Not far from the madding crowd

Forget floods, molten summers, crop failures and all the other apocalyptic warnings. One only has to glance at a Heathrow Airport check-in queue to comprehend the most immediate and terrifying consequence of global warming on Britain.

If the words of environmental campaigners - and those of politicians keen to impose huge flight taxes - are to be taken seriously, hundreds of thousands of unkempt Britons will soon say adios to jaunts to Spain and unleash themselves on their own countryside. As global footprints are reduced, the moulds of all manner of distasteful footwear will impress themselves on this once green and pleasant land.

It is with this thought in mind that I head for Dorset, a much cherished corner of England, to see how far down this road we have already travelled. The county has achieved global recognition largely thanks to 19th-century novelist Thomas Hardy, whose tragic tales of doomed individuals seem to have sprung from its chalky grasslands and Mesozoic cliffs. For the true Hardy aficionado

it seems inconceivable Roman Polanski shunned Dorset's hillocks and hedgerows as a location for his 1979 adaptation of Tess of the d'Urbervilles, starring Nastassja Kinski, in favour of the French countryside.

A warning that Hardyland is struggling to remain free of the forces of commercial modernism arrives on the morning of my trip. The television is abuzz with the news that a field next to the legendary chalk man of Cerne Abbas, a 60-metre figure carved out of a north Dorset hillside believed to date back to the Iron Age, has been embossed with a similar-sized form of Homer Simpson. Local druids are up in arms and performing rain rituals in the hope the painted monstrosity will disappear as fast as possible. Its creators have apparently taken a more scientific view and executed the stunt armed with the knowledge that no rain is forecast until after the imminent opening of The Simpsons Movie.

I feel confident, and with good reason, my particular destination - the vast sand-clay cliffs of Chesil Beach - would never fall victim to a similar wheeze. The stretch of coastline was chosen by contemporary writer Ian McEwan as the setting for his latest novella, On Chesil Beach. In an interview to promote the book, McEwan let slip he had removed a handful of pebbles from the beach for research purposes, apparently in contravention of a Dorset County Council preservation order. McEwan promptly returned the pebbles (with a film crew in tow to record the event), generating hectares more publicity for his book in the process.

Reading On Chesil Beach on Chesil Beach, it is easy to see why McEwan chose the area as the backdrop for his tale of a young virginal couple on their wedding night in 1962, the groom feverish in his anticipation, the bride paralysed with fear.

For millennia, angry urges of nature have pummelled the cliffs above the beach, sending cracks through the vast structures that every now and then split enough to send chunks tumbling onto the shingle below. Human habitation - beach huts, wooden benches, car parks - looks imperilled.

It is on this powerful stage that McEwan's characters play out their tragedy, their miserable fates dictated by the constricting social conventions of the early 1960s. I am sure On Chesil Beach will one day make it to the screen but, bearing in mind the haunting presence of the book's setting, it would take an even more headstrong director than Polanski to film it elsewhere.

McEwan does not specify exactly where the couple stayed in the book, but the Manor Hotel in West Bexington - on the western stretch of Chesil Beach - fits the bill in many respects. The proprietors of this Georgian inn would no doubt welcome the association as long as prospective customers are aware its food has moved on since the 60s. In one of the most memorable lines in the book, McEwan points out the wedding night meal wasn't British cuisine's 'finest hour'.

Culinary progress has been made throughout the area, notably in and around Bridport. However, one suspects the arrival of Cantonese, Thai and Indian restaurants has not come in anticipation of worldlywise British tourists prohibiting themselves from foreign travel owing to environmental concerns, but in response to curious natives' desires for new culinary experiences.

Thankfully, there is little evidence yet this corner of rural Britain is bearing the brunt of a new wave of domestic tourism. So it's not too late for Hardy fans to make their pilgrimages. If they are looking for a focal point, a place that seems to offer the essence of the novelist's themes, they could do far worse than take the winding road to the village of West Stafford. It was at the village church that Hardy set one of his most moving scenes: the wedding of Tess and Angel Clare. For now such quintessentially English corners remain largely unaffected by what, if some are to be believed, could be their worst enemy: legions of English tourists. But if you plan to go, you may want to hurry.

Getting there: Virgin Atlantic (, British Airways ( and Cathay Pacific ( fly from Hong Kong to London, from where Dorset can be reached by road and rail.