Thomas Hardy makes it easy. Casterbridge, Christminster, you’ll find them on the map inside the front of every Wessex novel. And you can lay the map of Wessex down over the map of south-west England and work out how to get to any of these places. At least, you could, if they were real. Which they sort of are, and sort of aren’t. Hardy calls Wessex “a merely realistic dream country”, or so Wikipedia tells me.
There’s a lot of travelling in Hardy’s books, whether it’s emigrating to Canada or going to market. People come from places and they go to places; they pass through places on their way. And the landscape is vividly described, and feels coherent:
So, stealing out of the hamlet he descended into the same hollow which had witnessed his punishment in the morning, never swerving an inch from the path, and climbing up the long and tedious ascent on the other side, till the track joined the highway by a little clump of trees. Here the ploughed land ended, and all before him was bleak open down.
Not a soul was visible on the hedgeless highway, or on either side of it, and the white road seemed to ascend and diminish till it joined the sky. At the very top it was crossed at right angles by a green ‘ridgeway’ – the Icknield Street and original Roman road through the district. This ancient track ran east and west for many miles, and down almost to within living memory had been used for driving flocks and herds to fairs and markets. But it was now neglected and overgrown.
From this, and other passages through the Wessex novels, one might almost be able to put the map together without knowledge of the real-world equivalents or a sight of the map of Dorset and Hampshire, Somerset and Berkshire and Oxfordshire and Devon.
Here are Susan and Elizabeth-Jane Henchard approaching Casterbridge:
‘What an old-fashioned place it seems to be!’ said Elizabeth-Jane, while her silent mother mused on other things than topography. ‘It is huddled all together; and it is shut in by a square wall of trees, like a plot of garden ground by a box-edging.’
Its squareness was, indeed, the characteristic which most struck the eye in this antiquated borough, the borough of Casterbridge – at that time, recent as it was, untouched by the faintest sprinkle of modernism. It was compact as a box of dominoes. It had no suburbs – in the ordinary sense. Country and town met at a mathematical line.
To birds of the more soaring kind Casterbridge must have appeared on this fine evening as a mosaic-work of subdued reds, browns, greys, and crystals, held together by a rectangular frame of deep green. To the level eye of humanity it stood as an indistinct mass behind a dense stockade of limes and chestnuts, set in the midst of miles of rotund down and concave field. The mass became gradually dissected by the vision into towers, gables, chimneys and casements, the highest glazings shining bleared and bloodshot with the coppery fire they caught from the belt of sunlit cloud in the west.
From the centre of each side of this tree-bound square ran avenues east, west, and south into the wide expanse of cornland and coomb to the distance of a mile or so.
And then we enter the town itself, and the impressionist bird’s-eye view resolves into detail, and the plot gets going. The social geography is slotted into the physical geography; we learn who drinks at which public house. Durnover; the market place; Mixen Lane: Casterbridge is very credible.
I’m trying to remember whether I’ve ever been to Dorchester and, if so, whether it looked like that. (Although the narrative explains later that Things Have Changed between the date of the action and the date of writing, so it probably wouldn’t have.) I thought I had, but on reflection I suspect I was thinking of Bridport.
I have, however, definitely been to Oxford. Here’s Jude Fawley’s first sight of Christminster:
Some way within the limits of the stretch of landscape, points of light like the topaz gleamed. The air increased in transparency with the lapse of minutes, till the topaz points showed themselves to be the vanes, windows, wet roof slates, and other shining spots upon the spires, domes, freestone-work, and varied outlines that were faintly revealed. It was Christminster, unquestionably; either directly seen, or miraged in the peculiar atmosphere.
Even without the map, even without the clue of the name (Oxford’s cathedral – ‘minster’ – doubles as the chapel of Christ’s College) it’s easy to make the connection with the ‘dreaming spires’ of cliché.
How to get there? A little find+replace, together with traveline.info, makes it easy enough. For Casterbridge, take the train direct from London Waterloo (ultimate destination Budmouth); alternatively, go from Paddington and change at Castle Cary or Westbury (again to a train heading for Budmouth). For Christminster, take the direct train from London Marylebone – or go from Paddington again, changing at Aldbrickham this time.
Other Cs on the map of Wessex are Chalk Newton, Chaseborough, Cliff Martin and Cresscombe, but they’re only bit players, mentioned in passing if at all.
You might ask why I’m using Casterbridge and Christminster now, rather than waiting for W for Wessex. The truth is, I’m not really convinced by the whole of Wessex as an entity, even broken up into North and Upper and Mid and South and Outer and Lower, but I can believe in the individual towns and villages, and the landscapes around and between them. Plus, C comes a lot earlier in the alphabet…
That ammonite came from Charmouth, which does not have a Wessex equivalent, but is the right neck of the woods.
Books referred to in this post
The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
and the other Wessex novels