Life

Literary landscape: Thomas Hardy found inspiration Far from the Madding Crowd

Robin Robinson.

By Robin Robinson, Toronto Sun

When the new film adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd debuts in May, all eyes will be on headstrong heroine Bathsheba Everdene (played by Carey Mulligan) and the three men vying for her affections (Michael Sheen, Matthias Schoenaerts and Tom Sturridge).

Viewers will likely be captivated by the on-screen eye-candy, lush cinematography and lusty machinations of the Thomas Hardy classic tale. But I expect my attention may be somewhat diverted by the backdrops — specifically Mapperton House, the primary filming location in England’s scenic Dorset County.

Considered one of Britain’s finest manor houses, and famous for its magnificent valley gardens, Mapperton House was transformed from elegant mansion to Victorian farm for Far from the Madding Crowd. The estate, which has an interesting history dating back centuries, is the family home of the Earl and Countess of Sandwich, John and Caroline Montagu.

Filming had wrapped when I visited Mapperton last fall. But I was entertained by the Montagu’s descriptions of how their courtyard and lush lawns became a “rough and ready” farmyard complete with grazing cows, hay bales, a cattle-shed and a sheep dip. Grass was torn up and gravel was thrown down.

“I really didn’t think the lawns would recover,” Countess Caroline says, “but they did.”

Filming at Mapperton went on for about a year and while it was “quite a lot of fun,” there were challenges, too, the countess says.

Estate-manager Annabel Hawkins says the location scouts “fell in love with Mapperton” but their “vision of how it should look” required adjustment on both sides from time to time.

Hawkins, who is also the property’s wedding coordinator, describes how filmmakers wanted to start a huge blaze for a pivotal scene during which the barn catches fire.

“We weren’t too keen on that,” Hawkins remarks.

So the barn-burning was shot elsewhere. And a plan to install a duck pond in the front courtyard also had to be re-thought because the existing cobblestones are “historic.”

But the property’s fields, old stable-block — even the Montagu’s own bedroom — were used in filming.

The “worst moments” came when a huge front-end loader was brought in and the Montagus were afraid it wouldn’t fit between Mapperton’s historic, eagle-topped, gates (it did).

An “interesting moment” occurred when a tawny owl decided to hunt in the faux “farmyard” one night and startled the cows, setting off a crescendo of bovine caterwauling into the wee hours.

The “best moments” were seeing Mapperton House all lit up at night, “getting on” and chatting with the crew, producer and main cast, and viewing the “rushes” as filming progressed, the countess says.

Mapperton House has been used in other productions. Scenes for BBC’s TV series Tom Jones and a 1996 Hollywood take on Jane Austen’s Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, were also shot there.

“We had Gwyneth Paltrow in the drawing room in an 18th-century dress — she looked wonderful,” Countess Caroline says.

Despite Dorset’s appeal to filmmakers, the region is first and foremost “Hardy Country,” says Alistair Chisholm, the Blue Badge guide who is leading our small group of journalists on a day-long tour of places connected to the acclaimed writer. “So where better to film his work?”

The towns and villages in Hardy’s countless poems and 50 novels have fictional names but are based on real places around Dorset, which Hardy referred to as “Wessex,” Chisholm says.

A Hardy expert, local businessman and town crier, Chisholm is as entertaining as he is knowledgeable.

In the woods surrounding the modest cob and thatch cottage where the writer was born in 1840, Chisholm sets the scene with an evocative reading from Hardy’s poem Winter Night In Woodland.

For such a prolific and popular writer, Hardy has been somewhat forgotten since his death in 1928, Chisholm says.

Tucked in Thorncombe Wood, the Hardy Cottage in Higher BockHampton is open to the public but not easy to find. Currently there are no road-signs pointing the way, but Chisholm hopes that will change now that the new Hardy’s Birthplace Visitor Centre has opened on the grounds.

The centre is designed to show visitors how Hardy’s work was inspired by the nature around him. In addition to a film about his early life, there are guided walks and trails that can be explored independently.

As a young man, Hardy went to London to further his education and career, first as an architect and later as a writer. He found great success in London, but Chisholm says the writer never felt comfortable in that class-conscious milieu. After his marriage, he returned to Dorset and built a home — Max Gate — in Dorchester, which is also open to the public.

Several other locations in Dorset were used in the new film. These include Sherborne and scenic West Bay, which TV viewers may recognize from Broadchurch.

With its wealth of impressive medieval buildings, including two castles, ancient almshouses and famous private schools, Sherborne is catching the eye of filmmakers, says Roger Johnson, who heads up the town’s International Film Festival.

In the past 18 months alone scenes for three major productions — Far from the Madding Crowd, The Imitation Game and TV’s Wolf Hall — have been filmed in the quiet market town of about 10,000 people, Johnson says.

Market scenes — complete with “real meat, and real flies” — for the Hardy film were shot in front of Sherborne Abbey. Established in 705, the Abbey has been a Saxon cathedral, a Benedictine Abbey and is now the “most remarkable” parish church Johnson has seen.

The town’s venerable Sherborne School — an independent boarding school for boys 13 to 18 years old — is the alma mater of many prominent figures.

Famous Sherborne boys include Enigma codebreaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing (portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the The Imitation Game), writer David Cromwell (aka John Le Carre), actor Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), Academy-Emmy-Tony-award-winner Jeremy Irons, and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin.

Sherborne’s vintage schoolroom has appeared in many films — everything from a 1969 musical remake of Goodbye Mr. Chips to The Imitation Game. But not all productions can be accommodated.

Rumour has it the historical mini-series New Worlds wanted to stage a burning at the stake at Sherborne School, but the headmaster deemed it inappropriate!

HEART OF HARDY

Thomas Hardy wanted to be buried with his first wife and other family members in the Stinsford parish church-yard. But his executor insisted he be interred in Poet’s Corner at London’s Westminster Abbey. A compromise was reached with

Hardy’s family and friends agreeing the writer’s heart would be buried in Stinsford, and his ashes at Westminster.

Poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis — a Sherborne graduate, Hardy admirer, and father of actor Daniel Day-Lewis — is also buried in Stinsford.

 

NEED TO KNOW

Visit Britain and Dorset County provide a wealth of tourism information on their websites.

— The Mapperton House is near the town of Beaminster. Its gardens open to the public daily (except for Saturdays) from March 1 to Oct. 31. The house is open weekday afternoons from July 6 to Aug. 7, plus two bank holidays in May. See mapperton.com.

— For details on visiting Hardy’s Birthplace, see nationaltrust.org.uk/hardys-cottage.

— For Max Gate, see nationaltrust.org.uk/max-gate.

— For tours with Alistair Chisholm (highly recommended), see thomas-hardy-explorer.co.uk or e-mail alistairchiz@uk.com.


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