Dorchester’s first Thomas Hardy Victorian Fair held to celebrate the author’s 179th birthday drew big crowds. High West and High East Streets were closed to motor traffic and instead of engines the happy chatter of throngs of people, many in Victorian dress, filled the air.

Old-tea-house

Staff at The Old Tea House won first prize for fancy dress at the fair

It was an inspired idea to include such a diverse number of societies and businesses who all came together to create a rounded picture of the town, bringing their own supporters. It was good to see how many shopkeepers had made the effort to dress in Victorian costume.

The Town Council paraded solemnly from the Town Hall to the Thomas Hardy Statue at Top o’ Town, where wreaths were laid. They returned down High West street stopping at the Shire Hall to watch a short performance by the New Hardy Players before moving on to St Peter’s Church to lay a wreath at the foot of the statue of William Barnes, who was a mentor to the young Thomas Hardy.

In the Corn Exchange the inflatable museum attracted many visitors and children enthusiastically engaged in craft activities, including making Thomas Hardy moustaches. There were also crafts for adults to try including Dorset button-making.

Outside in High East Street were stalls varying from food suppliers, with delicious free samples, and artisan crafts displaying their wares. A traction engine, huge and powerful, was on display, as was a Hall & Woodhouse dray with two magnificent horses which clopped up the street from time to time during the day.

There was Maypole dancing, always a pretty sight, while at the Top o’Town a shepherd’s hut and a pen of Dorset sheep brought a Hardyean touch to the day. Between this and the centre of town were musicians, magicians, Victorian children’s toys and all manner of entertainment.

St Peter’s Church bellringers rang several peals throughout the day which added to the atmosphere, cream teas were served, poetry was read and there were short tours on work Thomas Hardy carried out on the church at the age of 16 when he was apprenticed to John Hicks as an architect.

The Shire Hall was host to different singing and instrumental groups and offered tours.

In the garden behind Holy Trinity Church ‘Connect’ performed a condensed version of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which was vibrant, enthusiastically acted and a pleasure to watch.

Occasional heavy showers did not deter the crowds. The Stomping Boondocks ceilidh band were playing during one of the showers and folk wearing anoraks, their hoods flying out behind them, danced as if the sun was shining.

Jill Bryant

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