THOMAS Hardy enthusiasts gathered in Dorchester for the annual birthday celebrations of the county town writer.

A weekend of events was organised in Dorchester and surrounding areas to mark the writer's 174th birthday by the Thomas Hardy Society.

The events kicked off on Saturday morning, with a Far From the Madding Crowd walk led by society chairman Tony Fincham. The five-and-a-half mile route started at St Mary's Church in Puddletown and visited Warren's Malthouse, Weatherbury Farm and Little Weatherbury.

A lecture on Hardy's archaeology and personal emotions was then delivered by Dr Rebecca Welshman in the council chamber at County Hall, before the traditional wreath laying ceremony at the Hardy statue by the Top O' Town roundabout.

Mayor of Dorchester Peter Mann said: “It was a splendid occasion.

“There was a good crowd there for the wreath laying ceremony, with two wreaths laid by myself and Dr Welshman.

“It is very important indeed to mark his birthday. He is a very great literary figure, revered around the world and probably the best English writer since William Shakespeare, so he is a figure that we should be very proud of within the town.”

Following the ceremony, the Dorchester Bards performed an evening of prose, poetry and music in the museum's Victorian Gallery.

On Sunday, Cannon Vernon White of Westminster Abbey led a morning service at St Michael's Church in Stinsford, followed by a wreath laying at Hardy's grave.

Mike Nixon, president of the Thomas Hardy Society, said the whole weekend went “extremely well.”

Mr Nixon said: “We were blessed with good weather which always helps, and the walk on Saturday morning was very successful, there was 30 people in attendance which was good and everyone enjoyed themselves.

“Then we had the lecture which again was extremely successful and a wonderful wreath laying service.

“The crowd of people was not bad, because there are so many attractions and the weather was so good you are always fighting to draw people in but we were satisfied at the numbers that turned out.

“Hardy is massively popular both abroad and at home and he is arguably the most famous person in Dorset, and one of our greatest novelists and poets so it is very important we remember him.

“The town should recognise him because he does bring a lot of people into Dorchester and the surrounding areas and it is great that we continue to do so.”