It’s Sunday morning and we’ve been granted unexpected respite: just the two of us, eager to make the most of the day before the promised deluge arrives. We’re off to see Max Gate and eldest daughter is on a mission. Devoid of small child whose well-being is paramount, she drives down the Dorchester by-pass like a woman possessed. Mother’s well-being is not a consideration but all my children turn French once behind the wheel. Appraising the slowness of life on the other side of the Channel, I once remarked to a native that those originating in La France do nothing with speed except when they are in their cars. ‘Meh bah’, she replied, ‘you’ve clearly never had sex with a Frenchman’.
I try to disguise my clenched knuckles as Lewis Hamilton points out various examples of natural history which we must simultaneously examine and avoid:
‘What’s the matter’, she asks as we lurch across the dual carriageway? ‘I was just looking at that dead badger’.
‘Never mind, you’ll get your chance on the way back’, I don’t say. Another lurch back into the outside lane:
‘Did you see that’, asks Lewis Hamilton? ‘A deer. With antlers’. No, I had my eyes shut. Oh for a summer’s day when sunglasses can shade one’s fear.
‘I expect it’ll be dead when we return’, she says happily.
The signpost for Higher Bockhampton is upon us with little warning. No worries: with no time to indicate, Lewis Hamilton screeches round a bend and suddenly, in one of those existential moments, it’s as if the highway never existed; although Lewis hasn’t noticed that we’re driving down the smallest, narrowest country lane that deepest Dorset has to offer. We arrive at – Hardy’s birthplace: probably very quaint and interesting and a good place to make a jigsaw from, but Max Gate is not here and I have made an inexcusable error; which, of course, is excused without fuss. We choose a couple in the car park who look as if they might know Max Gate and ask for directions. The good news is that they know Max Gate. The bad news is that they’re about as useful at giving directions as a chocolate teapot.
We follow their instructions, go through Dorchester, are in danger of landing up in shocking Poundbury, try to get new directions from a closed pub, do a U turn, head back down the hill and screech to a halt by what we judge to be a potentially informative pedestrian. Potentially informative pedestrian, who is in charge of an unpleasant looking poodle, turns out to be the maddest woman in Dorchester. She has no knowledge of travelling in cars, refuses to submit to the idea that she may not be of any help and speaks at the rate of five thousand words a minute. During her discourse, I notice a runaway shopping bag on wheels making an escape down the hill. ‘Oh, look’, I comment. Runaway shopping bag on wheels, it transpires, belongs to potentially informative pedestrian who legs it in the direction of Dorchester prison. I think Lewis Hamilton is rather rude for laughing at this.
Back in town, Lewis Hamilton decides to engage her sat nav. I am more than a little surprised that this has not been introduced previously but, as we’ve swerved to an unanticipated halt, I take the opportunity to ask another passing pedestrian if he knows Max Gate. He begins to give directions but is interrupted by Lewis who can only find the box for the sat nav and not the contents. The new helpful pedestrian sticks his wires back into his ears and moves on. We, meanwhile, find ourselves back on the road to Dorchester that we began on and demand instructions from a bloke who claims to know Max Gate. By this time, I’m sure Max Gate will fall far short of what we expected.
I should really have written a piece about how Max Gate, the home of Thomas Hardy, is worth all the hassle of finding it. To say I’m not a fan of the National Trust would be an understatement: they take our heritage and turn it into something without soul. Once inside, they sell things that no-one wants at extortionate prices. Well, as far as I can see, someone with the same impression as your author has managed to secure a position of importance at Max Gate. It’s fantastic. You can sit on the furniture, spend as long as you want reading about Hardy, reading work by Hardy, buying genuine second hand works by Hardy, have free tea and coffee and explore this lovely warm place at your will. You can wander in the delightful gardens and you can congratulate the ladies on the door who are as far from the usual National Trust volunteers as it’s possible to be.
We arrived home, before the floods, really happy. ‘That only took 17 minutes’, says Lewis Hamilton,
Yes, I noticed.