Hereto I come to view a voiceless ghost;
Whiter, O whither its whim now draws to me"
– After a Journey, Thomas Hardy
On a bleak May day, with a rucksack clinging to my back and a cap shielding my face from drizzle, I walk the three mile route Thomas Hardy took daily between the place of his birth in Higher Bockhampton to Dorchester, the town where he worked as an architect's apprentice.
As I travel the same crumbly country tracks that his middle-age feet once walked, I feel far from alone. Amongst the cottoned bleating of sheep in the neighbouring field and the brittle caw of crows in the trees overhead, I sense something else… someone else… there, but not there.
Walking on towards the bustle of Dorchester, I stop for a moment to sit on a stone bridge which arches the River Frome. I take out my notebook and start writing:
"Today, I walked with you down a puddle-flecked dirt path, past the bluebells that blanket the hill opposite your cottage and the yellow gorse that covers Egdon Heath."
"I crossed Bockhampton Road, stepping between green shadows, and left your Upper Mellstock – and my modern-day Higher Bockhampton – far behind.
A few moments later, as a sparrow landed in front of me to drink from a pot-hole, I couldn't help asking myself: were you there too, watching? " 3rd May, 2014
You may think it's strange to write to a poet who's been dead for the last 86 years as if he was walking with you. But it's not; you see, I believe in ghosts in much the same way Thomas Hardy did.
He yearned, with a destructive, obsessive passion, to find the ghost of his wife, Emma Gifford, after she died at the Hardy home, Max Gate, in 1912.
Although the two were estranged in the later years of their marriage, Emma's death had a traumatic affect on Hardy – inspiring his greatest ever poems (among them The Phantom Horsewoman featuring Emma as the “ghost-girl-rider”).
Now, some 80 years later, it is Hardy who is the ghost – and I am his haunter; wandering the places he loved, looking for the echoes of his life, and his genius.
I wonder what I will find.
(The above article is based on a walk I did from Hardy's Cottage to St. Michaels Church, Stinsford, where Thomas Hardy's heart is buried). It's similar to this one, if you're interested in walking it too.
The Search at Hardy's Cottage – coming soon.