Dear Readers, I was in Dorchester for the Christmas holidays, spending some time with Dad at the care home. I often find myself getting a little crazy at this time of year, though whether it’s the unaccustomed volume of desserts, the feeling of being close-swaddled with my loved ones or the general melancholy that Christmas brings, I’m not sure. This year, there’s been a sense of having nothing much to do, compared to previous years when I would be running around cooking and entertaining, and so there’s a certain emptiness. Still, one way of alleviating all of those things is a good brisk walk, and Christmas morning dawned in such crystalline perfection that it was a pleasure to get out.
Dorchester is a fine old town, with pre-historic roots, a Roman heritage, and a fine dose of Georgian and Victorian architecture. It was the inspiration for Thomas Hardy’s Castorbridge, and it maintains a kind of gentility which is all too rare in England these days. If I tell you that nearly all the restaurants close at 9 p.m. you’ll get an idea of the atmosphere of the place. Early to bed and early to rise seems to be Dorchester’s watchword, and it’s none the worse for that.
We walk along Church Street, which certainly has an abundance of the eponymous holy houses. The main church is St Peters, which dates back to the fifteenth century and has a delightful garden and chapter house behind it. It is built of local Portland stone and hamstone, from Ham HIll in Somerset. Maybe that explains why it seems to have just emerged, fully formed, out of the ground. It has been Grade 1 listed since 1950, so it’s now frozen in form, although previous to this it was extensively fiddled about with and renovated.
Behind the church there is an enormous bright orange crane, doing goodness only knows what. The town is much frequented by gulls of all kinds, and these two were looking out for anyone being a bit untidy with their croissant.
As we wander around the back of the church, we are confronted by an enormous redbrick wall, with some kind of Victorian edifice peeping over the top. The whole thing is fenced off, with barbed wire and checkpoints and metal gates. A sign announces that the site has been bought by a developer called City and County, but nothing much seemed to be happening, even given that it was Christmas Day.
There is a most august-looking holly tree opposite the wall, maybe a survivor from the early days of the building. We are also greeted by a friendly moggie. We try to circumnavigate the wall, but are stopped in all directions.
A little bit of research afterwards revealed what should have been blooming obvious – this was previously a prison, HMP Dorchester to be exact. It ‘housed’ some 300 male prisoners when it closed in 2014, and was the site of the hanging of the last woman to be executed in Dorset. Apparently this was viewed by Thomas Hardy, who incorporated it into Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The plan is to develop the site for housing, with 200 new homes planned, but the company has run out of resources, and is looking for a new partner. I’m not sure I’d want to live behind those imposing walls, and, as many of the prison buildings are listed, it would be quite a challenge to make it homely. Plus, I wonder if all that human misery leaves a mark, somehow? It will be interesting to see how the whole thing plays out.
Before the site was a prison, it was a Norman castle – though the Normans weren’t very impressed with Dorchester (unlike the Romans who built an aqueduct and an amphitheatre), they still thought it worthwhile to knock up a fortification on the town’s highest spot.
Onwards! We walk down the hill a bit, past some very attractive cottages. They remind me of the house that I grew up in Stratford, East London – it was a railway cottage which had no front garden at all and opened directly onto the street. One pair of houses has a nice wooden hood above their doors. I love the way that it has turned into a garden.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Dorchester, but usually in a half-mile square centered on the guesthouse where I stay, the care home and the shops where I make sure Dad is stocked up with polo mints and Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, so today it was a real pleasure to explore a little bit further afield. Beside the cottages a stream gurgles on, probably an offshoot of the River Frome. We cross a little bridge, and head along the path.
There is no doubt that there has been a lot of rain in the past month – some parts of the allotments are practically under water.There are birdfeeders strung from the bushes along the path, and they are full of sparrows and finches. Some reeds have been planted, which adds another habitat to the selection already on offer. People are jogging and walking their dogs, and everyone says ‘Merry Christmas’, though some of the runners find it a bit of an effort, what with them having barely enough oxygen to breathe.
And what is this? A new nature reserve?
I am hardly wearing the correct shoes for the job, but we head off along the boardwalk. The water is so clear that I am intrigued by the flora underneath. Are they actually waterplants, or just poor drowned ‘weeds’? I fear the latter.
As we turn the corner, I hear some people coughing heartily. I see two youngsters by a park bench, one wearing a Chewbacca onesie and a pair of antlers. The air is heavy with the smell of cannabis, and both the boys turn to us, bleary-eyed.
‘Merry Christmas!’ they chorus, before breaking into another bout of chest-wrenching hacking.
We walk on a bit further, but the boardwalk disappears into the water like a log-flume, so we head back, passing the youngsters. One of them is on the phone.
‘My Dad’s there already!’ he says. ‘I’m gonna be in so much trouble’.
We pass a family. Their daughter is walking tippy-toe on each individual board, and their pug does not like the holes between the slats. The mother is anxious to get them onto the next stage of the Christmas festivities, but is not having much luck, although by the speed that the whole party bowls past us fifteen minutes later she must have hidden powers of persuasion.
And we, too, need to get to the care home for lunch with Dad. We pass the site of the White Hart Inn, which dated back to 1895 and was finally demolished to make way for a small housing estate in 2006. There was some concern that the iconic white hart statue, which stood above the door of the pub, would not be incorporated into the new buildiing, but here it is, in all its splendour. It reminds me of the white hart statue in Milborne St Andrew, and the scandal that occurred when the new owners of the house painted the private parts of the animal bright pink. White deer are occasionally spotted on the local Purbeck Hills, so maybe the animal has been considered lucky for a long time. I suspect that standing out when deer-hunting was rife was not such a lucky thing for the animal, however.
We arrive at the care home and Dad is washed and showered, and wearing his musical Christmas tie. I give him his Christmas presents, and he is sad that he hasn’t been able to go out to buy any for us. In truth, Mum and Dad gave up on the present buying several years ago, when they could no longer manage online, and going to the shops was impossible. How things fall away as we get older!!
‘Your presence is present enough for me, Dad’, I say, cheesily but honestly.
Then he throws us a curve ball.
‘When do you think Mum and Dad will get here?’ he asks. ‘I never knew my Dad, you know’.
Dad’s father was a commando, and died in a tank in Tunisia during the Second World War. Dad would only have been about eight when his dad was killed, so he’s got that right. His Mum died about fifteen years ago.
‘I bought them a flat opposite so I can just pop in and see them’, Dad says. ‘Everyone says I jumped the queue, but I didn’t care so long as they could be near’.
I honestly don’t know how to deal with Dad when he says stuff like this. If I tell him his parents have been dead for years he’ll be upset, and it cures nothing, because he won’t remember what I’ve said and will go back to his original understanding of the situation.
‘They might not be able to come, Dad’, I say tentatively.
‘They’ll be here!’ says Dad.
So we go downstairs for lunch, and Dad keeps looking out of the window while he eats his pate and biscuits.
‘I don’t think they’ll be able to come, Dad’, I say, ‘But we’re here, and we’ll have a nice time, eh’.
‘Of course’, says Dad, but I can tell he isn’t convinced.
‘I shall be really annoyed if Mum and Dad don’t come, after all the trouble I’ve been to’, he says.
So we try distraction with crackers, and talking to the people at the next table. I mention that we used to have prawn cocktail when we went to our local Berni Inn, The Spotted Dog in Forest Gate, and Dad remembers that my brother and I used to ping our peas over the balcony and into the bar downstairs. He’s absolutely right. How can he be right about this, and still think his parents are alive? Dementia is an object lesson in being able to hold a multitude of paradoxical ideas at the same time.
Dad starts to relax a bit, but I know he’s disappointed.
‘Dad, you know they would have come if they’d been able to’, I venture. ‘And they both love you very much’.
Dad nods up and down.
‘I only really wanted to have this dinner to see them’, he says.
Gee, thanks Dad. But the one thing you learn very early with dementia is not to take things personally. Dad doesn’t mean to be hurtful, he just gets an idea in his head and can’t shift it, until the next idea comes along. I look forward to the return of his lunches with the queen, or even his haulage company.
On Boxing Day, he is a little less obsessed.
‘Did you tell Mum that I was angry that she didn’t come to dinner?’ he asks.
‘I did, Dad, and she was very sorry. She can’t walk very well, you know’.
‘I didn’t know that, ‘ he says. ‘ I’ll let her off then. Maybe I’ll take a walk over and see them in a few days’.
And then he brightens up.
‘You said I’ve got lots of money’, he says, ‘So maybe in the spring we’ll go out and buy a little car’.
‘Maybe, Dad’, I say. ‘When the spring comes’.