Plum brick that hides no poetry

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AS A place of pilgrimage, Max Gate, Thomas Hardy's house on the outskirts of Dorchester, is a severe disappointment. The National Trust has done us all (and him) a favour by keeping it firmly under wraps since Hardy's sister presented to them in 1940.

For years, however, the Thomas Hardy Society has been campaigning for greater public access to the house. When the Max Gate tenant, Bill Jesty, decided not to renew his lease this summer, the Trust agreed to a new arrangement whereby next year visitors will be able to view the garden and get a glimpse of the house. Why?

The house, which Hardy designed himself in 1885 when he was 48, can hardly be described as a formative influence. He lived there for a long time, certainly. He wrote Tess there, The Woodlanders and Jude the Obscure. But as a key to understanding Hardy or his work, Max Gate reveals nothing except the rightness of his decision to become a writer rather than an architect. It is a staggeringly ugly house, marooned now by the Dorchester bypass and its satellite roundabouts, and surrounded by housing estates. Even in Hardy's time it could not have been seen as anything more than serviceable.

It is a plain house of plum brick, symmetrical at the core, but with an odd collection of lean-tos tacked around the edges. There are two corner turrets and a dark slate roof. It is about as gloomy, unpleasant and badly built a place as you could hope to find in Dorset. Nikolaus Pevsner dismissed it as having 'no architectural qualities whatever'. It sits in four acres of ground, surrounded by a belt of trees, sycamore, beech, holly. The trees are nice.

The lack of any aesthetic or architectural interest would not matter if you felt that by seeing the house you understood the man and his work better. Here you do not. All the grandeur of the prose, the touching resonance of the poetry bangs its head uselessly against the plain plum brick boundary wall of this unpleasant place.

Shrine visiting is really no more worthwhile than reading Hello]. We can dress it up with as much intellectual pretension as we like: 'Meaningful Brickwork in the Novels of Thomas Hardy'; 'Architecture as a Window on the Soul'; 'The Face at the Casement, the Legs on the Stair'. In the end, we come to a shrine to pull a great person down to our less elevated level. We peer at their favourite chair, tell ourselves that we have one just like that at home, we gaze sat a random jumble of china and glass and walking sticks which in all probability meant as little to the person in question as they do to us.

As it happens, there is not even the china or the walking sticks at Max Gate. There is nothing. The contents of the house were sold after the death of Hardy's second wife. By the will of Hardy's sister, the study went in its entirety to Dorchester County Museum. Many other artefacts - bookcases, books, Hardy's own drawings and paintings - also found their way there. If you want to goggle at Hardy's Stilton scoop or search for significance in his shaving mug (Staffordshire earthenware of a vile shade of pink) that is where you go.

The museum's curator, Richard de Peyer, says that 80 per cent of visitors come because of Hardy. That surely must be an important reason why the museum did not see much benefit to itself in returning all its Hardy memorabilia to Max Gate so that the rooms could be furnished with at least a faint degree of verisimilitude.

Indeed, the museum has different priorities, at least for the next 10 years. Plans are already in place (although not the funding) for an ambitious Literary Gallery at the museum, which would set not only Hardy but William Barnes, the Powys brothers, Sylvia Townsend Warner, John Fowles and other local writers in the context of their Dorset backgrounds. It is likely to cost a quarter of a million pounds to set up, with the sort of audio-visual equipment that could enable visitors to dip in and out of images of Hardy's paintings or to hear some of his poems being read. It is a bold step that will put the emphasis on Hardy where it ought to be - on the man's work, rather than his domestic surroundings.

The Hardy Society is still plugging on, though, the mantra of 'access, access' deafening it to other possibilities. For a time it hoped that Dorset County Council would guarantee the 10-year lease to the tune of pounds 11,000 a year, while society members took on the responsibility of showing the house to visitors and paying back the council from the proceeds. When this cosy proposal finally came before a committee, it was turned down flat.

One way or another the National Trust has to make money out of Max Gate, which it never actually wanted in the first place. 'Perfectly hideous and shapeless,' said James Lees-Milne, their historic buildings representative who went to vet it in 1947. 'I shall advise the Historic Buildings Committee to sell it and to keep the money for buying the birthplace, which is far worthier.'

The Trust bought the birthplace the following year, but it still has Max Gate. It has committed itself to opening the garden for three afternoons a week next season, and allowing visitors to wander through the conservatory into the drawing- room of the house. Meanwhile, Trust staff have been interviewing six prospective tenants. They are lucky to find six people in the world willing to pay pounds 11,000 a year to live on the side of a bypass in Dorset's ugliest house.

If you love Hardy, stay at home and read his poetry. If you come to Dorset, walk over the mysterious Celtic hill fort at Eggardon, home of the Durotriges before the Romans came. Climb through the beech woods of Lewesdon where in May the hill is carpeted with bluebells and jays shriek at each other from the trees. Or struggle in winter along the winding sweep of Chesil Beach with the sea pounding savagely on the shore, grinding and gnashing the pebbles with monstrous force. In these inexorable landscapes, you will find the true objectives of a Hardy pilgrimage.

(Photograph omitted)

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