In search of... Hardy (in love) in Cornwall

Far from his native Wessex, young Thomas fell for the beautiful Emma, as Claudia Pritchard discovers

Cornwall? I thought Hardy was a Dorset man?

No mistake. You have A Pair of True Ears. (This is your clue.)

You've lost me now, I'm afraid.

A Pair of Blue Eyes, his third book, was based on his experiences as a young architect in Cornwall and on his love affair with his future wife, Emma Gifford.

She had the blue eyes?

Exactly. And a cascade of blonde hair. Just the sort of thing to put a spring in the step of the young architect summoned during the Victorian craze for church restoration. Emma was the sister-in-law of the vicar of St Juliot, near Boscastle. Although Hardy claimed to have started working on A Pair of Blue Eyes before their meeting in March 1870, characters and episodes in the novel mirror those in real life.

Give me an example ...

The most memorable is the scene in which Elfride Swancourt's suitor falls from a ledge, which is actually Beeny Cliff. Elfride saves him by making a rope out of her undergarments. Ripping stuff. As nice Victorian girls did not shred their knickers for every man who fell off a cliff, this was a racy turn of events. In real life, Emma had had a near-miss tumbling at Tintagel.

Ripping indeed. And what about the church restoration?

The St Juliot that Hardy first visited in 1870 was a stout specimen, dating from Saxon times. The 14th-century tower and 15th-century side aisle and porch were notable, but there was work to be done. Previous incumbents' appeals had failed, and it was Emma's brother-in-law who successfully raised funds.

Did Hardy transform the place?

Up to a point. A new tower was built at the end of a new north aisle and the good south aisle became the new nave. Hardy was interested in using local materials, and one of his first excursions from St Juliot was to Penpethy slate quarry. But many of his ideas on interior details did not reach fruition, and the brass and ruby glass oil lamps ended up at the Wellington Hotel in nearby Boscastle. The church currently co-stars with feisty Rev Christine Musser, as a subject of BBC2's fly-on-the-wall documentary, A Seaside Parish. Otherwise it is a place of pilgrimage for Hardy-lovers who pick their way gingerly along single-track lanes or, for the true Hardy experience, walk up from Boscastle. The path starts at the country end of the town's car park, follows a stream through the woods, crosses a field or two, and fetches up by the south porch.

What do these pilgrims find?

An immaculate parish church teamed with four others like it, dominated by, on the north wall, memorials to Emma and to Hardy, designed by Hardy himself, and, on the south wall by a new, engraved window by Simon Whistler, son of the eminent glass engraver, the late Sir Laurence Whistler, which was unveiled last July to mark the 75th anniversary of Hardy's death. The left-hand panel of the window shows a woman on horseback looking out to sea, books, a violin (Hardy played), and an architect's tools. It carries the opening lines from Hardy's poem "Beeny Cliff":

Oh the opal and the sapphire of that

wandering, western sea

And the woman riding high above with

bright hair flapping free.

Emma?

Undoubtedly. And the right-hand panel shows a cascading stream and quotes the opening lines from "Under the Waterfall":

Whenever I plunge my arm like this

In a basin of water I never miss

The sweet sharp sense of a fugitive day.

Are Hardy and Emma buried there?

No. Emma died first, in November 1912. She was buried in Stinsford, Dorset, the town which, with Lower Bockhampton and Hardy's birthplace, Higher Bockhampton, is known collectively in the Wessex novels as Mellstock. Hardy died in 1928; his ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey and his heart in Emma's grave in Stinsford churchyard.

And ...?

Oh, all right then. There is a popular story that the surgeon's cat made off with the extracted heart and that only the remnants, or the organ from another animal, were interred. Now are you happy?

Yeeeuch. Can we raise the tone a bit? A little more poetry perhaps?

Certainly. Hardy always believed himself a better poet than novelist though few readers agree. It was Emma who encouraged him to take up full-time writing, and she, too, was the inspiration for the massive outpouring of poetry after her death. In "A Dream or No" he is tortured by the associations with the church where he met his bride:

Why go to Saint Juliot? What's Juliot to me?

Some strange necromancy

But charmed me to fancy

That much of my life claims the spot as

its key

Very nice. Now can we have lunch?

Boscastle gets crowded down by the water, as much as anywhere on the north coast of Cornwall. Better to head up High Street to the Napoleon for seafood in the pleasant gardens.

Where can we stay?

The National Trust (0870-458 4422; www.nationaltrust.org.uk) rents out historic cottages in the area. The Wellington Hotel in Boscastle (01840 250202) has rooms from £35 per person. Previous guests have included Sir Henry Irving, "Dambuster" Guy Gibson VC, numerous ghosts. And one Thomas Hardy, architect, novelist and poet.

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