Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

The Present Past: Hardy’s Cottage, And Max Gate

A photograph of Hardy's Cottage

Hardy lived all his life near Dorchester, Dorset (the east end of the west side of England, 30 minutes to the coast by car). He was born in a tiny leasehold cottage where he lived with his many siblings – in a few rooms before the place was later extended in order to house his grandmother. He stayed in the cottage until he married, writing his first novels there before designing and having his father and brother build Max Gate, 10 minutes (by car) from the cottage, where he lived with his wife, Emma.

Today, due to the short travelling distance between the homes, you can visit both within a few hours, or, if you’re like me and have made an appointment elsewhere for mid afternoon, you can see both houses within the space of 45 minutes. I don’t really recommend rushing it as I did – you’ll miss the cemetery wherein lies Hardy’s family – but if you don’t have much time, the houses are small enough that you can rush it and tick another two items off your list.

A photograph of Max Gate

Both houses are owned by the National Trust; Hardy’s youngest sister, Kate, enabled the Trust to take over one, and actively handed the other over to them so that they could be looked after. Neither home sports any of its original furniture, whether Hardy’s or otherwise; the cottage was handed back to the council in the interim of the Hardy’s time there, and Max Gate was bought by someone else. This means that there is an unfortunate lack of authenticity about the buildings, but due to this the National Trust have kitted them out with furniture that you can sit on, and at Max Gate the kitchen is a self-serve cafe – you can take your food through the house and into the garden (seeing someone carrying a tea tray through the hallway took some getting used to!)

So you may not find Hardy here, exactly, but if you want to sit in the place in which he sat and look at the gardens he would have seen when he looked up from his work, you can.

A photograph of the parlour at Hardy's Cottage

Hardy’s Cottage is an idyllic place – a traditional thatched cottage with a traditional English country garden. The original building consisted of just two rooms downstairs – the window in the parlour (behind me as I took the photograph) was where the door used to be, and the tiny room to the side, now laid out as a study. The porch and room now laid out as a kitchen, to the right as you come in, as well as another room beyond that looked to be in use as an office by Trust staff, was the extension added on later. Given how small the cottage is, that it was originally even smaller was a shock.

A photograph the kitchen at Hardy's Cottage

Only a small number of people are allowed upstairs at once, and the reason is obvious as soon as you start to ascend the stairs – the steps a narrow, many are slanted, and the linear layout of the three bedrooms leave little room to move. (There is another staircase at the end of the run of rooms but for whatever reason they are roped off.)

A photograph of a bedroom at Hardy's Cottage

It’s not known for definite which room was Hardy’s but the Trust has made a good guess and planted a writing desk in the last. What we do know is that whichever room he chose to write in, he would have looked out onto the garden. Here he wrote Under The Greenwood Tree and Far From The Madding Crowd, and also The Poor Man And The Lady – his very first novel, which he destroyed towards the end of his life.

A photograph the children's bedroom at Hardy's Cottage

Hardy met Emma Gifford whilst on an architectural mission to restore the parish church of St Juliot in Cornwall (Gibson 1975), fell in love, and married her. According to a few volunteers at both the Cottage and Max Gate, Emma viewed herself as higher class than Hardy (factually correct – he had grown up poor and her family had had money) so whilst the relationship began well, the couple’s time together soon became emotionally distant. Although Hardy was by then a very popular writer and able to design and have built a house of their own, Emma’s distaste grew and she spent more and more of her time away from him, finally retreating into the two attic rooms except for dinnertime. She is now considered to have suffered from a mental illness. When she died, Hardy was distraught – suddenly he missed her, having got used to the distance – and whilst he married the lady he had been seeing (Florence Dugdale) he didn’t stop writing about Emma nor, as a volunteer told me, did he stop visiting Emma’s family. This naturally resulted in his second marriage becoming strained.

A photograph of the upper hallway at Max Gate

Max Gate is a stunning place. The outside is pretty grand in terms of size but once inside it’s rather like a homecoming – if you’ve ever been into a modest English house built in the Victorian period, or even just a fairly large house from the early to mid 20th century, you’ll likely find Max Gate to be a bit like ‘coming home’. It is very much a bog standard home – walking around it feels so normal it’s almost as if you’re looking at it from the perspective of moving in.

A photograph of the dining room at Max Gate

The house doesn’t have all that many windows, and the long-ish corridors mean it can be difficult to see, certainly it’s hard to take good photographs! The decor in the hallways is dark and gloomy, and who knows what Hardy’s original design choices were, but the current one is very Victorian.

The dining room is set up on to the left of the entrance hall (I didn’t get a photo of it because that’s where people mill around and where the till is, but it’s gorgeous in a historical way, all dark greens and wood). Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, J M Barrie, all came to dine here on various occasions. The dining room was extended after it’s original build – the addition is to the far end, shown by the frame that goes round it.

A photograph of the drawing room at Max Gate

To the right of the entrance hall is the drawing room, packed with furniture and leading invitingly to the conservatory which is the sort of size conservatory we’d nowadays more likely turn into a utility room. Copies of literary magazines are spread over the table and a lovely little upright piano stands behind the door ready for visitors to play.

The hallway past the stairs leads to another that the Trust use as the public toilet – it’s a single room with a shower, which completes that feeling of mooching around someone’s house – and the kitchen from which you can serve yourself coffee and scones.

A photograph of the dressing room/study at Max Gate

Back to the entrance and up the stairs, left takes you to Hardy’s dressing room/first study – a wonderfully light room – and his bedroom (not pictured – a couple of visitors had taken the ‘sit down wherever you want’ directive to heart and were reading by the window… I may still be envious of their time).

A photograph of the second study at Max Gate

Back across the hallway and you reach the second bedroom/study, a room with one window facing trees that I couldn’t wait to leave. The space you see in the photo is over half the room. It’s evident that Hardy wanted more light – there’s an alcove with windows on either side – but it wasn’t happening.

A photograph of the third study at Max Gate

Walking out of the study and into Hardy’s writing room is like day and night. The room is sumptuous, with a large desk in the place he surely set up his own. It looks out onto the back garden (there are two – there’s also one to the side of the house, beyond the conservatory) and the amount of light the windows let in must have aided Hardy a great deal. It was another part of the extension, effectively his third study.

A photograph of Emma's attic sitting room at Max Gate

Emma’s attic rooms are accessed by a narrow staircase between the two studies that goes up to a big window ledge before the last step. It’s dark and dingy, more so than the rest of the house and I think that even if it weren’t for the story about Emma’s seclusion here, it would still feel… horrible. Being there reminded me of how I’d felt walking round the Bronte Parsonage when I was far too young to know what it was all about, and noting only how dark and spooky it was. I couldn’t help but feel a true connection existed – Emma was, in historical terms, quite literally the ‘mad woman in the attic’. You would think she had been sent to live up here by her family rather than made the decision herself.

A photograph of Emma's attic bedroom at Max Gate

In the second room a typewriter has been set up, along with a copy of her poetry. Her picture is everywhere; whether true to Hardy’s choices or not it is an apt representation of the way Emma must have haunted the house, her shadow hanging over Hardy and Florence.

I was unable to properly visit the garden and so missed the grave of Hardy’s dog, Wessex, spending a while in conversation with a volunteer whose knowledge I have used in this blog – a lot of what I’ve written about Emma Gifford is thanks to him, and the information about Hardy’s life before marriage is thanks to the volunteer at the Cottage.

A photograph of a hallway at Max Gate

As said, there is a feeling of something missing in these homes; that’s because if the National Trust made it all original you’d be walking round empty rooms; but if you visit both on the same day and add on a trip to the churchyard, it’s time well spent. If you go on the ‘right’ day, you could also fit in a visit to Virginia Woolf’s house.

What you do get from Hardy’s houses is a journey through a life, from relative poverty to fame and relative wealth, and you get a working knowledge of Hardy’s architectural knowledge that you would miss out on otherwise. And it just stands out from other historical houses, its relative modernity being pretty special.

For what it is, it’s expensive, but at the same time it’d be hard to say it isn’t worth it.

The rest of my photos – Hardy’s Cottage

A photograph the 'study' at Hardy's Cottage

A photograph the garden shed at Hardy's Cottage

The rest of my photos – Max Gate

A photograph of a hallway at Max Gate

A photograph of the bathroom at Max Gate

Book References

Gibson, James (ed.) (1975) Chosen Poems of Thomas Hardy, Macmillan Education, London, p.9



August 24, 2018, 9:27 pm

What great pictures! I love Hardy so I’ll have to visit these houses one day.

Lisbeth @ The Content Reader

August 25, 2018, 9:48 am

Great post. I visited both houses a couple of years ago, and loved them. You have really caught the times and atmosphere.


August 30, 2018, 4:09 pm

Lovely photos Charlie. I love the idea of taking your drinks and food from the self serve café out into the garden :-)


September 7, 2018, 9:32 am

Helen: It is a good idea. Lots of extra information to be had, too, that isn’t easily available (unless, I expect, you read biographies).

Lisbeth: Thanks, and I’m glad you got to go. They are fab.

Jessica: Thanks. It is lovely. You could feasibly spend quite a few hours here just relaxing, so you could get a feel for life there in terms of atmosphere.



Comments closed