Thomas Hardy, A Ringstead Walk

This walk follows the footsteps of Lizzie Newberry in the Thomas Hardy short story The Distracted Preacher as she hurries at night from Owermoigne to Burning Cliff above Ringstead Bay.

The view across the Purbeck downland on the way, walking from Owermoigne to Ringstead

This is part of the old smugglers’ route from the coast to the village of Owermoigne, or Nether Moynton in Thomas Hardy, in which small barrels of gin and brandy 'accidentally floated over in the dark from France', as Hardy describes it in his comic short story The Distracted Preacher.

The image above, in Blandford Forum Museum, shows the 'preventive men,' the equivalent of today's customs & excise, trawling for hidden contraband.

The story revolves around Mr Stockdale, the newly arrived Wesleyan Minister, and Lizzie Newberry, the enchanting widow, and confirmed smuggler, with whom he lodges. He is a lost man from the moment he sets eyes on her.

Owermoigne Church still stands beside a green amidst stone-built thatched cottages, much as Thomas Hardy describes it in the story. The Church Registers record the baptism of members of the Hardy family who lived in the village from 1664-1793, which may have provided additional reason why Hardy chose to set the story here.

However, just as in the story, the village had a reputation for smuggling, in which both the parson and squire were suspected of involvement. Thus, when the Wesleyan Minister Stockdale joins the smugglers on top of the church tower, as they anxiously watch the preventive men searching the village below, some are not pleased to see him:

‘If the pa’son should see him a-trespassing here in his tower, ‘twould be none the better for we, seeing how ‘a do hate chapel-members. He’d never buy a tub of us again, and he’s as good a customer as we have got this sode o’Warm’ll.’

The barrels are eventually discovered in a pit dug beneath a box-planted apple tree in the orchard next to the church. Part of the orchard remains.

First view of the sea, from the cliff above

Lizzie’s plans for landing a consignment at Ringstead Bay are overheard by the preventive men, so she hurries off in the dark to ‘burn the lugger off’, with Stockdale secretly following her.

Her route is directly to Burning Cliff, above Ringstead Bay. The name refers to shale burning under the ground, as opposed to any ‘signalling’ activities, though perhaps these played a part …

The path is straight but steeply undulating as it traverses the Purbeck downland, with a sharp descent to the bay from Burning Cliff, where in the story Lizzie sets light to a gorse bush to warn the smugglers.

Thomas Hardy Ringstead Walk

Park near the church in Owermoigne. Turn right from the church and follow the lane as it winds left to main road (A352). Cross the road and carry on up the lane ahead. The lane provides a direct route to Burning Cliff, passing through the farm at Holworth.

For the Bay follow the track down (bears slightly to the left). Steps are cut into the cliff, but it is a steep descent/ascent.

(For a shorter walk, drive to Holworth and ask the farmer for a convenient place to park your car.)

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