Dorchester felt despondent. The High St, once an important road in the county town with better shops for country people is no longer a prime retail location. The hotel is bankrupt and shuttered and Judge Jeffrey’s kitchen with its leather chairs and fine atmosphere has closed to re-open later this year as a Turkish restaurant. There are a few quirky antique shops, including one with a Somerset signpost that I wanted although fortunately it was just too unwieldy. If I had brought it home, it would have looked sad and out of place. I would have attempted unsuccessfully to clean it or, in an overenthusiastic moment, even paint it. And it would then have looked awful but I would have been lumbered with it, unable to take pleasure in it and unable to throw it away. Memories of signposts are easier to deal with.
Even the Dorset County museum was shut, having packed up its wonderful evocative Victorian room (I hope just temporarily) to make space for Dippy the Dinosaur who is roaming around the country. I wish Dippy would make less fuss about being extinct – I prefer the Victorians.
But there were closed shops in Cornhill too, including Napper’s Mite, a favourite watering hole to look at and listen to shopping folk having coffee or lunch.
It felt as if there wasn’t much money around and I wondered why as the town, the administrative capital of the county, used to feel solid and prosperous.
Some of the smart money seems to wonder this too as the old brewery between the centre and the station has been not insensitively refurbished with restaurants and clothes shops and repackaged as the new Dorchester.
The explanation might partly be Prince Charles’ Poundbury a mile or so away with its mock traditional Dorset houses and shops. I’m not enthusiastic about the design and it feels cut off from the dreamily fine landscape west of Dorchester. Nor do I like the cloying association with the royal family with its Queen Mother Square and Duchess of Cornwall hotel. It has its fans, however, and is perhaps drawing many funded inhabitants away from the old centre. It might have amused Hardy in a sad, wry way if the attempt to preserve the traditional undermined the genuinely traditional.
But my own feelings are complex and mixed. The Dorchester of my imagination is not quite the same as real existing Dorchester. If I get too close, it would probably crumble into dust like an ancient Egyptian artefact exposed to the air. I don’t really want it to change but know that stagnation would also destroy much of what I love.
It was anyway a pleasure to stay for the third time in the Victorian terraced house on the road to Puddletown and Bere, surrounded by my host’s considerable collection of Dorset books and this time granted the privilege of being able to work in the living room while he was out at work.
And I managed one excursion to Christchurch the other side of Bournemouth, right at the edge of the county to see its huge Priory church and admire the waterfront where the Stour and the Avon join forces to pour into the sea.
But I think next time I must come in the summer and see whether it feels more cheerful.