I took a pushbike on the Piddle Pedal to Puddletown and Tolpuddle. It was almost worth doing just for the sound of that sentence, but cycling round Dorset had other things going for it. This quiet rural area may be less well known than, say, the Cotswolds, but it’s just as beautiful and has no crowds, madding or otherwise.
This is classic English countryside, where hedgerows divide lush fields from shady lanes, grey stone churches nestle in sleepy thatched villages, small birds sing from bushes and briars, and beech foliage and oak boughs inspire us to try our hand at poetry. Dappled light filters through the forest onto a tapestry of bluebells and history. This is Thomas Hardy’s Wessex.
Holly from Cycloan in Dorchester supplied me with maps, suggested an itinerary and rented me a Giant Boulder mountainbike. It looked macho enough to ride over an avalanche, but fortunately I never met anything so challenging. I wheeled it nervously across busy London Rd, lugged it through a gate into a field and hardly saw a car for the rest of the day. The cycling route was well signposted and rated easy. Anybody with legs could do it. I even met a disabled cyclist riding a hand-cranked recumbent bike.
The route started out along a bridle way beside the babbling Piddle. It’s just a stream, but I found it hard not to smirk whenever its name was mentioned. Undergraduate humour seemed to be a recurring theme in Dorset. A famous attraction of these parts is the Cerne Abbas Giant, an ancient figure carved into a hillside. He’s huge, naked and, um, very pleased to see people. Surely he was created by the lads during a big night on the mead several centuries ago.
East of Dorchester I rode into true Thomas Hardy territory. The thatched cottage where the poet and novelist was born and began writing is now open to the public, thanks to the National Trust. It’s simply furnished in nineteenth century style, and visitors are encouraged to sit in the great man’s bedroom, gaze out over the pretty garden and soak up the atmosphere that led Hardy to write Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd. His ashes now lie in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, but his heart is buried beside the church in nearby Stinsford, where he and his family were parishioners.
The sun broke through as I bounced along forest trails and into Puddletown. ‘No puddles in Puddletown today,’ called a cheery local, giving me the impression that he’d used the line before.
Then it was a short roll down the road to Tolpuddle, where a modest (and free!) museum ensures that the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs won’t be forgotten. In 1834 six farm workers dared to discuss collective action to protect their miserable wages. They were tried on trumped up charges and transported to Australia. The outcry that followed led to their pardons, and continued as the union movement gathered unstoppable momentum. A rally held here each July attracts thousands from around the country.
My bike’s suspension was doing its job, so my backside felt up to branching off the Piddle Pedal onto the longer Ride of the Desert King. The title had nothing to do with the terrain. England’s land was as green and pleasant as ever, but now I was heading for Clouds Hill, the country retreat of T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. The little house was closed and, though sometimes open to visitors, I’d heard there’s not a lot to see inside.
A warning sign appeared by the roadside: ‘Tank Training Area’. I was approaching Bovington army camp, where Lawrence was stationed when he had his fatal motorcycle accident. Bike v. tank is unfair competition, so I turned back into the forest, following signs to the village of Moreton. Lawrence’s mortal remains were buried there, and an elderly bus party had come to visit them. His grave was unremarkable, but St Nicholas church in Moreton had to be one of the most beautiful I’d ever seen, with its unpretentious square tower and a real surprise inside.
There was no stained glass. Instead, the arched windows, point-engraved by Dorset artist Laurence Whistler, were of clear glass, letting light flood in, and allowing us to see the trees and sky beyond. Dawn French’s Vicar of Dibley would have felt right at home here, though the views may have distracted attention from even her most brilliant sermon.
In the charming Moreton tea rooms I ate field mushrooms on toast, smothered in Dorset Blue Vinny cheese sauce, while the clear-eyed Lawrence, looking remarkably like Peter O’Toole, stared from photos on the walls. Then this Desert King mounted his trusty steed and rode on with the wind at his back and canola blooming yellow by the path.
I dropped off my bike back in Dorchester, the handsome, solid county town Hardy used as a model for his fictional Casterbridge, and in the Dorset County Museum found an excellent collection of Hardy memorabilia and a replica of his study.
All in all, it had been a great day, and I’d earned a drink. Both Hardy and Lawrence were regulars at the Kings Arms Hotel, a fine old coaching inn near the museum. There was an ale on tap named after a local watercourse. I tried to keep a straight face as I ordered it:‘A pint of Piddle, please.’
The writer was assisted by Dorset and New Forest Tourism Partnership.
Getting there: Trains to Dorchester from London Waterloo take just three hours and cost from GBP17 one way.
Staying there: The Kings Arms, Dorchester, has rooms from GBP85. kingsarmsdorchester.com For other options see dorset-newforest.com
Further information: Bike hire from GBP12.50 per day from cycloan.co.uk. Hardy’s cottage entry is GBP3.50. Dorset County Museum entry GBP6.50. For other activities, see dorset-newforest.com
First published -Sun-Herald, Sydney