One of the most prominent features in Hardy’s great novel The Return of the Native isn’t a human figure but a physical place: Egdon Heath. This area, Bhompston Heath, was part of it.
This is a good place to stop and contemplate the heathland landscape that was hugely inspirational for Hardy.
Many of the novel’s main events happen on and around the heath and each character in the story has their own special relationship with this landscape. You could even argue that Hardy endowed the heath with human characteristics.
"It was at present a place perfectly accordant with man’s nature – neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony."
What do you think of this landscape? Do you find it ‘colossal and mysterious’ like Hardy? Your attitude probably depends a lot on the season, time of day and weather. The heath can appear bleak and desolate in dull weather but if the sun is out and the gorse is in flower it will feel quite different.
At first glance it might seem that nothing much grows here. A heath is characterised as ‘a tract of open and uncultivated land; wasteland overgrown with shrubs.’ The thin, sandy soils let rainwater drain away most nutrients, leaving only tough plants like heather, gorse and the odd scrubby birch tree able to tolerate the dry conditions and poor soil.
Though this might seem like a natural landscape it’s actually entirely manmade. Heaths like these were created by people during the Bronze Age, when the original native woodlands were cleared for farming and settlement.
The heath would have been used for grazing cattle and ponies. The heather turfs and gorse that grow here were an important source of fuel. For Hardy, the heath was a permanent, unchanging landscape as captured in this description: "the great inviolate place had an ancient permanence, which the sea cannot claim."
Around 70 per cent of heathland has been lost since Hardy’s time. Much of the heath was destroyed in the 1950s and 60s when the area was planted with conifer trees.
At the time of creating this walk, however, a project to clear one of the existing plantations and allow the regeneration of the heathland was underway. We’ll hear more about this land management when we stop at Duddle Heath a little further on.