Geoffrey Household’s Dorset: An off-the-beaten track holiday not be missed

If New York City is the bawdy street-walker of the world and Paris the elegant courtesan, then London is the dowager Empress.  Yet, being a country lad at heart, I want to see more than London on my next visit to the United Kingdom and I am particularly smitten by Dorset and its corn fields, pastures, heaths and high hedges, its spinneys of hazel and oak.  The Dorset as Geoffrey Household described them in his 1939 adventure novel ROGUE MALE.

Dorchester

After leaving Magdalen College, Oxford, Household spent much of his young adulthood working abroad.  When he returned to London he felt “lonely and déclassé” and sought to rediscover his native land by talking long walks in the country, the best of which were those that took him over the Dorset downs to Exmouth where his parents were living.[i]  One walk of twenty-eight miles took him to a place called Piddletrenthide and if any of my readers have been there, I would love to hear from you and see a photo of the place.

ROGUE MALE was the first of several novels that Household set in Dorset where his characters could be “free of foot” and where the “western end of the chalk, not too closely populated, suits the mood of loneliness,” where a someone “may stand back from an England which half-way to the horizon, recovers her youth” and see her “as a man standing back from his beloved.”[ii] 

Maiden Castle, Dorchester

Household wrote ROGUE MALE in 1938 while the storm clouds were gathering over Europe and it was published in September, 1939 just after war broke out.  In the plot, the hero, an unnamed British aristocrat, has fled Europe after attempting to shoot Adolph Hitler.  He soon finds out that he has been pursued by German assassins to London and that no one, not even the British government, can protect him; he somehow must go to ground where his hunters will never find him.  When Household wrote the story he had intended that fear would supply the suspense.  Did he suspect that the German war machine would soon supply an atmosphere that would compliment his writing?

Fear filled the air of Britain and the pages of the novel.  For if an Englishman hunted by foreign assassins could not be safe while hidden deep in that idyllic corner of the sceptered isle called Dorset, burrowed between the thick Dorset hedges, surrounded by good Dorset farmers and tradesmen, with English laws enforced by the good Dorset constabulary, where then on God’s good earth could an Englishman be safe? 

Marshwood Vale

So being the curious sort, I decided to do some research on the Internet to see what that out of the way bit of England looks like today.  I used the same itinerary Household gave his hero as he ran and hid from the assassins bent on removing him from this planet.  The results, I am delighted to report, were magnificent and I have listed them pictorially below:  The best way to make this tour is by car, staying overnight at a local inn.  Otherwise, one can take a train from London to either Dorchester or Yeovil (130 miles) and rent a bicycle.  As our British cousins still insist on driving on the wrong side of the road, this is the mode of touring Dorset that I recommend.  Trains leave from both Paddington and Waterloo Stations but the South West trains from Waterloo are less costly.  Your London hotel should be able to assist you with bicycle rentals at either terminus.  The Yeovil train from Waterloo continues on to Exeter for those who wish to stay overnight in that university town.   Below is the exact itinerary the Household hero followed:

  1.  Wimbledon Common: It was here that the hero spent a night in the open after dispatching one German thug in the Aldwych tube station, still carrying with him “the sound of steps and his scream, and the hideous, because domestic, sound of sizzling.”[iii]  It was then that the hero decided that if he was to die, then it would be in the open.

    Wimbledon Common

  2. Dorchester: The hero first fled here by train from Wimbledon.  The Town Pump is a central point in Dorchester – located next to Dorchester’s Corn Exchange and the impressive clock tower; you will find an information board, outlining four popular historic walks around the town.  You can get a flavor of these by clicking on one of the walks in the Discover Dorchester section – there you can take an Interactive Walk, to find out a little more about what each of these walks entail.  Dorchester has so many pubs that it is hard for me to single out one or two. Thus, I have included a list to choose from as an endnote and leave it to others to do their own research.[iv]
  3. Weymouth: Our hero made his way here along the A354 and then doubled back to further confuse any pursuers. 

    Weymouth Harbor

  4. Old Roman Road from Dorchester to Exeter.  Our hero used, staying away from the highway, oiften hding during the day and cycling at night.
  5. Powerstock:  While reachable by bicycle from Bridport or Cattistock, Powerstock resides along the old Roman Road from Dorchester to Exeter, and is in area of weaving and snaking valleys that dip and rise, making for good exercise along with the views of the countryside.  Our hero, following the Old Roman Road, passed by the village at night.  You can visit by day and see the church of St. Mary and refresh yourself at The Three Horseshoes pub.

    Powerstock

  6. Marshwood Vale:  The Vale is mostly pasture and small villages linked by narrow lanes.  There are several Iron Age hill forts that can be explored. Two popular cycling routes are from Bridport (no.9) and Cattistock (no.11), discussed below.  The Vale’s one village is Whitchurch Canonicorum with its 13th century Church of St. Candida. The pub is the Bottle Inn.

    Cow pasture, Marshwood Vale

  7. Beaminster: In northwest Dorset, the town was within walking distance of our hero’s burrow in the Marshwood Vale and he went there several times to buy food and supplies.  Pub is the Red Lion.

    Beaminster

  8. Lyme Regis: The hero had his solicitor send him books to the post office in this little coastal town because it had a winter colony of Londoners and strangers.  This was his first folly.[v]  The town is famous for its selling of fossils from its Jurassic cliffs and The Pub is the Pilot Boat.

9.  Bridport: The market town for the region.  On the cycling route to Marshwood Vale (No. 6, above), you pass Pilsden Pen and Lambert’s Castle.  

Fortified Tower House, Bridport

10.  Sydling and the Sydling Valley: “which, by the map, appeared to be as remote a dead end as any in Dorset,” as Household’s hero describes it.  “The downs on both sides of the Sydling Valley were country after my own heart: patches of gorse and patches of woodland, connected by straggling hedges.”[vi]   It was here that he holed up in an abandoned cottage, which he made appear to be his hideout to deflect hunters away from his real burrow.  In the village of Sydling St. Nicholas, there is the Greyhound Pub.

11.  Cattistock:  In the Frome Valley, eight miles northwest of Dorchester, this village hosts a wonderful country church and small square.  If you are in the UK next month and can get down there, you will be treated to the Dorset Knob Throwing contest and the Frome Valley Food Festival.   Our hero skirted this town, only hearing its “lovely carillon most appropriately chime ‘D’ye ken John Peel,’ followed by “Lead, Kindly Light,” at twilight as he waded into the river Frome.[vii]  For good English grub and a comfortable overnight stay, there is a village pub, the Fox and Hounds Inn.  I have not stayed there but it has been named Dorset’s Best Pub two years running which is better than any recommendation I could make, (Duck Street, Cattistock, Dorset DT2 0JH, Tel. 01300 320444).  Only yards away is the enchanting Bun House B&B (Tel. 01300 321200, e-mail: [email protected]).  Both of these establishments can be used as cycling and walking bases for the  Frome and Sydling Valleys, including easy trips to Sydling St. Nicholas ( 6 miles); Powerstock (13 miles). Beaminster (22 Miles) is also possible.

Cattistock

  1. Crewkerne: Crewkerne Castle, a Norman motte castle, is on Castle Hill, a mound to the northwest of the town.
  2. Yeovil:  The town is in South Somerset, just over the border from Dorset.  Originating in the paleolithic mists of Britain, its present name is derived from its position on the river Yeo.  There is a small railroad museum and the nearby village of Brympton contains the medieval manor of Brympton d’Evercy.  Pub: Wine Vaults.  Only a few miles away from Yeovil is the Sherborne School, that institution of privilege that writer John Le Carre attended with detest and which he used and abused as a thinly disguised model for the fictional Carne in his second George Smiley novel, A MURDER OF QUALITY.  In Sherborne, you may stop for refreshment at the Brittania pub before returning to Yeovil.
  3. Eggardon Down: This stretch of countryside which the hero criss-crossed in a vain attempt to elude the police and his would-be assassins is best known for the Iron-Age Eggardon Hill Fort, which has one of the finest views in the UK, allowing one to look across Lyme Bay to South Devon and Start Point.  The hill fort is an easy cycle ride from Bridport and can be included as part of the cycling route to Marshwood Vale, No. 9 on itinerary, above.

    Eggardon Hill

I recognize that the entire itinerary can be daunting time wise and for those who can only spend a day or two, than my recommendation is to Cattistock directly by car, or by train to Dorchester and then on to the village by bicycle and to spend a couple of nights at the inns listed above (No. 11) and make cycle rides to (a) the Sydling Valley and Beaminster via Powerstock, or to Crewkerne with the return via Beaminster, or (b) to Yeovil and Sherborne, a more ambitious 40-mile cycle tour.  If you can spend more time and if your hotel can arrange it, then rent a bicycle in Dorchester and return it at Yeovil and take the train back to London from that town.  But no matter what, if you do choose to visit Dorset, make sure to have a copy of ROGUE MALE with you.


[i] Against the Wind, Household, Little, Brown and Co., New York, 1958, P. 69

[ii] Against the Wind, P. 222.  Household became an avid shooter while at Magdalen and remained so throughout his life and so loved Dorset that he shared a shoot on its high farmland.  Two if his other novels set in Dorset are  A TIME TO KILL  and A ROUGH SHOOT.

[iii] ROGUE MALE, P. 55

[iv] Dorchester pubs often frequented by walkers of Dorset include but are not limited to: Baker’s Arms, The Blue Raddle,  Borough Arms, The Bull’s Head, Cornwall Inn, Junction, King’s Arms, Old George, Old Ship, Royal Oak, Stationmaster’s House, Sydney Arms, Thomas Hardye, Tom Brown’s, The Victoria, and White Hart.

[v] ROGUE MALE, Pp 80-81

[vi] ROGUE MALE, Pp 90-91

[vii] ROGUE MALE, P. 94

Comments

  1. Does anyone know just where the lane is that Rogue Male hid in.
    Even his on who wanted to scatter Geoffrey Households ashes in the lane did not know.

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