I’d been meaning for some time to trek up again towards Fawley – the Marygreen which was the home of the young Jude in Thomas Hardy’s famous novel, Jude the Obscure. The recent May sunshine gave me the excuse to abandon domestic chores and head up towards the Ridgeway, the wonderful “white road” (Hardy) where (in H. W. Timperley’s words) the normal self is enlarged and the influence of the sky is out of proportion to the modest altitude. I wanted, in particular, to pay a visit to something which no longer existed. “How typical”, my family would have muttered to themselves as I headed out of the door. “He’s off to look at something that’s not there!”
And so I trekked an oft-trod route up to Letcombe Bassett (Cresswell), past the cress beds where the much maligned Arabella hurled the private part of a dead pig over the fence into Jude’s face, up the steep incline across the fields where Jude and Arabella courted, and on to the “white road”. It was certainly white that day, with no rain for some weeks and the strong sun baking the path bright and hard. At the point where the Ridgeway meets the main Wantage-Hungerford highway (A338) I turned south on to the road and after three-quarters of a mile, dodging traffic, I ventured into the edge of a field of corn on the west side of the road. An entirely unremarkable spot to the hundreds of folk in cars who drive past here everyday and, I suspect, to most other folk, but not of course to those well versed in Hardy’s remarkable tale of Jude for, as tour no. 10 of the Thomas Hardy Society pamphlets puts it: “this is where Hardy placed Jude and Arabella’s cottage, in which the pig-killing took place. There was once a cottage here, but nothing now marks the spot”. Well, for a moment, at least, I was marking it.
I know it’s sad and I ought to get out more, as they say, but I’d been wondering about this cottage for months. Was there really ever a cottage there? If so, where exactly and what manner of cottage was it? Why would someone put a cottage there, in the middle of nowhere? Was there really nothing there any more? Okay, I know it is a book of fiction, but Hardy needed real places to centre his fictional world and this spot was no different.
From Part 1 Chapter 9 of the novel we know the location to be “a lonely roadside cottage between the Brown House [on the Ridgeway] and Marygreen [Fawley]”; and topographical guides to Hardy, written by folk a lot more knowledgeable of the subject than I, locate it at the junction where the path from Fawley heading north meets the main road. This is the path across the fields which Jude routinely treads when he heads north out of Fawley and wants to get to anywhere at all. It is a real path, is still there and is still used (well, by me at any rate). I confess that weeks earlier I had already dragged my poor wife out to this spot when visiting a nearby location by car and she gamely joined me in scouring the corners of the fields immediately either side of the junction where the footpath meets the main road. Was there any trace of anything to indicate a cottage which might have been there more than a hundred years ago? There were some decent sized rocks along the boundary of the path which, I supposed, could have been (or not) the remnants of some structure, a wall or foundations perhaps, but nothing else at all.
Once I was home again this (literally) “field visit” prompted me to engage in more bookish research. Bertram C. A. Windle’s splendid little book, The Wessex of Thomas Hardy, first published in 1906 only ten years after Jude’s publication (and, of course, during Hardy’s lifetime) doesn’t tell us which side of the path the cottage was on, but it does tell us that a cottage had been there but at that time was already “ruined”. The book provides a most useful footnote: “since these lines were written this cottage has been pulled down, nothing but the foundations, surrounded by a hedge and some pine trees, now remaining”.
The Thomas Hardy Society pamphlet locates the cottage at the junction alongside the road on the north side of the path to Fawley. (I shouldn’t have been looking south of the path.) So with this in mind I got my maps out and also began reading (yet again) Part 1 of Jude. Interestingly as well as a reference to the location of the cottage in Part 1 Chapter 9 (the marriage to Arabella and its aftermath), there is in Part 1 Chapter 7 (the first date with Arabella) reference to Jude walking the path and “passing the few unhealthy fir-trees and cottage where the path joined the highway”. And there is also an interesting further prequel in Part 1 Chapter 2 when the schoolboy Jude, smarting at his dismissal and from the beating by Farmer Troutham treads the path “till the track joined the highway by a little clump of trees”. So no mention of a cottage this first time (the pressures of serialisation create a slight continuity issue perhaps), but the trees are there again.
So what do we have? A cottage, fir trees, a hedge and we can add to these the other details in the novel which form the background to the break-up of Jude’s unhappy marriage – a vegetable garden with a gate accessible from the road and a pig sty. The cottage may be a “half-furnished hut”, but it had a bedroom, an upstairs and downstairs, and a fireplace with a copper and a blower. That the cottage was immediately next to the road, there is little doubt. When Jude grabs hold of Arabella to stop her mistreating his books she goes out of the door and “into the highway”, whereupon she exaggerates and denounces his abuse to passers-by.
And so I turned to the reprinted old hard copy maps that I have. The one published between 1817 and 1828 shows the path up from Fawley, but no structures at the junction with the main road. The 1919 map similarly shows no buildings. However, when I look at the map published 1897-1899, opposite the milestone (3 miles to Wantage), north of the path from Fawley and just south of another track which cuts north-west across the road, I detect the black smudge of what could be a building immediately on the western side of the road. So I went on line and, thanks to the marvellous digital availability of the Ordnance Survey county series maps, I discovered I wasn’t mistaken.
The 1879 map of Berkshire shows a definite structure in that spot and, what is more, adjacent to it are the distinctive map symbols for coniferous trees. So there we likely have it just as it is described in the novel – the cottage and the fir trees. What is more, the structure immediately adjacent to the road is even identified upon the map as the Letcombe Regis T.P. So this would have been the turnpike and toll cottage located on the main road. Sure enough, a bit of further research on turnpikes.org.uk confirms the existence of the Letcombe Regis toll house “opp. Black Bushe, beside path to Fawley”. Interestingly there are a couple of other buildings around here also.
The 1882 map has the structure still present. But by the 1899 map, while the coniferous trees are still marked on the triangular piece of land, there are no longer structures. The cottage has gone. Maps over the succeeding years see also the disappearance of the fir trees seemingly replaced by non-coniferous trees and eventually the disappearance of any evidence of a discrete patch of land. The disappearance of this cottage on the maps seems to tally chronologically with the other evidence of its demolition; the timing of its disappearance also fitting in neatly with the end of the turnpike roads and the winding up of the turnpike trusts in the 1870s. The cottage was there and will have been seen by Hardy when he was conceiving and writing Jude and will have disappeared not long afterwards.
I have as yet found no pictures of the Letcombe Regis turnpike or toll house, but what might it have looked like? Such a structure in this part of the country could well have been of brick, would have fronted immediately upon the road for the collection of tolls, and traditionally, it seems, would have provided sufficient accommodation for the family of the turnpike keeper, a vegetable plot and (yes you’ve guessed it)… a pig sty.
So there I was on that fine day, searching a field for something that might still suggest an old cottage. And what do I find? I find ploughed up bits of broken brick right along the spot where the cottage would have been, stretching for several yards.
It was early evening when I trekked back along the Ridgeway and then down into Wantage. I paused at the top, as ever, to gaze across the Vale to Oxford in the distance in the vain hope of seeing Jude’s “heavenly Jerusalem”. It was clear and I had binoculars. Garsington – yes. Blackbird Leys and Cowley – yes. Wood Farm, Risinghurst and Shotover Hill – yes. But the main part of the city with its colleges and the shining spots upon the spires…? They seemed to be lying unseen in the dip, as usual, with only the cranes of the West Gate development poking above the rise. And then I thought I saw just a glimpse, faintly revealed, miraged in the peculiar atmosphere. And I walked on, blissfully, singing Blake’s Jerusalem loudly.
A couple of hours later I wearily sat down at the kitchen table and opened my rucksack. “What on earth have you got there, you silly man?” my wife enquired. “Don’t ask,” I said. “It’s too complicated.”
Postcript – 21st June 2017
I finally got round to looking at Hermann Lea’s Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, first published in 1913. Lea was among the early topographers of Hardy’s world and one of those with whom Hardy co-operated. Here is how Lea describes his own visit to the cottage (p.50):
“…here we meet with disappointment; real as it has been and as it is remembered – starved fir-trees and all – it was completely destroyed by fire some twenty years ago, and only the site on which it stood can now be pointed out by the local residents.”
Mmm… Real and remembered, fir trees and all. The site can be pointed out by local residents… I suppose that must be me now. But hang on a moment. Something new here – “completely destroyed by fire some twenty years ago”. I’ll need to start looking for scorch marks on the old bricks. Surely if an old toll house was completely destroyed by fire in the 1890s there would be some newspaper report somewhere. Surely? I’ll add this to my “to do list”.