The Invention of Wessex

The novelist and architect Thomas Hardy saw rural England through an experimental, modern frame. His Wessex Project was as radical in its time as Learning from Las Vegas and Delirious New York were in theirs.

Max Gate, designed by Thomas Hardy
The “shocking” Max Gate in 1885. [© Dorset County Museum]

Thomas Hardy has never been considered much of an architect. His best known building is Max Gate, the suburban house which he designed and built for himself and his first wife Emma on the outskirts of Dorchester, long after he had become a famous novelist and given up working as an architect. It was described, for almost a century, with derision or dark, psychic suspicion. But with the benefit of a peculiar kind of hindsight, this view is a mistake. Despite the normality of the few buildings he actually built, there is a good case for listing Hardy amongst the greatest of all conceptual architects — the prophet, well before the fact, of a particular type of speculative, imaginary architectural project which would boom a century later.

Speculative architectural projects are often unknown outside the profession, but many have gone on to change the world, by reshaping the imaginations of those designing it.

Architectural projects are curious things and not quite the same as buildings. A project begins before a building is built, in imaginary and drawn form, to allow architects to test their ideas. The project, literally, is what the architect projects from his or her mind. It is a form of coherent alternative reality and exists in an active form for other architects — whether the building is built or not. It is not limited to building proposals, either. Masterplans, furniture, art exhibitions, and books may all be classed as “projects” by architects and their critics. Books, and particularly illustrated books, play a special role in how “experimental,” “speculative” or “conceptual” projects are made and shared — and they are often seen as “projects” in their own right. These speculative architectural projects are often unknown outside the profession, but they incubate many big shifts in architectural thinking. Freed from the demands of building, “conceptual projects” can test, illustrate, discuss, and publish ideas which have not yet been built. And (for better or worse) many projects (by Palladio, Le Corbusier or Archigram, for example) have gone on to change the world, by reshaping the imaginations of those designing it.

Comparing Hardy’s Wessex to famous, latter-day conceptual projects may sound curious, but finding odd comparisons is a key part of architectural criticism. Having experienced an initial, uneasy sense of the similarity of Hardy’s work to other architectural works, I discovered a flood of evidence in the substance of the novels themselves: in their rich, detailed, technical, and unusually analytical descriptions; in their content, vision, and polemic; in the architectural theories within and surrounding Hardy’s work; and in the intriguing, accretive qualities of his buildings.

Most striking to an architectural critic are the images Hardy made or used: his maps, drawings, sketches, diagrams, details, models, photographs, and stage designs, which were often very remarkable. Pictures and artifacts are (to architects) lucid, fundamental parts of architectural work: they are both process and product; both method and content. Approaching Hardy’s work as though it were any other body of architectural work means assembling the material and imagining (as a critic must) what it adds up to. Doing this, some remarkable arguments begin to emerge. Not only that Hardy’s Wessex was drawn from the architectural ideas of his time, but that it predicted some of the most inventive architectural work of our own age. It becomes apparent that not only can we see Wessex as an architectural project, but that Hardy himself had already done so.

Thomas Hardy's architectural notebook
Thomas Hardy’s architectural notebook: A miniature portfolio including tracings, arch molds, plans, and sections of part-real, part-imagined buildings and everyday details. [© Dorset County Museum]

Thomas Hardy, section of unbuilt church
Thomas Hardy’s unbuilt church design, detail of section. [© Dorset County Museum]

Wessex as Architectural Project

In the early 1880s, Hardy did something profoundly architectural, something that architects do so naturally that they do not even explain it. He started putting things together, looking at the work he had already done and post-rationalizing it; seeing which things had worked and which had failed, and finding connections between them.

In his fourth novel, Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), Hardy had resuscitated an old Saxon name — Wessex — for the rural landscape in the west of England where his stories were set. Now he was beginning to see that a peculiar quality of his work — the forensic presentation of a vanishing rural past through a modern, experimental frame — was playing a role in the real world too. For Wessex, as soon as it was named, had taken on a life of its own. His novels were making up an imaginary world which went beyond the books themselves: a big, popular imaginary world, already being discussed outside the novels. He started seeing that world, drawing and publishing it, as a single thing: a coherent, imaginary entity. He started developing Wessex as though it were an architectural project.

Wessex, as soon as it was named, had taken on a life of its own. Hardy’s novels were making up an an imaginary world which went beyond the books themselves.

In architecture schools, the project is the core of the curriculum. Design tutors might start by setting exercises of various types: drawings, models or other work, which may be speculative, pragmatic, realistic, modest, fantastical, strategic, experimental, conventional, or any combination of the above. 1 At some point, students learn to find patterns and connections within their own work; they begin to link fragments, ideas and drawings, and their understanding of the site and “program” of uses. They can start to see it as coherent — as an imaginary building, strategy, or fictional narrative — and develop it, in detail, in those terms. At that point, tutors and critics say, “You’ve got a project.” That is not just a conceit: it teaches how architects actually do their designing. They have to use drawings, models, texts, and other things to construct and test imaginary buildings to see what seems to work. They then share these projects with builders or colleagues, clients, critics, or legislators — using drawings, books, instructions, and pictures — so that others can discuss, criticize, or build them. They have to develop their imaginary worlds in coherent detail; and they typically use their major projects to change the world, not only by building, but by publication, by starting a debate. And that is just what Hardy started doing with Wessex.

The Minster church in Wimborne, England
The Minster church in Wimborne. [Jack Pease]

By 1882, the Hardys had moved from London to a modern suburban house, Lanherne in Wimborne, a North Dorset market town with a beautiful Minster church. 2 Hardy was 42 years old, and becoming famous. His great novels The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), The Woodlanders (1887), Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1896) were just in the future. And with them would come a big shift in his work. 3

He was laying the ground for the evolution of Wessex from a setting for his novels into something more ambitious and unusual. Hardy was not going to simplify, but to re-integrate the visual experiment, the ingenuity, the awkward architectural characteristics of the middle novels into the “natural magic” of his emerging work; and at the same time, expand its whole scope. In the general introduction to his novels, Hardy says:

It was in the chapters of Far from the Madding Crowd … that I first ventured to adopt the word ‘Wessex’ from the pages of early English history, and give it a fictitious significance as the existing name of a district once included in that extinct kingdom. … Since then the appellation which I had thought to reserve to the horizons and landscapes of a partly-real, partly-dream country, has become more and more popular as a practical provincial definition; and the dream-country has, by degrees, solidified into a utilitarian region which people can go to, take a house in, and write to the papers from. But I ask all good and idealistic readers to forget this, and to refuse steadfastly to believe there are any inhabitants of a Victorian Wessex outside these volumes in which their lives and conversations are detailed. 4

That disingenuous lawyer’s trick — asking you to ignore an idea he has just planted — is typical Hardy. 5 He is asking us to believe in the reality of his novels — while pointing out (in parentheses), that it is imaginary.

The critics who had judged Hardy’s early novels as unrealistic had provoked a public defense of Wessex’s accuracy. That defense began with an anonymous review by another literary man from a poor Dorset background, Charles Kegan Paul, later a well-known publisher. The article was called “The Wessex Labourer” (1876), but it was about the real population of Dorset. 6 The real and fictional realms were fused together.

Lyscombe, England, landscape
Lyscombe: “the remains of a village.” [@ Mike Sutton]

Hardy’s time in Wimborne was a fruitful one. People came, by train from London, to his normal, modern house. Others began to contact him as an expert in real, local matters. He joined the Dorsetshire Field Archaeology Society; he was sought out by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. He was persuaded — apparently reluctantly — to write his first factual essay. Perversely, Hardy’s career and fame as a novelist gave him influence in the real world. “The Dorsetshire Labourer” (1883) was Hardy’s response to the debate about “real” rural life. 7 Long, ponderous, but interesting, it describes the uprooting of rural workers through shifting hiring patterns, the end of “life-hold” leases on land which their families had worked for centuries, and the great loss of local knowledge and human community which followed.

The rural laborer, about to be given the vote, was of fresh interest to the magazine-reading middle class. Hardy teased his readers, correcting their assumptions.

From here on, the reader would be able to thread facts from Hardy’s essays straight in to the environment they knew from the novels. An old man at the hiring fair is described, like the man hired by Farfrae in The Mayor of Casterbridge; the eldest daughter of the family moving house at Lady-day cradles the family mirror on top of the wagon, like Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd; the ruthless clearing of the cottages, as life-hold leases fall due, expands on stories in Desperate Remedies, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Woodlanders, and Tess, among other books.

The rural laborer, about to be given the vote, was of fresh interest to the magazine-reading middle class and Hardy was putting the realities of Wessex firmly on record; teasing his readers; correcting their assumptions. He talks of one wily cottage woman:

‘I always kip a white apron behind the door to slip on when gentlefolk knock, for if so be they see a white apron, they think ye be clane’ an honest woman said one day whose bedroom floors could have been scraped with as much advantage as a pigeon loft. … 8

Meanwhile another, whose “natural thrift” includes maintaining her cottage beautifully, is considered “a frightful example of slovenliness” because the gentry mistake the burnt umber color on her clean, practical clothes and furnishing for dirt. 9 The cunning white aprons appear in Casterbridge too, wrapped around the seller of furmity (a kind of porridge), spiked with contraband rum “extending an air of respectability around her as far as it went”; and on the women hanging around doorways at the sleazy end of the novel. The author points out how easily urbanites could be fooled by a knowing rural population.

Blackmoor Vale, by Hermann Lea, from Thomas Hardy's Wessex
Blackmoor Vale, photographed in 1913 by Hermann Lea, who worked closely with Thomas Hardy to depict Wessex landscapes. [@ Dorset County Museum]

He described the outline of Wessex itself: a social, physical, material, human, environmental, historical entity — taking a coherent, experimental form in the modern world.

Hardy was so selective about writing factual articles that it is worth noting the territory he covered. There were articles on Dorset, on social history and archaeological discoveries, on traditional construction and materials — all detailed, practical, social, and imaginative. Many deal with abstract ideas about imagination, notably “The Profitable Reading of Fiction” (1888), an amazing piece of writing. Often the physical and conceptual are tied together, as in Hardy’s beautiful essay on the Portland stone used to build London itself, which memorably imagines the tide beating against the stone of St Paul’s Cathedral. 10 The writings are pungent, detailed, sometimes ponderous, sharply visualized, intensely informative, and each with their own solidly expressed argument. And taken together, they describe the outline of Wessex itself: a social, physical, material, human, environmental, historical entity — taking a coherent, experimental form in the modern world.

These essays are typically read as “simple” facts (as Hardy intended) — and their carefully curated extensions to the construction and structure of Wessex, in fact and fiction, therefore, are often overlooked. For the published factual writings almost all tie directly into the novels. When “Romano-British” graves (actually Palaeolithic) were found during the building of Hardy’s house, Max Gate, Hardy gave a paper to the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, 11 but those bodies, more famously, turned up in fictional Casterbridge:

Casterbridge announced old Rome in every street, alley, and precinct. It looked Roman, bespoke the art of Rome, concealed dead men of Rome. It was impossible to dig more than a foot or two deep about the town fields and gardens without coming upon some tall soldier. … He was mostly found lying on his side, in a[n] oval scoop in the chalk, like a chicken in its shell; his knees drawn up to his chest … 12

This constant cross-referencing between fiction and fact was not because he was short of material: far from it. His notebooks — especially the one started in Wimborne, “Facts from Newspapers, Histories, Biographies & other Chronicles (mainly local sources)” — are stuffed with anecdotes, few of which appear in his fiction.

His notebook gives all kinds of written and spoken information equivalent status as ‘facts’: a strong, polemical point.

Note that title. The notebook gives all kinds of written and spoken information equivalent status as “facts”: a strong, polemical point. Hardy saw the control of histories as something determined by the powerful, since facts (effectively things which have been repeatedly asserted and published) depend on the status of those asserting them and their access to forms of media. “Is not the quasi-scientific system of writing history mere charlatanism?,” he observed. 13 The notebook’s title runs through the whole range of academic “reliability,” from word of mouth to written history, and puts them all on the same footing. Hardy also writes facts himself. I am not claiming he was making them up, but that he was suggesting that this is how, more or less, everything gets made up. History “legitimising arguments,” as Adrian Forty says. 14

The name Wessex is important too. It described the Saxon kingdom, united by King Alfred, against the Danes. This was the beginning of England, of written English in law and the Anglo Saxon Chronicles. Hardy was continuing something already in place: language, law, lore, history, England, English writing, poetry, and place. The name alone triggered a sense of continuity, as an early commentator would write. 15

Map of Thomas Hardy's Wessex
The first map of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, published in 1891.

Hardy began to use this name more deliberately. He re-edited his earlier novels, so that the fictional places were consistent. All the villages and towns, such as Swanage (Knollsea), Bournemouth (Sandbourne), and even Dorchester (Casterbridge), which had their own names, or other pseudonyms, in earlier novels — were changed for The Mayor of Casterbridge and used from then on. The earlier novels were revised to match, whenever the opportunity arose, so that Hardy’s imagined Wessex became increasingly coherent, between and beyond the novels — and more obviously connected to the real countryside. Unlike many famous, later fictional worlds (for example, Narnia and Middle Earth), Wessex gained its identity the moment it seemed, debatably, to be real. This was becoming a deliberate, fictional surrogate for the actual older Dorset; his parents’ and grandparents’ world, which Hardy could see his own world erasing and which those early critics no longer recognized. It was a fully coherent, working, imaginary world, extracted from a real place and memories of the past.

It is worth stressing the oddness of Hardy’s Wessex. Unlike other famous settings (George Eliot’s Loamshire and Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire, for example), Hardy drew Wessex; he mapped it, and gave it a detailed coherence outside and between the novels. It made little difference to the stories themselves, but he continued doing it throughout his life, long after the last novel was written. And its sense of purpose was deliberate. In his “real” account of the Max Gate excavations, Hardy says:

It would be a worthy attempt to rehabilitate, on paper, the living Durnovaria of fourteen or fifteen hundred years ago — as it actually appeared to the eyes of the then Dorchester men and women, under the rays of the same morning and evening sun which rises and sets over it now … 16

By 1890, when this was published, that was exactly what Hardy had been doing (although for a later period of history), for at least eight years. From the 1880s on, the factual and fictional Wessex cannot be prized apart.

Basingstoke New Town Centre, 1978; in the background is the “Stoke Barehills” railway station described by Thomas Hardy in Jude the Obscure. [John Sheldon]

Assembling the Evidence

To anyone used to architecture’s experimental books, this feels familiar. It is not so much related to the imaginary visual designed places, often Utopian or idealistic, as it is to architecture’s analytical, critical books: AS in DS by Alison and Peter Smithson, or Learning from Las Vegas, by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. The closest comparison may even be another, hugely influential 1970s project. In 1978 a Dutch journalist-screenwriter-turned-architect published a strange book, drawn from his time in the Deconstructivist hotbed of New York. Rem Koolhaas’s Delirious New York is a speculative research project recovering the history of Manhattan and Coney Island’s remarkable ad hoc development; of its fabric of skyscrapers and amusement parks which were all — at the time — considered beneath “architectural” notice. 17

Koolhaas recovered masses of original drawings and photographs, reconstructing and redrawing this lost past. He developed the argument that Coney Island — with its theme park incubators for real premature babies and dwarf firefighters — had become a subliminal testing ground of urban experience, which had subconsciously shaped the congested, thrilling dramatic form taken by New York itself. Like Venturi and Scott Brown, he was reading architectural meaning out of a found, and overlooked and important place.

Like Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York, Hardy was assembling images from which to construct his argument, to imagine the past, and, unexpectedly, to foresee the future.

Subtitled A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, this was not a work of theory. It was a piece of speculative architectural interpretative work, by a youngish architect, using design methods as a form of speculative research: reading pictures, texts, drawings, and places; using the freedoms that books can offer architects; and ending with surrealist paintings (which had actually been made first) by himself and his partners in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture.

Koolhaas was partly exploring the methods of experimental architectural projects, creating his own “project” of assembled evidence. Drawings, photographs, plans, maps, and other accounts of buildings were arranged, reconfigured, assembled, and re-read to find an imaginative strategic and building pattern in the remarkable form of New York. Koolhaas compared this to Salvador Dali’s “Paranoid-Critical method”; it is also very like the way TV detectives assemble pictures on the wall to work out patterns of behavior. It is the blueprint of architecture’s “projects” and “crits”; of versions of “research by practice”; the method used to generate this book; and the technique Hardy himself, in 1882, described using. He wrote:

As in looking at a carpet, by following one colour a certain pattern is suggested, by following another colour, another, so in life the seer should watch that pattern among general things which his idiosyncrasy moves him to observe, and describe that alone. This is, quite accurately, a going to Nature; yet the result is no mere photography, but purely the product of the writer’s own mind. 18

Delirious New York is a disturbingly predictive book, with its focus on firefighting, disaster, collapse, and on New York’s Twin Towers, then just newly completed. It foresaw a new love of congested urbanism which would fuel our own times. Projects like this, looking into the past or present through new ways of seeing, are predictive. As Allison Smithson suggested, that is what they are for. 19 Koolhaas would go on to become a famous architect on any terms, 20 but this book was how he became known.

Like Koolhaas, Hardy was slowly assembling his experimental, coherent, imaginary, and polemic project, using the speculative freedoms books can give architects. He too was taking issue with his peers; assembling drawings,  maps, and photographs from which to construct his argument, to imagine the past, and, unexpectedly, to foresee the future.

Ways of Seeing

Great September Comet of 1882
One of two known photographs of the “Great September Comet,” 1882.

The sense of being on the edge of things is sometimes called a key condition for inventive design practice, 21 and it was fuelling Hardy now: “Woke before it was light. Felt that I had not enough staying power to hold my own in the world.” 22 But his critical charge came from not fitting in:

I find that a certain defect in my nature hinders me from working abreast with others of the same trade. Architecture was distasteful to me as soon as it became a shoulder to shoulder struggle — literature is likewise — & my only way of keeping up a zest for it is by not mixing with other workers of the same craft. 23

The time at Wimborne seems to have been a creative period of Hardy’s life 24 and, significantly, one when Hardy would have been doing a lot of drawing — a key way of thinking, for architects. He was designing Max Gate; he was visiting sites for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings; and he was developing new drawing types.

For an architect these pictures are incontrovertible evidence of Hardy’s experimental thinking. He is drawing vision itself.

Two of the most beautiful of all the Wessex Poems illustrations relate to this particular time. The Great September Comet of 1882, one of the brightest ever seen, was visible until February of the following year. In his romance novel Two on a Tower (1882), Hardy described it growing in vision, from “the as-yet minute tadpole of fire” which the astronomer Swithin St. Cleeve watches from his bedroom window, to “the nucleus of the fiery plume that now filled so large a space of the sky as to completely dominate it.” 25 It was a turning point for Swithin; perhaps for Hardy, too.

Only two photographs of the comet are known to exist, 26 but Hardy’s illustration rivals them. It may have been a tracing from window glass, or even a camera lucida, set up in a window (the rear top windows of Lanherne would face towards the Minster). It is lovely, a pre-cinematographic widescreen crop; and obsessive: look at the detail with which he inked in the night sky (the cropped skyline of Wimborne seen just at the bottom of the picture). It looks (as comets do) like a picture of time and space itself; the very vision of frozen time which, as John Berger argued in Ways of Seeing, “changed the way men saw.” 27

Thomas Hardy drawing of the Great September Comet, from Wessex Poems
The “Great September Comet,” with Wimborne Minster visible on the skyline. [Thomas Hardy, Wessex Poems and Other Verses]

Architecture reframed: the cinematic upview. [Thomas Hardy, Wessex Poems and Other Verses]

And the other star of the Wessex Poems too: a beautiful Hitchcock-like crop which seems to describe the spires of the Minster. Think of Desperate Remedies and Vertigo, the vision of fainting, falling; the view up at the towers and into the sky. (The tower Hitchcock showed was actually built to reproduce the fake one constructed for the film.) And again, that drawing may have been traced or set out by camera lucida, for its outline suggests Wimborne, but its arcading and detail do not. Perhaps, if it is the Minster, Hardy made the outline and filled the detail in later for the Wessex Poems.

If so, this is a telephoto view. But there was such a thing as a “graphic telescope”; a long-lens version of the camera lucida. And Hardy would go on to develop, with Hermann Lea, a remarkable long-lens camera. In fact, he was in correspondence with the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, at exactly this time, obtaining details of how to construct the observatory in Two on a Tower, describing its arrival and installation.

However he made them, for an architect these pictures are incontrovertible evidence of Hardy’s experimental thinking. He is drawing vision itself. The ambition, the representational reach of Wessex is changing its shape and appearance. Hardy is imagining in new ways: you can see it.

This essay is adapted from The Wessex Project: Thomas Hardy, Architect, by Kester Rattenbury, published this month by Lund Humphries. It appears here with the permission of the author and publisher.

  1. This varies in different cultures, but the studio project is widely used in leading international schools.
  2. Lanherne, The Avenue, Wimborne (now 16 Avenue Road). See Michael Millgate, Thomas Hardy: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1982] 1985), 22.
  3. Simon Gatrell, Thomas Hardy’s Vision of Wessex (Basinstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), Chapter 3.
  4. Thomas Hardy, author’s preface to Far from the Madding Crowd, 1912 edition. In Thomas Hardy’s Personal Writings: Prefaces, Literary Opinions, Reminiscences, Ed. Harold Orel (London: Macmillan, [1966] 1967), 9-11.
  5. See for instance, Millgate, 217.
  6. Birgit Plietzsch, The Novels of Thomas Hardy as a Product of Nineteenth-Century Social, Economic, and Cultural Change (Berlin: Tenea Verlag, 2004), 135.
  7. Thomas Hardy, “The Dorsetshire Labourer,” 1883, in Orel, 168-91.
  8. Hardy, “The Dorsetshire Labourer.”
  9. Ibid., 172-73.
  10. Thomas Hardy, “The Society of Dorset Men in London,” 1907, in Orel, op. cit.
  11. Thomas Hardy, “Some Romano-British Relics Found at Max Gate, Dorchester.” The paper was presented in 1884 and published in 1885; Orel, 191-95.
  12. Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (London: Macmillan, [1886] 1963), 73–74.
  13. Thomas Hardy, The Life of Thomas Hardy, 1840-1928, with Florence Hardy (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2007), 168; Thomas Hardy, The Personal Notebooks of Thomas Hardy, Ed. Richard Taylor (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1979), xiv.
  14. Adrian Forty, Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000), 203.
  15. Gatrell, 102.
  16. Hardy, “Some Romano-British Relics,” op. cit.
  17. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978). See Rem Koolhaas, with Mark Wigley, Alejandro Zaera-Polo, and David Greene, Supercrit #5, Delirious New York, May 2006; and the accompanying essay, Kester Rattenbury, “Ghosts in the Machine.”
  18. From Hardy’s notes, June 20, 1882, in Millgate, 234.
  19. Alison Smithson, “Patio and Pavilion,” essay for the exhibition This Is Tomorrow, Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1956. See Patio and Pavilion Reconstructed, AA Files part 47 (2002), 37-44.
  20. Leslie Sklair, The Icon Project: Architecture, Cities, and Capitalist Globalization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
  21. Leon van Schaik, Mastering Architecture: Becoming a Creative Innovator in Practice (Chichester: Wiley, 2005).
  22. Millgate, 234.
  23. Millgate, 227.
  24. Millgate, 222, 234.
  25. Thomas Hardy, Two on a Tower: A Romance (London: Penguin, [1882] 1999), 6, 77.
  26. Stefan Hughes, “Comet Detective,” Catcher: The History of Astrophotography Blog, June 9, 2012.
  27. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: BBC and Penguin Books, (1971) 1977), 18.
Kester Rattenbury, “The Invention of Wessex,” Places Journal, February 2018. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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