful of English counties. Thatched cottages dot its valleys; pastureland rolls green and unbroken; ''wind-warped upland thorn'' still ladens the coastline. The lush vegetation of Hardy's poetry - bracken, broom, holly, and grouseberry - remain; and, sailing above them, ''the dewfell hawk, silent as an eyelid's blink.''

The only way to see Hardy country is to walk it. And that's precisely what I did: a seven-day, 45-mile trek across Dorset. I'd read too much Hardy to venture this alone. Careful not to suffer the bitter fate of his characters - doomed to wander the heaths forever - I enlisted the guidance of an intrepid outfit called Wayfarers. Headed by Chris Hague, himself a dedicated walker, Wayfarers shepherds small groups of walkers through Dorset's countryside.

Since Hardy country is geographically vast, stretching from Salisbury to the Frome Valley, the Wayfarers' walk is neatly circumscribed. Looping northwest, the route passes through Dorchester, Milton Abbas, Cerne Abbas, Evershot, Beaminster, Lyme Regis. Averaging 10 miles a day, we walked through fields and forests, villages and farmyards, stopping for lunch at country inns. Our luggage , whisked off by tour manager Michael West, awaited us at our evening's lodging. There, exhilarated and exhausted from the day's wanderings, we dined and compared notes on the mythical Wessex that suddenly had become very real.

The walk began in Dorchester, the ''Casterbridge'' of the novels. Hardy's presence is everywhere: from his statue crowning the grove off Westgate to nearby South Street, where he worked as an architectural apprentice and, across the street, where his famous mayor lived. It's worth spending an hour or so in the Dorset County Museum on High West Street. Housing a vast Hardy collection, including a replica of his study at nearby Max Gate, the museum offers a historic overview of Hardy's Dorset.

After breakfast on Monday, we set off for Stinsford, the village three miles east where the writer is interred. It's a short walk from there to Hardy's Cottage in Higher Brockhampton. Now a National Trust Domain, the ''small low cottage with a thatched pyramidal roof'' is where Hardy spent his childhood and wrote his earliest novels.

Cutting diagonally across adjacent Egdon Heath, scene of ''Return of the Native,'' we pushed on to Tolpuddle for lunch. Fortified by a hearty plowman's lunch of bread, Cheddar cheese, and lots of water, we pressed north to the village of Milton Abbas. Literally created by the Earl of Dorset in 1771, this picture-perfect hamlet is a row of 18th-century workers cottages. The identical thatched cottages, symmetrically aligned on a hill slant, look like doll houses. It's in one of them that we would spend the night.

While well known for its garden park land-scaped by Capability Brown, Milton Abbas will be instantly recognized by ''Masterpiece Theatre'' viewers. It's here at the Milton Abbey School that the BBC filmed ''To Serve Them All My Days.''

The next destination was Cerne Abbas, considered by many to be among Dorset's most beautiful villages. The approach is marked by gently undulating chalk hills. On one of them we spotted the famous Cerne Giant, a 180-foot neolithic earthwork cut into the side of the hill.

Wednesday promised ''the land of views and bridges, the butter pastures, and lovely manor houses.'' Wednesday was Hardy's Vale of Blackmoor. Like Tess, we ambled over Batcombe Down, that haunting expanse of countryside where she swore her promise on the ancient stone ''cross in hands.''

Hardy called Blackmoor ''the Vale of the Little Dairies,'' and it's easy to see why. On Thursday morning on our way to Beaminster, our walk was crossed by cows on their way to milking. Roaming Blackmoor's great downs, we spotted Beaminster's golden tower in the distance. This signaled lunch. Afterward, we negotiated Lewesdon Hill and its forest before settling in for the night in Marshwood Manor, a rambling 18th-century farmhouse.

By Friday I had begun to understand the mysterious sites that worked Hardy's imagination. I was seeing them. Braving Lamberts Hill early in the morning, we came upon its neolithic settlement. To see this pyramidal landscape is to understand the gothic undercurrent to Hardy's novels. His imagination merely rose to the landscape itself. That thought accompanied me into the late afternoon, broken only by the sight of Lyme Regis, its sweep of cliffs white against the sea.

While more associated with Jane Austen and John Fowles, it was in Lyme Regis that I thought of Thomas Hardy. As I prepared for my train ride back to London, I realized it was his Dorset I now knew to be the most poetically accurate. It was the landscape I had just walked: the brooding, wind-bowed heaths, the pastureland nestled with tiny villages; the forests dense with alder; the thickets alive with late-blooming rose.

Practical information

The Wayfarers' walks are geared to the occasional and experienced walker alike. While the Dartmoor and Exmoor treks demand ''fit and well-shod'' walkers, the other five walks - Cotswolds, South Downs, Coastal Dorset, Hardy country, and the ''French Lieutenant's Woman'' Dorset - welcome the dedicated amateur. Walking shoes and boots are essential.

Common to the walks is an interest in historic, cultural, and pastoral England. By taking care of the business of travel - meals, lodging, luggage, and routes - the Wayfarers enables walkers to actually see England.

Total cost for each walk is (STR)280 ($400) for six days. Meals, lodging, baggage transport inclusive. For detailed information, write: The Wayfarers, 44 Trumlands Road, Torquay, Devon TQ1 4RN, England (Tel. (0803) 33726) In the United States: Wayfarers, 535 West 110th Street, New York, N.Y. 10025 (Tel. (212 ) 678-0024)

Ms. Johnson's trip to Dorset was sponsored by the British Tourist Authority.

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