Dorchester is at the heart of what the National Trust calls “Hardy Country” – and he is everywhere. Not that I mind. I’m a big fan of his Wessex novels. And I was pretty excited to be spending the night in a newly reopened hostelry that gets a mention in at least one of them. Thomas Hardy was a regular at the King’s Arms. He is said to have devised, or even written The Mayor of Casterbridge in a room upstairs. Casterbridge is a fictionalised Dorchester, but he refers to the town’s “chief hotel” by name, describing a “spacious bow-window, projected into the street over the main portico” – exactly as it is now.
I was there with my husband before England’s second lockdown. We’d come for a quiet, small-town break not too far from home. There is, of course, no total escape from coronavirus. On Dorchester High Street – a hill of mostly listed buildings – shop windows were papered with shouty offers (from discounts to the more desperate “everything must go”). While some of Dorchester’s odd collection of museums remained open, several, including the Tutankhamun Experience, were temporarily closed (it has yet to open).
My spirits lifted when we stepped over the threshold of the King’s Arms Hotel. To borrow a line from Hardy’s Casterbridge novel, the place was alive with “the babble of voices, the jingle of glasses and the drawing of corks”. Staff were wearing masks, and there was hand sanitiser on offer, but the atmosphere was so upbeat, we almost felt we like we’d left the pandemic at the front door.
The King’s Arms is typical of the grand coaching inns found in most market towns in the 18th and 19th centuries. Queen Victoria stayed here. So did the Beatles. Closed in 2015, the former Best Western was looking very sorry for itself when it was bought by Somerset-based hospitality company Stay Original a year later. Four years and roughly £5m down the line, the hotel reopened in September – six months behind schedule. Lockdown two in England meant that it was forced to close three weeks later, just days after our visit.
“It was heart-breaking – and utterly soul destroying,” general manager Kirsty Schmidt later told me. “We were on such a roll and then all of a sudden we were closed.” She is, however, taking a positive view. “The break has given us a chance to take stock and refine what we offer. Of course, we’ve lost income but if we can pick up where we left off and survive on a reduced occupancy, we’re happy. ” She added that they were working hard to attract local, “bread and butter” custom. “In some ways, launching during a pandemic was brilliant for us,” she said. “Local people had started to wonder what on earth was happening to their town. So when we opened, it gave them a bit of hope.”
The hotel reopened yesterday, 2 December, under tier 2 regulations, meaning it can accept guests, unless they live in tier 3. The bar is open to anyone – as long as they order one of those “substantial” meals.
During the renovations, much of the time and money was spent on stripping back layers of 20th-century tat (suspended ceilings, fake beams, red carpet). A concrete skin had to be chipped off the lobby’s beautiful encaustic floor tiles (“probably Victorian”); a former storeroom (turned dining room/snug) now displays walls of 17th-century timbered brickwork. Panelling and ceiling plaster were restored or replaced. A conservatory at the back was removed to create an outdoor space; now a marquee furnished with gas heaters and sheepskin rugs has been added to make it more user-friendly for winter. Stay Original has capitalised on the delayed opening by ensuring that Covid protections were built into the operation from the start.
On the ground floor, there’s a big bar, an “Old Smoking Room” lounge (no smoking, obviously) and the restaurant – lots of country-green paintwork, cheery open fires, velvet upholstery and fringed lampshades. On the three floors above, there are 20 rooms (14 more are in the pipeline) of various sizes, from top-floor Snug to Super Plus. Our Super was large and light with an enormous bed. Like all the rooms, the decor mixes leafy feature wallpaper and bold colours (grey, china blue, more greens) with antiques, contemporary furniture and snazzy bathroom tiles. Only the posh Bay room (and one other) gets a roll-top tub.
During our visit, we spent the afternoon exploring what the locals call “Dorch” – a Wednesday-market kind of town with layers of history that date back to the Romans. The 18th-century Shire Hall Courthouse was still open (and is welcoming visitors again, post-lockdown). In use until 1955, this is where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were tried and convicted in 1834 for swearing a secret oath of allegiance to a trade union. We visited the “miserable dungeon” where the six farmhands were held, before climbing the stairs to stand where they stood in the courtroom dock. Thomas Hardy later served here as a magistrate.
A longer walk took us to Prince Charles’s Poundbury, a bolt-on, new-town village built along traditional lines on the western edge of Dorchester. There are narrow streets of flinty cottages, terraces of repro Georgian townhouses and, on Queen Mother Square (circa 2010), the Duchess of Cornwall: run by Dorset brewer Hall & Woodhouse, it’s a modern take on an old coaching inn but, bizarrely, it’s loosely based on the Ritz in Piccadilly.
Beer is big around here. Dorchester’s Eldridge Pope Brewery was once the largest employer in town, housed in a vast, Victorian redbrick brewhouse designed by a young architect called Thomas Hardy. Now it forms the bones of a Brewery Square retail complex (Wagamama, Nando’s, an Odeon cinema). Here, among a few independents, the teeny Copper Street Brewery runs a tap room with seating for just six (for now just the bottle shop is open for takeaways).
Copper Street’s Saxon Gold cask ale is one of the local tipples on sale in the King’s Arms’s freehouse bar. It also does a Dorset Bramble cocktail (the Conker Dry Gin is from a Bournemouth distillery) and sparkling wines from Furleigh Estate vineyard near Bridport, while in the restaurant head chef Steve Yates presents a Dorset-sourced menu (the sweet potato soup with goats’ cheddar and dumplings stands out).
The next day, we opted for the warm embrace of the King’s Arms in Sunday-lunch mode: generous piles of pink-roast sirloin served with giant yorkshire puddings (the vegetarian option is beetroot, mushroom and quinoa), the cheery babble of voices, a pint of Piddle (from nearby Piddlehinton). The place was packed and, according to Kirsty, many of the customers were local. “This has been hub of the community for a long time,” she said. “People are very glad to see it open again.”
Before we left we took advantage of Dorchester’s rural setting: from the hotel, it takes less than 10 minutes to access footpaths that delve into fields of sheep or follow the River Frome. Only three miles out of town we came to the nature reserve at Thorncombe Wood, where a leafy trail led to the thatched cottage where Hardy was born. It was closed then – and still is (even here, the pandemic has made its mark), but we leaned over the garden gate to get a good look at the National Trust property where he wrote Far from the Madding Crowd. I don’t suppose it’s changed much since, and in this timeless landscape (a forest of sweet chestnuts and old oaks, heathland and wild ponies), it was possible, for a moment, to leave 2020 behind.
• Accommodation was provided by The King’s Arms, which has doubles from £95B&B