The Box up the Stairs, Part Four: Dorset, 1981
I think it must be very rare that a person feels immediately and truly at home in a place where he has never been before. That notwithstanding, when I viewed the slides I took in Dorset, England while on my 1981 solo Europe adventure, my heart leapt with the joy of being home again, and sank as quickly with homesickness. Never have I felt so completely at home with the people, architecture, humor, colors, sense of life, history, and culture, and the lay of the land, as I was during the two days I spent in Dorset.
I befriended June Webb on a train from Salisbury to London. I was returning to London from a day at Stonehenge. She was on her way to work in London. She maintained a flat in the city during the week, and an eighth-century house called “the Shippen” in rural Dorset, where she spent weekends and holidays. I was leaving for the continent in the morning.
As our conversation progressed, June insisted on buying me a sandwich, and went on to insist, in the lighthearted English way, that on my return to London, before flying home, I would visit her in Dorset. She would show me Tess cottage, the model for Thomas Hardy’s setting in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a novel we both loved. I did call her when I returned to London, found her home at the Shippen, and set out to visit her there. She showed me Tess cottage and much more. Just getting to her home was one of the more wonderful adventures of my month-long stay in Europe.
First, I got on the wrong bus. This, it turned out, was a wonderful boon. When I asked to be let off at Sherborne, the friendly Dorset strangers took charge of the poor dumb lost Yank. This wasn’t the bus to Sherborne, but they would certainly get me to one that went there. I could take this bus to a pub where another bus would take me on. Meanwhile, a woman passenger exuberantly pointed to the house where Far from the Madding Crowd was filmed. My new guide had been a housekeeper there. “I polished the very steps where Bathsheba shot Troy!” she enthused. I was already at home with the warmth and elation of Thomas Hardy country.
We arrived at the pub, and two passengers accompanied me to make sure I got directions to the proper bus. But there was no bus to Sherborne that day. I called June to see if she could pick me up, but her Citroen was that the mechanic’s, and she wouldn’t have it back for a couple of hours. I assured her I was in good company at the pub and could wait. I enjoyed a plate of chips with a Guinness Stout, and the uniquely caring, yet not probing, company of the local folks. After a little while, the pub’s proprietor informed me that one of my fellow bus passengers who had stayed at the pub a while and then left, had just called to ask whether the Yank was still there. His wife had sent him on an errand in the vicinity of Sherborne, and he would pick me up at the pub and take me to June’s. He knew June and how to get to the Shippen. I’ve lived in some small towns, but I’ve never known such hospitality to strangers. But then, I never felt like a stranger in Dorset, either. I felt at home as soon as I showed up.
June greeted me as an old friend and set about showing me around. The inside of her house was beautifully modern and convenient. The outside was preserved but well kept for an 1100-year-old place. A shippen, she explained, was a cowshed.
We refreshed ourselves with curry for dinner and blackberry crumble for dessert at a local pub — I wish I could remember its poetic name — where a pub scene in Tess of the D’Urbervilles was filmed.
The following day, we visited Tess cottage. The caretaker told me the owners were looking for a rich American to buy it. I assured her that I wished my means would permit me to move in immediately.
June and I went on to Bournemouth, the “Sandbourne” of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, on the coast of the English Channel. To cap off our day, we visited Sturminster Newton mill, on the River Stour in Blackmore Vale. Sturminster Newton was still a working mill then; now it is a working museum. We were fortunate to spend a bit of time talking with the miller.
My time in Dorset, albeit regrettably brief, primed me for reading the novels of Sir Walter Scott this summer. Having visited Dorset, and having engaged in conversation with so many of its people, Scott’s English characters are not in the least fictional to me. The Dorset denizen is as affable, candid, open hearted, generous natured, subtle in his humor, possessed of childlike exuberance coupled with a refined sense of duty, and likely to go out of his way to be of service, as that great gentleman author represents his Englishmen to be.
I am positively homesick from my journey through the box labeled Dorset within The Box up the Stairs.