For the first time, Hardy's Cottage has an artist in residence, and is running a series of sketching walks. Laura Hanton finds an unexpected peace in the woods.

HOME to the cottage where Thomas Hardy was born and raised, Thorncombe Wood is an idyllic area of land situated in Higher Bockhampton, near Dorchester. The sprawling forest is said to be the setting of some of Hardy's finest works, including Under the Greenwood Tree and The Return of the Native, and wandering beneath the canopy of trees, it's easy to see how inspiration might strike.

In a move new this year, Hardy's Cottage, run by The National Trust, has invited an artist to take up residency in the author's birthplace. American artist Daria Lugina, 22, is a recent graduate from Boston University, where she studied English and painting and wrote her thesis on Hardy's novels. For three weeks, she'll be documenting the house and its surroundings through drawings and paintings, and will be running weekly sketching walks for artists and amateurs alike.

As much of an amateur as it's possible to be, I headed out with Daria and a small group of artistic enthusiasts on the first sketching walk of the series. We met outside the beloved cottage, clutching sketch pads and waterproofs and praying the rain would hold off (it did). The session was scheduled for two hours, but the walk was only about 30 minutes, giving us plenty of time to stop and draw at various points around the woods.

We wandered a little into Puddletown Forest before making our first sketch of the day, where Daria encouraged us to peer closely at the brambles and leaves and spend more time looking at the hedgerow than the paper. Daria herself sketches using pen, and recommended we did the same. Sketching isn't about making something perfect but rather getting a general idea of the landscape; using pen means you commit to the mark and aren't tempted to go crazy with a rubber.

Our next stop was the beautiful Rushy Pond, a tranquil spot made famous in the works of Hardy. We spent 40 minutes at the edge of the water, and the peacefulness of the location took me by surprise. I have visited Thorncombe Wood many times, but never with a sketchpad and pencil. I realised that drawing gives you a reason to truly stop and just be still, taking in the natural scenery, from the texture of the trees to the purple heather of the hills. Sitting there beside the pond was one of the most mindful and reflective moments I've ever experienced.

As we weaved through the trees, Daria shared some of her top tips when it came to sketching scenery, giving us a crash course in shading and explaining some technical artistic terms that, as a complete beginner, I much appreciated.

"Draw anything that's exciting to you," Daria instructed. "I find it best to start with smaller shapes. Sometimes I take notes if there's something I can't quite capture, like colour. I create a little plan, which I develop into a finished piece later on."

I got chatting to some of my fellow sketchers, including Sue Walker, from Portland. Currently working on drawing pastel animals, particularly big cats, the woodland walk offered an opportunity for something a little bit different.

"I often find myself lacking inspiration," Sue said, "which is why I like things like this. I started drawing when I was quite young. I lost interest as I grew up, and then I had a family and a career, which kind of took over. Now I'm retired it's nice to get back into the art. I do enjoy it."

Also joining the sketching parade was professional artist Bee Grant Peterkin, from Chetnole.

"I live, think and breathe art," she said. "I do mainly landscape drawings and I've been on sketching holidays in Scotland, which are very similar to what we're doing today."

Yet for Bee, who studied at art school in London, this was her first voyage into Thorncombe Wood, and the experience has left her inspired.

"I've never been here before; it's a real treat. I've taken a couple of photos so I might develop these sketches into something finished. The purple heath would make a beautiful painting."

As for Daria herself, this residency is her first time in England, and given her passion for Hardy, it couldn't be more ideal.

"I've always liked Victorian literature in general," Daria explains, "but there's something very unique about Hardy. His personality comes through in his work and I'm just kind of fascinated by him."

She received a travel fund from her university after proposing the project idea, which combines both painting and literature. Daria then reached out to Hardy's Cottage, asking whether they'd be interested in having an artist in residence.

"They've had writers in residence before but never an artist," she says. "I work in the gardens and sketch the landscapes. It's been amazing; everything is so pertinent to Hardy. I've begun putting some of my paintings up in the woodshed for visitors to come and see."

While here, Daria is focusing on sketching and creating pieces in watercolour, hoping to make something in oil when she gets back to America. Of her time spent at Hardy's Cottage so far, she adds: "It hasn't rained a single day I've been here, which apparently is rare!"

Let's hope the weather holds out: the third and final sketching walk takes place on Thursday, August 22, from 3pm to 5pm. The walks are free, but you can a book a place by contacting Hardy's Cottage. The session caters for all abilities.

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