Friday, 25 November 2011

Thomas Hardy and St Juliot's

In 1870 the twenty-nine year old Thomas Hardy was working as an architect for George Crickmay, based in Weymouth. Hardy had been hoping to become a writer, but had been unable to find a publisher for his first novel, The Poor Man and The Lady. Hardy was working on a second novel, Desperate Remedies, but had not yet found a publisher for that one either and he had reluctantly decided he would have to work full time in the profession for which he had been trained.

Crickmay had been given the commission to restore the parish church at St Juliot in the Valency Valley and he asked Hardy to go and survey the church. When he arrived, the reverend, Rev'd Holder was unwell, and he was greeted by Holder's sister-in-law, Emma Gifford. Four years later, in September 1874 they were married. By now Hardy had published Desperate Remedies, Under the Greenwood Tree, A Pair of Blue Eyes and Far From the Madding Crowd and finally had achieved sufficient success with his novels to allow him to give up architectural work and concentrate on his writing. A Pair of Blue Eyes draws strongly on his experiences whilst in Cornwall and there are many parallels between the heroine Elfride and Emma. Hardy's marriage was not a particularly happy one and after her death he was said to be overcome with remorse which he expressed in his poetry. When in his seventies he returned to St Juliot's and commissioned a memorial tablet for her in the church.

St Juliot's church is only about two miles away from Boscastle so I decided to go and take a look. It's an easy walk along the course of the River Valency. I was retracing the route I had taken on my first day in Boscastle. This time, knowing how muddy it was, and as the walk was short I elected to wear wellies rather than the walking boots, which by now I hated the sight of. They were crippling me and I simply couldn't help thinking it was personal. The wellies were great and a happily sloshed my way along the very muddy track that leads from the carpark in Boscastle up the valley. The wellies also meant I could muck about on the stepping stones I came across and indulge in a bit of light stream bashing.

As the path climbed gradually higher the ground underfoot dried out. I passed the hamlet of New Mills and then after going a bit farther I found myself in a field with no signpost to indicate the direction of the church. There had,  for the last few hundred yards, been a chap walking in front of me. He had now disappeared but as I stood there dithering he emerged from the field up to my left.
'It's up this way!' he said, and then turned and stode off. I looked after him doubtfully. For one, I was carrying my trusty OS Explorer map which showed the church as being straight on, and secondly, how did he know where I was heading? For all I know he could have meant 'it's this way' to Bude. Or Bideford. I decided to ignore him and carry on across the field straight ahead. Five minutes later the little church of St Juliots came into view.

The church is in a beautiful location and I took five minutes to sit in the churchyard before venturing inside. There was the memorial tablet Hardy had commissioned for Emma and nearby, one for Hardy himself placed there after his death in 1928 'as a record of his assocation with the church & neighbourhood.'

I was very taken with the Hardy memorial window, commissioned by the Thomas Hardy Society to mark the millenium. As I was admiring it, the chap whom I had ignored came into the church. When he saw me he looked a bit abashed.
'Terribly sorry,' he said. 'I told you the wrong way, didn't I?'
'That's ok, I ignored you,' I said. Which didn't sound quite right somehow. 'Erm, that is, I wasn't sure if you knew where I was headed,' I said, backpeddling.
'Yes well, um, I'll leave you in peace, I can always come back tomorrow, I'm only staying in the rectory,' he mumbled. And he was gone.Oh well. Leaving the church I headed back the way I had come to Boscastle.

When I got back to hostel I found that I had company for the first time since I had arrived. A couple in their seventies (people who stay in rural youth hostels are rarely youthful) had turned up for the night. It turned out that Margaret was a keen walker but her husband, Peter, wasn't. However he didn't like her going out walking on her own so insisted on coming with her. But then he wouldn't walk anyway. This made Margaret quite cross and she would complain about him every time he left the room.

As this was my last night I had planned to eat out at one of the pubs. I had been very parsimonious all week and had cooked frugally at the hostel and I had been looking forward to a large plate of whitebait followed by the catch of the day. Peter and Margaret were having none of it. They insisted, absolutely insisted, despite my protestations, that I share their meal. I had no choice but to capitulate, and sat down with them to eat. They were good company though, and it was kind of them to share their steak three ways...

After dinner they said they were turning in for the night. It was only half-past seven and a little early for my bedtime so I decided to try out the other two pubs in the village. The Cobweb Inn was once a warehouse, and was converted to a pub in 1946 although the building itself  dates from the eighteenth century. Inside it was almost deserted which I suppose is not surprising in November. I didn't feel inclined to stay for more than one pint, and wandered over to the Wellington Hotel (The Welly).Of the three pubs in Boscastle, I found The Welly to be the friendliest. The barstaff were friendly and in the comfortable atmosphere it was easy to fall into conversation with other patrons in the bar. I liked it very much. I had a pint of Spriggan (I think it was) from Skinners Brewery.The Wellington, being in the Bridge area of Boscastle at the bottom of the valley and at the confluence of three rivers,Valency, Jordan and Paradise (aren't they lovely names?) suffered badly in the 2004 floods.

'How high did the water come then?' I asked the barmaid, looking around the bar for some kind of marker. She laughed. 'You won't find it here!' she said, 'follow me.' She led me up the stairs to the first floor, where on the wall above the tables was a wooden board stating the flood level in 2004. It turned out the whole of the ground level had been underwater. Not that you would know it now, not here or anywhere in Boscastle, not obviously anyway. Amazingly, the red lamps in the bar of the Welly survived. They were lamps that had orginally been hung in the church of Juliot's by one Thomas Hardy when he undertook its restoration.

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