Max Gate and Cerne Abbas

It was further than I thought to Max Gate, Hardy’s home in Dorchester, past Gallows Hill and the memorial to the executed Catholics and on beyond the by-pass. There were several places in Dorset where the old religion died hard (usually because the local lord of the manor was sympathetic to the Catholics and protected the villagers, including Chideock with its martyrs and my own ancestral village, Marnhull, which has an unbroken history of discreet catholicism from pre-reformation days).

My old body was in a cooperative mood despite the long walk and we made it without grumbling (there and back).

The house is not as secluded as in Hardy’s time; modern buildings now overlook the large partly molehill strewn garden. It was exciting to see the room where Hardy wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both because it’s a favourite of mine and because of a family connection, my great great grandfather being publican of the Crown Inn in Marnhull on which Hardy’s Pure Drop Inn in Tess was based. Hardy outraged a froth of bishops and moralists, their ire intensified by his sub-title a pure woman.

Rather less uplifting was seeing the cramped quarters where his first wife  found refuge, fell ill and died, the latter part of his marriage being grim. I know more than I wish to about this and have just written a couple of paragraphs but unusually I lost my file; perhaps it’s best that my thoughts about this matter float around for eternity with all the other forlorn documents in the cyber void.

I’ve  also been to Cerne Abbas which I’ve long wanted to explore. Once a town with an important monastery, it gradually declined to its present village status, especially during the nineteenth century when the railway took another route. There’s not much of the abbey left but a number of fine old buildings. Cerne is famous for its giant carved on the chalk hillside above the village. Its age is uncertain, the first written record being from 1694 and other earlier accounts of the location not mentioning it. However, as one writer neatly puts it absence of evidence is not sufficient evidence of absence. Ancient remains may well have attracted less attention in earlier historical periods and we can also, for example, find descriptions of Avebury, which make scant reference to the prehistoric stones, which we know were there.

The Cerne Giant has been related to a Celtic fertility god and popular etymology links the name of Cerne to this God, although more reliable sources relate it to the Welsh word Cairn, with the probable meaning of rocky stream. Recent research on soil samples has indicated that the giant may have originated in the late Saxon period although other samples produce a later sixteenth century date.

Martin Papworth, the National Trust’s senior archaeologist , has advanced the theory that the giant may have been covered over and rediscovered at some point, for instance, in the seventeenth century.

There is anyway solid evidence against it being of British Celtic origin.

It would hardly have been an asset during the monastic period, when the monastery would have been more interested in relics of saints etc. to attract pilgrims rather than a chalk giant, especially in its present form of a giant with an erection (there are theories, however, that this resulted from later tampering with the figure).

I’ve spent time in the Dorset Museum’s library and found out more about my publican great great grandfather who attracted the ire of the village by loose talk with an excise officer, which led to the prosecution of another villager (as I understand it for transporting a woman passenger on a goods vehicle without a licence). The villagers hung an effigy of Jimmy Kendall in a tree, then staged a mock funeral which passed the pub before a mock burial took place in a nearby field. This came to be known as Jimmy’s fete (the source here being a guide written by the Women’s Institute in 1940). It reminds me of the Skimmington Ride described by Hardy in the Mayor of Casterbridge where villagers outraged by what they regard as a serious breach of moral conduct organise a noisy procession with an effigy past the house of the offending party.

In two days’ time, I start my return to Sweden, well satisfied with my travels to Germany, France, Ireland, Wales and England.

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