Looking out at a single-track country lane over unspoilt downland, I’m struggling to see any signs of human habitation. And yet I am barely 20 miles south of Oxford, home to 150,000 people.
In a memorable scene in Jude The Obscure, the title character of Thomas Hardy’s novel has his first sight of the dreaming spires of ‘Christminster’ (Oxford) from a spot close to where I am parked. Hardy’s grandmother lived in the nearby village of Fawley, and the stonemason who dreams of being a scholar is given the surname Fawley in the book.
Jude couldn’t wait to leave his village and head to his nearest university town, but I go in the opposite direction as often as I can.
Hardy country: Sunset over the North Wessex Downs in Wiltshire. It is officially designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
The North Wessex Downs, officially designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, begin almost as soon as one leaves Wantage, or ‘Alfredston’, as Hardy called it. He named it after Alfred the Great, the most celebrated King of Wessex, who was born there and whose statue adorns the town’s pretty market square.
A sharp right-turn off the A338 leads down to the Letcombes: Regis and Bassett. In Letcombe Regis, we stop for coffee at The Greyhound Inn, a wooden-floored 18th-century free house. The village is delightful, with a number of attractive thatched cottages.