DORSET is one of the most beautiful counties in England, and walking is the best way to explore its villages and lanes. The Hardy Way is a newly-published book that plunges into Thomas Hardy country; as well as the nitty gritty of which path to take and which stile to cross, the book is stuffed with poems, extracts from Hardy's works, and contemporary photographs. The author has based all her routes on Ordnance Survey maps produced in 1811 and revised in 1850 (though she admits that today's walker would be well advised to buy the modern versions too). The whole walk is a circular 213 miles, but it is handily divided into weekend-size segments (the longest is 23 miles and the shortest a gentle three mile stroll - make your own selection from among the 24 sections). The Way starts at Hardy's birthplace, Higher Bockhampton, near Dorchester, and traverses a large area of Dorset, of which over 50 miles is spectacular coastal scenery. At its most northerly point near Shaftesbury the path enters Wiltshire for a few miles. The Way is one of many contrasts. One stretch covers the impressive Chesil Beach coastline, on the way to the Isle of Portland. Another passes Lulworth Cove, a beautiful circular bay scooped into the coast by the action of the waves (one very good reason to walk in autumn rather than summer is to avoid the hordes that swarm into the most picturesque areas at the height of the holiday season). Another swathe cuts through the beautiful Cranborne Chase - in Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Hardy describes the Chase as "a truly venerable tract of forest land, one of the few remaining woodlands in England of true primeval date, wherein Druidical mistletoe was still found on aged oaks and where enormous yew trees, not planted by hand of man, grew as they had grown when they were pollarded for oaks." Perfect for autumn wandering.
Accommodation is plentiful along the Way. The route passes through such beauty spots as Lulworth Cove and Corfe Castle, and pretty towns like Wimborne, Shaftesbury, Dorchester and Wareham - there are plenty of hotels and bed and breakfast opportunities. At this time of year, it may not be necessary to book ahead. The Rambler's Association Yearbook and Accommodation Guide, available at major booksellers, lists hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation and Youth Hostels that welcome walkers. As well as restaurants, pub dining and cream tea opportunities abound throughout Dorset, which is an area well geared up to feed and lodge visitors. Those who want to concentrate on a particular area can consult the Dorset Tourist Board (telephone 01202 221000), which has a selection of recommended accommodation throughout the county. Dorchester would make a good base to complete a large part of the walk - the Dorchester Tourist Office can be reached on 01305 267992.
'The Hardy Way: A 19th Century Pilgrimage' (pounds 9.95), by Margaret Marande, is published by the Dorset Publishing Company and distributed by Westcountry Books, Lower Moor Way, Tiverton, Devon EX16 6SS (01884 243242). Mail order available.