DORCHESTER, England — With apologies to Browning, this is the poetic time of year along the back roads of southwest England, when walking trails begin to flower with spring blossoms all the way from Dorset, the Cotswolds and the moors of Dartmoor to the Scottish countryside.
To travel through the Dorset countryside, my wife, Elfriede, and I brought one backpack from home, which is all we needed for overnighting in village inns before returning to our base in this historic country town of about 13,000.
Driving through the southwest of England by rental car from London, we used Dorchester two times as a base for backpack hikes.
Every hike around the Dorset region is an adventure of the mind, confirming the words spoken by Hippocrates 2,400 years ago: "Walking is man's best medicine."
This has been called Thomas Hardy country. It's part of his novels and poetry.
Over Hill and Dale
Side roads, cow paths and walking trails, and names of villages, hills and rivers make their own poetry and folk tales: Melbury Osmond and Minterne Magna, Piddle River, Puddletown and Plush.
Cows and sheep graze along the way. Ruins of Iron Age forts emerge from rolling downs. We walked to the top of Batcombe Hill, then descended to soft green pastures.
The 180-foot Cerne Giant dared us to climb his chalk hillside, which we did. He presides over the inns, pubs and old houses of Cerne Abbas, and probably was carved into the hillside in Roman times.
Hiking the countryside and walking the villages offers what other great writers have said about Dorset.
T. E. Lawrence wrote "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" at his Clouds Hill cottage. He's buried at Moreton village, half a dozen miles east of Dorchester.
Jane Austen brought the village of Lyme Regis into her novel "Persuasion," as did John Fowles in his "French Lieutenant's Woman."
But it was Hardy who immortalized the countryside. He spent much of his long and creative life here, from 1840 to 1928.
A Novel Setting
It's only a three-mile walk from Dorchester to the village of Higher Bockhampton, where the cottage of Hardy's birth and boyhood is a National Trust property. The cottage gardens are open from March to October, and you can phone for an appointment.
Hiking on across the brooding stillness of Edgon Heath, we could feel why Hardy made it a setting for "The Return of the Native," and why his life in Dorset could inspire "Far from the Madding Crowd." The financial success of the latter novel enabled him to build his Max Gate home just outside Dorchester.
The walk from Max Gate into Dorchester is a return to the cobbled streets Hardy walked for so many years.
The museum has his original manuscript of "The Mayor of Casterbridge," the name Hardy gave to Dorchester in his novel. To the Romans it was Durnovaria.
The town's Thomas Hardy Society has prepared walking guides to the streets and country lanes around it.
King's Arms coaching inn at the old town center of Dorchester is a gracious place to shed a backpack. Hardy used it for scenes in his Casterbridge novel.
The inn has 31 bedrooms with private baths; one has a four-poster. The dining room, two bars.
A room for two is about $110 U.S. Call for reservations. Along the Dorset hiking trails, village inns such as Summer Lodge in Evershot and Plumber Manor at Sturminster Newton have double accommodations at about $50 U.S. Farmhouse lodging can cost half that.
The three Englishmen who founded The Wayfarers walking tours open their sixth season of countryside adventures on April 16. The 28 scheduled treks will conclude Oct. 22.
Other walking tours in England are being offered by such organizations as Toronto-based Butterfield & Robinson, and Dales Centre Ltd. through the Yorkshire Dales, sponsored by Lord Willie Peel and his associate, Terry Parker.
The five-day, six-night Wayfarers walking adventures average about 10 miles daily for a group of about a dozen hikers. A walk leader charts the course and introduces historic sights. Luggage is transported to picnics or pub lunches and to overnights with dinner at country inns.
The hiking routes cover Hardy's Dorset, Wordsworth's Lake District, Sir Walter Scott's Borders, James Herriot's Yorkshire, Devon Coast and Dartmoor, a Cotswold Way, Cornwall Creeks and Coves, Wales Border Castles.
Hardy's Dorset hiking tour begins in Sherborne, the town of an old abbey and Sir Walter Raleigh's two castles.
It continues to Cerne Abbas and its cliffside giant, Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" countryside and a 13th-Century manor house, Hardy's Cottage and his grave at Stinsford Church. Afterward a farewell dinner in Dorchester.
The cost of each hiking tour is 595 (about $1,065 U.S.), including breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, transportation of baggage, tips and taxes.
In the United States contact The Wayfarers, 166 Thames St., Newport, R.I. 02840, (401) 849-5087.
Butterfield and Robinson's nine-day, eight-night Cotswold Way walk is $2,295. For more information about the trips, call toll-free (800) 387-1147.
Information about the Dales Centre tours of the Yorkshire Dales is available in California from Reg Picket, 3387 Lubich Drive, Mountain View, Calif. 94080, (415) 967-0232.