Travel: Seen the movie, read the book? Now do the walk: Hardy's Tess trekked across wild, woolly Dorset to save her marriage. You can do it for a pub lunch, says Peter Dunn

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The Independent Travel
On a cold, brilliantly sunlit Sabbath afternoon the madding crowd sits in its little polished cars at the Batcombe picnic site in Dorset, reading the Sunday Express, Thermos flasks propped along the dashboards. They are trying to ignore the young man driving a Datsun, skid-turning in spumes of chalk dust, attempting to dislodge a couple of yarooping friends clinging to the roof rack. Thomas Hardy country, with its imperturbable yet pitiless landscapes, seems to provoke truculence in a new generation of revolting peasants.

Beyond the disapproving twitches of newsprint curtains the Batcombe ridge drops sharply away to the Blackmoor Vale in Somerset, a vast blue amphitheatre framed by the pop-up silhouettes of the Quantock, Mendip and Blackdown Hills, even, on a day like this, the soft distant camber of Exmoor.

The doomed heroine of Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles passed this way a century ago in her milkmaid's Sunday best, tramping 15 miles across the uplands of Dorset to plead for her failed marriage with her father-in-law, Parson Clare of Beaminster. The round trip from Nettlecombe Tout near the village of Plush - a journey that would have taxed the stamina of a Ranulph Fiennes - proved futile, the Parson being absent at Sunday service.

Retracing her steps, as hundreds do each year, the sense of melancholy is profound. Blackmoor, the Vale of the Little Dairies where Tess grew up, filled her with sorrow as she drifted across the frozen skylines. 'It was in that vale that her sorrow had taken shape, and she did not love it as formerly,' Hardy wrote. 'Beauty to her lay not in the thing, but in what the thing symbolised.'

It was on this bleak ridgeway road, 400 yards west from the Batcombe picnic spot, that Tess was confronted by the swarthy moustachioed preacher and father of her bastard child, Alec D'Urberville. A date-raping Victorian bounder of epic insouciance, D'Urberville had made Tess place her hand on the Cross & Hand stone and swear never to tempt him again with her charms.

The crusty cannon-shaped stone, three feet tall and known locally as Crossy Hand, survives today, an ancient phallus with its imprinted hand mark (Hardy called it 'a strange, rude monolith') almost hidden in the thick grass verge. Coachloads of Japanese tourists (acknowledged even by the Hardy Society to be world authorities on the master's work) probably miss it as they bowl along to Evershot village where Tess Cottage, her breakfast stop, poses under its thatched roof against a cold church.

Peter and Nicky Reynolds, until recently tenants of the cottage with their young daughters, got used to faces pressed against their windows, making them jump while watching television. A series of ghosts, banging doors, singing soft lullabies, even a monk who walked through walls, hardened them to unexpected visitors carried away on literary fantasies. Mr Reynolds remembers a party of Americans who thought his wife was Tess of the D'Urbervilles. 'They said to her, 'Gee, would you be Tess?' She said 'No, very definitely not,' but they still insisted on taking photographs of her outside the cottage.'

Visitors to Parson Clare's handsome Victorian vicarage in Beaminster are even more confused to find the door answered not by Clare's 20th-century successor - who has moved into a modern house - but by Dr Murray Rose, head of an industrial software company.

'The new vicarage is just across the road and the tourists don't realise that,' says Dr Rose amiably. 'From time to time we find the whole place overrun by the Japanese because their tour leader hasn't asked us first.'

Much of Tess's walk, certainly its western section, can be followed by car these days, the old country lanes long since tarmacked over. To do so, however, sacrifices much of the poignancy and rich texture of Hardy's book with its haunting evocation of Victorian rural England. Along its wilder stretches Tess's walk and the landscapes it dominates remain eerily faithful to the 19th century.

Ignoring the dreadful tweeness of Plush village (its thatched pub, the Brace of Pheasants, has white walls plastered with black wrought-iron pheasants and a sign saying 'Sorry no wellies') and make for a muddy lane climbing west from Folly Farm. Beware of a pack of assorted dogs.

Splosh upwards to the gorgeous wooded ridge of Church Hill with its occasional northern prospect of Blackmoor Vale and southern view, 12 miles away, of Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy's (of 'Kiss me, Hardy') Monument. Drop down to the B3143, turning north a short step to a glum bungalow with pale blue tubular railings to reach a flinty bridle track lifting west to the minor Dorchester-Sherborne road.

Immediately opposite, a field path runs north-west to High Stoy Hill above Minterne Magna. A brisk walk south down the A352 brings one to the western road route to the Cross & Hand, Evershot (the Acorn pub, Hardy's Sow and Acorn, serves wonderfully cheap lunches), Benville Lane (as in the book) and then down the B3163 for the final blister-footed drop into Beaminster.

Feel no qualms about abandoning the 15-mile return trek to Nettlecombe Tout. The journey back, as Tess acknowledged 'had no sprightliness; no purpose; only a tendency.'

Information: Walking guide and map, Tess of the D'Urbervilles (Tour No 2) available from The Thomas Hardy Society, PO Box 1438, Dorchester, Dorset, DT1 1YH (0305 251501). The Acorn Inn, Evershot (0935 83228).

(Photograph omitted)