The National Trust in Dorset would love you to share in Thomas Hardy's cottage garden

PUBLISHED: 15:51 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:04 20 February 2013

Caps Mountford, centre, with regular volunteers Bill Pett and Moira Jones

Caps Mountford, centre, with regular volunteers Bill Pett and Moira Jones

The National Trust would love you to share in Thomas Hardy's cottage garden - still blooming after two centuries. Words: Chris Newton

The National Trust would love you to share in Thomas Hardy's cottage garden - still blooming after two centuries. Words: Chris Newton

Red roses, lilacs, variegated box

Are there in plenty, and such hardy flowers

As flourish best untrained. Adjoining these

Are herbs and esculents; and farther still

A field; then cottages with trees, and last

The distant fields and sky.

From Domicilium

Thomas Hardy's own lines about the garden of his famous cottage at Higher Bockhampton describe it almost as well today as they did when they were written, thanks to more than two centuries of loving maintenance by the writer, his descendants, and for the past 60 years, the National Trust.

The garden was first claimed from the wilderness by Hardy's grandfather, who built the house in 1801. The above poem goes on to quote Hardy's grandmother on the way the land had looked when they arrived:

Change has marked

The face of all things. Yonder garden-plots

And orchards were uncultivated slopes

O'ergrown with bramble bushes, furze and thorn:

That road a narrow path shut in by ferns

Which, almost trees, obscured the passer-by.

Like most rural gardens of the period, this one combined an orchard and a vegetable patch with a flower garden. Herbs, fruit and vegetables were grown extensively for the table. Hardy, who was born in the cottage in 1840 and went on to write both Under The Greenwood Tree and Far From The Madding Crowd here, loved his garden as much as his cottage and continued to keep a keen eye on both, long after marriage and improving fortunes took him to a grander residence at nearby Max Gate.

The cottage, garden and orchard, covering two acres in all, were bequeathed to the National Trust by the Hardy family in 1948, 20 years after Thomas's death. The Trust has maintained it in keeping with its original design and use ever since.

For the past nine years, the responsibility of looking after it has been in the green-fingered hands of Catherine Mountford, better known as Caps, helped by local volunteers. Caps took the opportunity to begin working at the cottage (she was on the gardening team at the rather grander Kingston Lacy) when they needed someone to help there in wintertime. She liked it so much that she has stayed ever since. On the days when she is not at Higher Bockhampton, she works as a freelance gardener.

"Working here has really made me appreciate Hardy's writing, particularly his poems," she says. "There are many references to the garden in them, if you look. There are times, particularly when I'm alone here, when I can imagine myself back in his time. The atmosphere of the garden must have changed very little."

As with many historic gardens, the lack of contemporary records makes it difficult or impossible to know exactly what grew here in Hardy's time; we have it on the authority of his poems, including the one quoted above, that there were roses, apple trees and honeysuckle, for example, and there were probably plums and cherries in the orchard and sunflowers and hollyhocks in the garden. There is, however, plenty of evidence in the shape of old paintings and documents about the way cottage gardens in this part of England would have looked at this period and what would have grown in them.

The Trust's aim is to present the garden as it is likely to have been around 1840. Accordingly, the kitchen garden has rows of runner beans (the painted lady variety), broad beans, potatoes and onions. The neighbouring orchard contains apple trees, pear trees, a mulberry and a fine medlar (there are plans to use the fruit to make medlar jelly), and in May it is bright with bluebells.

Hardy himself is thought to have set out the garden, with the help of his friend Herman Lea (towards the end of his life he collaborated with Lea on Thomas Hardy's Wessex, a guidebook to the county he had renamed and redesigned for his novels).

Like most gardens, this one is prey to the attentions of wild invaders, both animal and vegetable - and with heath and woodland surrounding it on all sides, there is no shortage of hungry visitors. The young leaves are such an attraction for the abundant rabbit population that even continuous rabbit-proof fencing fails to keep them all out. Ground elder and bindweed are persistent and have to be constantly driven back.

The secretive and harmless slow worm frequents the garden and adders are seen from time to time - the neighbouring heathland is prime habitat for them. There is a story that as a child Hardy, a lifelong lover of wildlife, was once found asleep with a snake (presumably an adder) basking on his chest.

There are many visiting butterflies and moths, and the much endangered glow worm (the flightless female of the beetle Lampyris noctiluca) may be seen shining after dark in early summer, an extra reason for avoiding the use of chemical sprays in the garden.

Without a restaurant to make use of the produce, as is the case with some larger National Trust properties, the fruit and vegetables are offered instead to visitors.

Although the garden is being managed largely to maintain the status quo, subtle improvements and developments are always in the wind. Future plans include the raising of bees, using traditional skeps instead of the more modern beehives (if you have read Winnie the Pooh with the original illustrations, you'll be familiar with the shape of a skep, which is basically an upturned dome of woven willow strands).

Caps has no plans to move on. "After 200 years there is still something very special about the garden," she says. "I will certainly never get tired of working here."

The cottage and garden are open to visitors between 11am and 5pm (last admission 4pm) every day except Friday and Saturday until 29 October. For information please call (01305 262366) or visit

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