at Athelhampton


1. an overview

Thomas Hardy was involved with Athelhampton from his teens to his 70s, and his experiences there mirror his life story and aspects of characters in his books. He first visited as the son of a stonemason working on the house, only just starting to move up in the world as an architect's apprentice.  His last recorded visit is at a meal in the Great Hall as a friend and honoured guest of the owner, socially successful as a famous author and poet but in emotional turmoil after the death of his first wife and recent remarriage – and with the owner soon to face his own personal tragedy.  Along the way, Hardy visited the house frequently, his name was inscribed on the leadwork of the dovecote, and he wrote three books and two poems that include houses inspired by Athelhampton, with his words showing his architect's appreciation of its finest details.

1. an overview

Thomas Hardy was involved with Athelhampton from his teens to his 70s, and his experiences there mirror his life story and aspects of characters in his books. He first visited as the son of a stonemason working on the house, only just starting to move up in the world as an architect's apprentice.  His last recorded visit is at a meal in the Great Hall as a friend and honoured guest of the owner, socially successful as a famous author and poet but in emotional turmoil after the death of his first wife and recent remarriage – and with the owner soon to face his own personal tragedy.  Along the way, Hardy visited the house frequently, his name was inscribed on the leadwork of the dovecote, and he wrote three books and two poems that include houses inspired by Athelhampton, with his words showing his architect's appreciation of its finest details.

2. the timeline



June 2nd, Thomas Hardy is born 




Age 19, Hardy is at Athelhampton visiting his father, who is employed by owner George Wood as a stonemason on repair and restoration.  Hardy paints a watercolour that features the old Gatehouse. 

(Source: Millgate, 2004, page 65)


Date unknown, possibly around this time


Thomas Hardy's name is inscribed on the leadwork of the lantern at the top of the Dovecote, and can be seen today.




Athelhampton Gatehouse is demolished.




Hardy is in London as architect, before returning to Dorset in 1867





Hardy travels to Cornwall, meets his wife to be, Emma Lavinia Gifford 


1872 Sept to 1873 July


“A Pair of Blue Eyes” is serialised in Tinsley's Magazine, and then published in 1873. Endelstow House is central to the story and Athelhampton provides joint inspiration for it, alongside a Cornish house (see Note 1).

1874 Jan to Dec

 Far from the Madding Crowd serialised in the Cornhill Magazine, published as a book on 29th October 1874.  Substantial evidence (see Note 2) that Athelhampton, jointly with nearby Waterson House, provided inspiration for Weatherbury Farm, the home of heroine Bathsheba and central to much of the action.




17th September:  marries Emma Gifford





Return of  The Native




Hardy joins the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), founded four years earlier by William Morris,

and becomes an active member. 



Hardy designs and moves into Max Gate, on the outskirts of Dorchester and six miles from Athelhampton.



The Mayor of Casterbridge




The Waiting Supper, a short story, published in periodicals (see Hardy 1888). Features Athelhampton explicitly, as “Ethelhampton” in the 1888 versions and as “Athelhall” in later editions (see Hardy 1913) as the scene of the wonderful “rural ball” scene set in the Great Hall where the hero and heroine dance together out on the lawn (Note 3).




first part of Tess sent to publishers; first published, in serialised form, in 1891


1. an overview



Alfred Cart de la Fontaine buys Athelhampton and starts his wonderful restoration work and creation of the gardens


1890s-early 1900s


a series of letters show that Hardy, a relatively near neighbour six miles away at Max Gate, becomes closely acquainted with Athelhampton's la Fontaine. Possibly, they know one another before the purchase, and maybe Hardy, as an early member of SPAB

( Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings ) even encourages la Fontaine to buy and restore it sympathetically. 




Jude The Obscure finished and published


September: Letter from Hardy to Mrs Henniker Max Gate Dorchester 3. 9. '95
My dear friend, I have just returned here from Athelhampton Hall - and we are leaving this morning for Rushmore (the Pitt-River's) and had hoped...

(Source: Pinion 1972, page 44)



Poem “The Dame of Athelhall” is published in Poems of the Past and the Present, the name clearly referring to Athelhampton



December: letter to la Fontaine, enclosing a copy of the just-published Poems of the Past and the Present:
“ … the story of the irresolute lady who lived in your house...I don't want to alarm you, but I fancy that the brief reminder of her life was unhappy, and that she "walks" in the hall occasionally'..."

(Source: Hynes 1982, page 374, citing Hardy's letters II, page 305)



Hardy writes to Sir Sidney Lee, who several years earlier in 1902 published a “census” of early Shakespeare folios, telling him: “.. Mr de Lafontaine, my neighbour in Dorset, is the fortunate possessor of a 1st Folio Shakespeare, which he would like to show you. Your opinion upon it will be highly valued by him, and of great interest to me...”

(Source: Rasmussen, 2012, page 20)



 letter from Hardy to de la Fontaine: “I hope the chill is not serious. I am as shocked as you are at the idea of the hedgerow trees on the Puddletown road being destroyed... I have heard a report, too, that the Chancel at P.T is to be pulled down and a new one erected … Fancy destroying the later Perpendicular (if I remember) wappen roof, the venerable walls, the 17th century woodwork, etc...”

(Source: TCU 1909)




letter from Hardy to de la Fontaine: apologises that he can't come to dinner, then “Another friend or two, interested in old houses, may I think be here some time next week or later, and I should much like to be able to call on you with them any afternoon that might suit.” (Source: TCU 1910)

around 1910


Anecdote: website author cites her grandma serving Hardy at Athelhampton,

kicks sausage under table so as not to embarrass him for dropping it..

(source:  The Quiet Writer, 2018)

27th November 1912 

Hardy's first wife Emma dies at their home, inspiring Hardy to become “..a great poet.”

(Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy The Time-Torn Man, 2006, Page xvii), but he is already very close to Florence Emily Dugdale


10th February 1914


Hardy and Florence marry

4th August 1914


Hardy and his second wife Florence are having a meal at Athelhampton with la Fontaine when a telegram arrives confirming that war has broken out.  In her biography of him, she writes (Note 4. She uses “they” to describe herself and her husband)



4th  August  1914 - 11pm 

war declared with Germany


On this day they were lunching at Athelhampton Hall, six miles off, where a telegram came announcing the rumour to be fact. A discussion arose about food, and there was almost a panic at the table, nobody having any stock. But the full dimensions of what the English declaration meant were not quite realised at once. Their host disappeared to inquire into his stock of flour. The whole news and what it meant burst upon Hardy's mind next morning, for though most people were saying the war would be over by Christmas, he felt it would be a matter of years and untold disaster..”

8th July 1916


Tragic death of Captain Alfred Edward Cart de la Fontaine, age 28, nephew of the owner of Athelhampton, killed on active service.  Memorial in Puddletown church.





De la Fontaine sells Athelhampton to George Cochrane, following the loss of his nephew and, on some accounts, having been ruined by the War.  No available evidence of Hardy's direct connection with Athelhampton continuing after this, though the poem he wrote four years later shows it remained in his mind (see below)




the new North wing built by George Cochrane, who owns Athelhampton until 1930.



21st April 1922

Publication in Salisbury Times and South Wilts Gazette (subsequently in Nash's and Pall Mall Magazine, and then in the collected Late Lyrics and Earlier, of Poem “The Children and Sir Nameless”. (Source: Hynes, 1984, page 399). Opening lines are: “/Sir Nameless, once of Athelhall, declared/These wretched children romping in my park/Trample the herbage till the soil is bared/And yap and yell from early morn till dark!/” See Hardy 1922, for musical setting Britten 1953




11th January 1928 

Hardy dies, age 87

3. weatherbury farm

Athelhampton and Weatherbury Farm in

Far from the Madding Crowd


Athelhampton has all of the idiosyncratic architectural features that Thomas Hardy uses in his wonderful poetic description of Weatherbury Farm, home of heroine Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd. It is located just where he says it should be, and when he wrote this first best-seller in 1873-4, he already knew the house well.  Yet, many authors suggest that nearby Waterson House was the inspiration for the Farm. Does one house have a better claim than the other, or could Hardy have been inspired by both? Here, we look in detail at the evidence. 


Both houses were built in the right historic era, both were former grand manors being used as farms when Hardy was writing Far from the Madding Crowd, and both are “a witch's ride of a mile or more” from the imaginary location of Weatherbury Farm, using Hardy's own words from his preface to the 1912 edition.  


So could it be that Hardy drew inspiration from both houses, and wanted to leave a deliberate ambiguity?  That could explain why, in his first and only description of the geographic location of the real-world model for the Farm, he chose to do so in way that clearly fitted not just one, but rather two different places. Perhaps his aim was to emphasise that the Wessex of his novels is a “... partly real, partly dream-country..”, his famous words from that same preface.   There is clear precedent: Endelstow House, in his previous book, A Pair of Blue Eyes, was inspired jointly by two houses (Lanhydrock in Cornwall and Athelhampton, see note 10), and in Far From the Madding Crowd itself, Weatherbury church is modelled partly on Puddletown church, but the crucial gargoyles are inspired from elsewhere, perhaps the church in Sydling St Nicholas (note 13).


Yet, a glance at any of the numerous books and internet articles on “Hardy's Wessex” will find only  Waterson cited as the inspiration. So, how strong is the case for choosing one house over the other?  Looking at the evidence, there are three key differences between the claims of the two houses: first, architectural detail; second, Hermann Lea's book; third, a picture used in the original serialised edition. 


Architectural detail:  This clearly mattered deeply to Hardy, as a trained architect who spent the first decade of his life designing and repairing buildings, and whose as a successful novelist joined the new Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings.  This love of architecture is reflected in the care he uses to describe the features of Weatherbury Farm in Chapter 9 of Far from the Madding Crowd.  There are “fluted pilasters” (rectangular columns with vertical grooves) on the front of the Farm, there is stone tiling, and there are “pairs of chimneys .. joined by an arch” in the early editions, changed in the 1912 edition to a contrasting combination of chimneys that are “columnar” (a single cylinder) and “panelled” (a group all together in a rectangular brick box). The 1912 edition also adds “coped gables with finials” (a gable being the triangular wall at the end of a sloping roof, the coping being the finish at its top, and the finial an ornament above, often a short stubby pole). And there are “soft brown mosses” on the roof.

Athlethampton fits these architectural details precisely. The West Wing, which forms the most prominent part of the front as approached from the road, has magnificent “fluted pilasters” running from ground to roof level at both corners. The bottom third of the roof has stone tiles with moss, and chimneys match exactly with the details that Hardy offers in both the earlier and the later editions: the pairs joined by an arch; and the combination of columnar and panelled.  In addition, there are numerous coped gables with finials. What's more, all of these architectural features appear in the watercolour that Hardy himself made of the building as 
apprenticed teenage architect in 1859.  By contrast, Waterson has stone tiling with moss, and coped gables with finials, but the fluted pilasters (though mentioned by some authors) are not readily apparent on contemporary or modern photographs, and there are no pairs of chimneys joined by an arch, and no columnar chimneys.

Hermann Lea's books (Lea 1906 and Lea 1913):  These books, among the earliest that try to identify real-world inspirations for Hardy's fictional locations, are especially relevant because their author knew Hardy personally, travelled with him in “Wessex”, and was familiar with the area, having lived at Athlehampton itself for a while and being based nearby when he wrote the books. Given this provenance, it is unsurprising that for over a century, other authors (and now the internet) have followed the lead set by Lea, and he mentions only Waterson in the context of the Farm.


However, although Lea mentions only Waterson, he does not attempt to reconcile all the architectural details with the Farm, and his wording is not as clear as later authors assume.  He states (Lea 1913, p34): “... Weatherbury Farm. The model which served our author may be found in Waterson House ...” (italics added).  How is the word “may” to be interpreted?  Possible guidance is given in Lea's introduction (Lea 1913, p xxi), which says “..the houses.. which are to claim our attention are plainly not each depicted from one real model – for some are undoubtedly composite structures.”


The picture:  For many years, other authors were content to follow Lea's apparent lead without adding extra evidence, but then J. B. Bullen (Thomas Hardy: The World of his Novels, 2013) drew attention to a drawing used in the September 1874 issue of the Cornhill Magazine, which was serialising Far From the Madding Crowd that year. It shows part of a house, with a black-clad female figure moving in front of it. The architectural detail is very distinctive and it is clearly adapted from the eastern side of Waterson.  Note that this picture (like the other small ones appearing each month) never appeared anywhere else, in contrast with the much larger monthly plates that were re-used in many early book editions, and also note that all other pictures clearly relate to events occurring in the issue in which they appear.


Bullen, and some subsequent authors, cite this picture as key evidence linking Weatherbury Farm with Waterson. However, the drawing shows only a single coped gable with finial and none of the other architectural features that Hardy describes in detail. Moreover, the logical place for a picture of the Farm would be when it is introduced and described in Chapter 9, yet this picture appears much later, in Chapter 39, which deals with the first part of Fanny's fatal flight to Casterbridge, not with the Farm. The picture may show the moment in Chapter 41 (included in that same September issue) where Bathsheba makes the daily round of her Farm, but it is not clear why such a low-key moment might be chosen for a picture, nor why a recently-married, well-off woman would wear black. An alternative interpretation is that this picture relates to Chapter 40 in that issue and illustrates the different manor-house, many miles from Weatherbury and near to Casterbridge, that poor Fanny hears strike the hour “...from the far depths of shadow..” on her tragic last journey. Moreover, as a destitute woman on her way to the workhouse, Fanny might well be in black.

Our Conclusion..


Weighing the architectural evidence, which points clearly to Athelhampton, against the evidence of Lea's book and the picture, which give mixed support to Waterson, as well as the broader range of evidence that fits both houses equally well, it seems reasonable to conclude that Hardy was inspired by both houses, to create his “partly real, partly dream-country”.  Our imaginations can allow the magic of a “witch's ride” to fly us to both houses at once, even though physically one lies east and the other west of the Farm's fictional location!  


Hardy's Weatherbury

"a witch's ride of a mile or more'

Athelhampton Hall is just a mile from the imagined Weatherbury Farm, Waterston Manor just over a mile and a quarter.


4. the harvest supper


The Harvest Supper in the Great Hall at Athelhampton



In 1888, Hermann Lea, who ten years later became firm friends with Thomas Hardy and wrote books describing Hardy's Wessex (Lea 1906, Lea 1913), was living at Athlehampton. George Wood was the owner at this time, so Lea, who was working at a nearby farm, was presumably his tenant.  Lea, describes a Harvest Supper held in the Great Hall, likening it to the events in Far From the Madding Crowd (Harvest celebrations are usually held in late September):


“... I witnessed a sheep-washing. As I stood watching the operation, I was taken back in thought to Weatherbury Farm – the sheep, the men, and most of all, the conversation and remarks and exclamations. The utter realism of Hardy's writing forced itself upon one; only a writer who had actually watched and listened could have reproduced the scene in words...


… Further confirmation of this realism reached me at our own Harvest Supper, held in the hall at Athlehampton, when, after the supper, the men's natural nervousness was overcome and the time for songs arrived. The chorus for one of those songs haunts me yet:


'Did she ever rheturn, no, she never rheturned,

no, she never rheturned any mwhore'


I believe the song was entitled 'The ship that never returned'.  I tried to keep track of the verses, but after the sixteenth yer' 'Chok it Bill, that's too much, that is' 'Dazee, sit down, Bill, and let I have a turn' – and surely, I thought, it was Laban Tall and his contemporaries interjecting the protestsverse I lost count and became bewildered. Still it went on, and on, until finally the standing singer was forcibly pulled down by his neighbour, following many protests – 'that's 'nuf, Bill', 'Stop it, caint'


[Source:  Hermann Lea's Notes for a Biography of Thomas Hardy, written at various time between 1913 and 1918, and published posthumously in Lea, 1964, p19]


[Laban Tall is one of the men employed at Weatherbury Farm in Far From the Madding Crowd, and in Chapter ten, where Bathsheba meets her staff in the hall of her Farm to pay them, he discusses with her the search for the missing Fanny.]