If you’re intending to build a house to reflect your status as a successful author, it helps to be an architect with father and brother who are builders.
When Thomas Hardy wanted a new des res in his native Dorset, his training as an architect meant he could design the perfect dwelling to give a clear signal that he was part of the wealthy middle class. His father and brother were on hand to bring the drawings to life on a one and a half acres of land site that Hardy acquired just a short walk from the town centre of Dorchester. The house was named Max Gate as a pun on a the name of a nearby toll-house known as “Mack’s Gate” after a previous gate-keeper, Henry Mack.
The red brick townhouse was designed to incorporate as much natural light as possible. In the entrance hall, for example, an otherwise dark space was illuminated with the aid of internal windows above the main staircase. Unfortunately the light levels were compromised by the thousand pine trees that had planted around Max Gate to provide privacy. They grew so vigorously that they blocked the light into the house, making it dark and gloomy.
Hardy and his (first) wife Emma took up residence in 1885, expanding the property twice as his reputation and income grew with the success of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. In 1894-95 a new, larger kitchen and scullery were added together with a third study where Hardy wrote most of his poetry.
He lived in the property until his death in 1928.
In 1940 his sister Kate left the house to the National Trust. Max Gate has been continually occupied since then. It was designated as a Grade I listed building in 1970 and opened to the public in 1994. The garden is still very much as originally planned but the rooms are recreations of how they would have looked in the early 20th century because Hardy’s second wife Florence sold off most of the furniture upon his death.
A Rural Start In Life
Max Gate might have been built to impress with its size and style but for character, the cottage where Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 is much more to my taste.
Located deep in the Dorset countryside, it’s almost too picture perfect thatched cottage with roses and honeysuckle around the door and surrounded by a cottage garden and wildflower patches. The house was built in 1800 by Hardy’s great grandfather in a traditional style using cob and thatch.
Hardy wrote much of his early poetry and prose work from a small desk in his bedroom overlooking the front garden. Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From the Madding Crowd are believed to have been written while he lived in this cottage. He was inspired by views across to the nearby ancient woodland of Thorncombe Woods and Egdon Heath which made an appearance in two of his novels: The Return of the Native and The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Apparently the cottage has not been altered very much since the family left. It still has the whitewashed walls, open hearths, small windows and stone floors. Inside it’s been furnished to give visitors a feeling of a typical 19th century rural cottage as it would have been furnished while Hardy lived there.
I’m adding both these properties to my list of places to visit that have literary associations.