A Wessex trail: Dorset’s Hardy Way leads to the historic Smugglers Inn

A Wessex trail: Dorset’s Hardy Way leads to the historic Smugglers Inn

No one appreciated the rural English landscape more than a certain corn merchant’s son from Suffolk. John Constable made it his business to paint bucolic splendour, and perhaps no one has ever done it better. And when he went on holiday, on his honeymoon no less, he chose one particular village.

I’m standing there, by the old, ivy-clad church wall in Osmington, Dorset, surveying the thatched roofs ahead and the rising slope of the chalk hill beyond. Through a gateway I spot a blue plaque on the old vicarage wall: “John Constable, English Romantic Painter, 1816, lived here for three months”.

I’m not sure the information is entirely accurate. The honeymoon lasted six weeks and, although Constable did sleep and eat in the vicarage, most of the newlywed’s holiday must have been spent standing in front of his easel at various locations within easy walking distance of this spot. Not very romantic, I’d say; certainly not from the point of view of his bride, Maria Bicknell. Their host, the Rev John Fisher, had trimmed any expectations she might have entertained, describing his home life in the invitation: “My wife is quiet & silent & sits & reads without disturbing a soul. Mrs Constable may follow her example.”

Osmington is still a quiet place, easily reached across the fields from our start point in nearby Osmington Mills. Next door to Constable’s honeymoon home is the 12th-century St Osmund’s church, where the gravestones give the flavour of days gone by on this coast: plenty of drownings. When Constable came, the whole area must have had the appearance of a duck crossing a pond: serene on top, frantic underneath. The smuggling across the Channel was at its lucrative and dangerous peak – brandy in those days, not people. Walking down through the village, my partner, Sophie, spots a bottle buried in the wall, said to be placed there by a smuggler, pointing the way to some stash, perhaps.

Sutton Poyntz – a lovely village with its beck running down the centre. Photograph: Nick Dawe

The path leads us across soggy fields by the River Jordan towards the village of Sutton Poyntz. The river’s name may or may not be biblical, but the water here certainly had magical qualities, emerging from springs under the Dorset Ridgeway and serving several mills. Sutton Poyntz is a lovely village with its beck running down the centre and a pub, the Springhead, if you need refreshments before the hill climb ahead.

From there, we hike uphill on to the ridge, where it’s blowing a gale and we are grateful for the ragged hawthorn hedge shelter. Up on the hill is a huge figure of a man on horseback, 98 metres tall, carved into the chalk in 1808. It was cut as a tribute to George III, who loved nearby Weymouth, although one local legend is that he hated the hillside tribute for showing him riding away from the town. The views are spectacular.

This is part of the Hardy Way, a long-distance footpath that loops out of Dorchester for more than 200 miles, ending in Stinsford churchyard, where the author’s heart is buried. (A fate contrary to his wishes. The nation carried the rest of him off to Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.) The ridge holds many ancient barrows and hill forts along its length, including Maiden Castle, just south of Dorchester.

Up here on the county’s wind-battered spine, Hardy’s world feels close – the author did plunder the area for inspiration. Down to our right is Poxwell Manor, which appears in the novel The Trumpet-Major, and when we get over the hills and down to the sea we reach Ringstead, which appears as Ringworth in his Wessex Tales. A trio of roe deer skitter away as we arrive at the mixture of shingle and sand, and sink gratefully into a little stony sun trap, out of the wind.

Ringstead beach, which appears in Hardy’s Wessex Tales as Ringworth.

There is a choice now: follow the beach west, on to increasingly large rocks, or head along the safer coastal path. We check the tides and choose the beach, hunting out the seam of fossil shells where an entire generation of molluscs perished, caught out by some climatic change. How fortunate that humans are rational, scientific creatures who could never make a similar mistake. Further along, the beach throws up dozens of strangely rounded boulders that appear like stranded turtles from a distance. On closer examination, however, they look more like a form of beach bum.

It was somewhere just beyond this point where John Constable set up his easel in 1816, painting the distant Portland Island tethered to the mainland by Chesil Beach, and a few wooden boats, which were quite likely to have been smugglers’ vessels. (The original painting is in the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.). You could continue along the coast to Weymouth from here, passing the spot where he painted a second seascape (this one is in the National Gallery in London; other local drawings are in the V&A). Our path, however, leads up the cliff to Osmington Mills and the Smugglers Inn.

Google map of the route

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Start and finish Smugglers Inn, Osmington Mills
Distance 8 miles
Time 3.5 hours
Total ascent 396 metres
Difficulty moderate
GPX track of route at Ordnance Survey website

The pub

The Smugglers’ Inn

The first thought that occurs to me as I gaze down at the Smugglers Inn is: “What a champion spot to hide away in.” The entire establishment is tucked away from view in a narrow little gorge and blends in very well.

It’s therefore no surprise to learn that this ancient drinking den spent much of its long career dodging excisemen and secreting large casks of illicit French spirits about its person. Despite several name changes, the pub could never quite shake off its pursuers. The landlords were all seasoned smugglers who seem to have had a lot of fun, particularly Emmanuel Charles, who was contraband king in the early 1800s, and a man of some charm and nerve.

His importation business was ably supported by an extended family of 27, all at different times convicted of smuggling. The legends are of sharp wits and wily subterfuges: one story tells how they tricked a customs man into hiding up the chimney, then lit the fire so he fell out coughing and choking. The truth may have been rather less picturesque: one son was shot dead, a brother drowned, while Charles himself was said to have died in poverty in Weymouth.

Main menu dish of steak and Tangle Foot ale pie served with creamy mash, Badger beer gravy and braised red cabbage.

The big stone fireplace is still there, and with an impressive cast iron ship’s cannon too, but the current landlords have replaced the genuine flames with an electric. There are, however, still plenty of cosy corners to hide away in, and the low beamed ceilings and stone floors with rugs maintain that original atmosphere. I like the black-and-white photographs on the walls, a reminder that smuggling was only one part of what was largely a farming, fishing and seafaring community: shipwrecks on local beaches and pictures of bluefin tuna piled on a ship’s deck.

The pumps deliver local Badger Brewery ales. Food is sturdy pub fare delivered with local flourishes and culinary flair. I can’t resist the steak and Tangle Foot pie, but it means giving up on the Brixham hake and the Devon crab. Fortunately, Sophie gets those, so I try them anyway – both excellent. I like the dessert option too – an affordable mini-portion with coffee.

The rooms

Rooms hit the right tone for a smuggling den, with plenty of nautical artefacts and antiques, but all the necessary equipment to relax after a decent walk, namely tea and coffee tray (with biscuits), a proper-size bath for a long soak, and a comfortable bed (doubles from £122).

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