A Hardy showing of Wessex folk

'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' comes alive at Dorchester's museum - as do a smugglers' den and a riddle book. Fiona Macaulay unravels a few surprises.

An enormous mask with cow horns and goggly eyes is the first thing to surprise you in the galleries of Dorchester County Museum. This is the Ooser, a pagan creature, his body draped with cow skin and sackcloth, whose role in Dorset folklore was to frighten people.

The galleries are the latest project of Bremner and Orr Design Consultants, creators of the Roald Dahl Children's Gallery in Aylesbury. Their brief here was to display the finest Thomas Hardy collection in the world, along with smaller collections of lesser known Dorset writers such as John Meade Falkner and William Barnes. They needed to make them appealing to children, without excluding the literary enthusiasts.

This exhibition is not for toddlers, but for children who can read small- print books for themselves. Teenagers and those a bit younger will find plenty to interest them - and adults, too. Bremner and Orr have used striking props to bring the collections to life.

Hardy had a great love for the old ways of the countryside and descriptions of them weave their way through his work. In The Mayor of Casterbridge he describes a skimmity ride, which is brought to life in one of the displays. Models of a husband and wife who were accused of mistreating each other would be tied back-to-back on a donkey and paraded through the streets. Some of the musical instruments and kitchen hardware that might have been used by the accompanying procession to create as much din as possible are shown, along with contemporary drawings and accounts of skimmity rides.

Hardy was not only a successful writer; he was also an accomplished architect. Max Gate (now owned by the National Trust) is the house he designed for himself near Dorchester; the galleries have a reconstruction of his study. There is also a replica of the huge Neolithic sarsen stone that he found in his grounds, which further stimulated his interest in Dorset's ancient history.

There are displays about the women in Hardy's life and the characters behind the books, in particular The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. A touch-screen computer offers up lots of gems, including an interview with Julie Christie on the set of the film of Far from the Madding Crowd.

One of the most interesting characters among lesser known writers in the galleries is William Barnes, a great friend of Thomas Hardy. A Victorian renaissance man, he was a teacher, poet, antiquarian, priest and linguist (with a working knowledge of 60 languages). You can sit at his desk and look at a model of him in the odd, archaic dress that he always wore. Other aspects of his life can be explored on a computer, complete with recordings of his songs (including "Linden Lea") and poems in Dorset dialect.

Children too young for Barnes's poetry or Hardy's novels will find the perfect introduction to Dorset writers in Moonfleet, a ripping yarn by John Meade Falkner, about a boy, John Trenchard, who discovers, in a smugglers' den, a clue to the hiding-place of the pirate Blackbeard's diamond. A large panel illustrates John trying to hide from the smugglers among the rats and coffins. Beside it is a barrel where you search for the clue in a secret compartment.

Younger members with a cheeky sense of humour will also enjoy being introduced to the Dorset tradition of riddle-making. There's a riddle book to look through - one example, for instance, reads "Under the water, over the water and never touches the water. What am I?" (A woman crossing a stream with a pail of water on her head.)

Here you can follow clues to various objects in the galleries. All those which are answers to clues are clearly marked, so if unravelling a riddle proves too difficult, you can do it the other way round and fit the object to a riddle.

Dorset County Museum, High West Street, Dorchester, Dorset (01305 262735). Open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, adults pounds 2.35, children and concessions pounds 1.20, family tickets (two adults, two children), pounds 6.50

pit stop

After you've had your fill of literary Dorset, sample some of the county's edible offerings at Potter In (01305 260312) on 19 Durngate Street in Dorchester. There are always fresh flowers on the pine tables and, in winter, a real fire adds to the welcome at Sue Collier's charming establishment, tucked away down a narrow lane off the main shopping street. Everything on the menu - from traditional English breakfast (pounds 3.70) to scones with jam and clotted cream (pounds 2.25) - is available all day, and virtually everything, including some 20 or so ice creams, is home-made. High-chairs and children's drinking mugs are there for younger customers, who can have smaller portions at reduced prices. Open 9.30am-5pm Mon-Sat.

From Egon Ronay's Guide 'And Children Come Too ...' (Bookman, pounds 9.99)

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