Some people enjoy swimming with sharks and hiking mountains, but I am quite content with more civil pursuits, like wandering country lanes and searching for scones with jam and clotted cream. Travel is a uniquely personal experience and I much prefer quiet little villages to sprawling chaotic cities, but that’s just me. When I was young I was so impatient to see the world that I tried to see everything as quickly as possible, but forgot to relish the finer details. One of my first big travel adventures was a camping tour through Europe, taste testing one country after the next like a chocolate box sampler. We only had one or two nights at each stop and we saw (I use that term very loosely) eleven different countries in three weeks. At the time I absolutely loved it and felt SO well travelled and WAY more cultured than all of my friends back home. How wrong I was! These days I prefer to experience a destination properly, allowing my senses to become aquainted with the sights and sounds that make a place special. How beautiful it is to recognise the sound of church bells chiming on the hour, or watching the locals bartering for a better price on the fish they will serve their family for dinner that night, and my favourite of all, tasting the amazing flavours of the region I am visiting. Travel is not just about taking selfies in front of famous landmarks and ticking places off a list, travel is about immersing yourself in a world different to your own.
When deciding on my next trip, I knew I wanted to embark on a literary pilgrimage through England to explore the museums and former homes of my favourite writers, but tracing the steps of Jane Austen formed the absolute heart of my trip. I have read all of her novels and always dreamed of visiting the cottage in Hampshire where she found creative inspiration and wrote and revised her most famous novels on a little wooden table. Jane remains quite an illusive figure in many ways and I hoped to learn more about her life by following the trail she unknowingly left behind in the places she lived and wrote.
The first stop on my Jane Austen road trip was the lovely city of Bath, where Jane lived in a Georgian townhouse for five years from 1801 to 1806. Jane also set two novels in Bath, Northanger Abbey & Persuasion. The focus of my trip was to visit the Jane Austen Centre, a gallery offering visitors a snapshot of Edwardian Regency life through the fashion, social scene, and customs that are captured in all of her novels. The tour begins with a guide who is dressed in full costume as one of Jane Austen’s characters, our guide was Kitty Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. She welcomed the group and created a Jane Austen timeline to set the context of the era before entering the main gallery. Once inside you can wander at your own pace, choosing to linger at each display as long as you like. You can even dress up with bonnets, top hats, shawls, and empire waisted dresses to take pictures and have some fun.
The most impressive part of the collection has to be the wax figure of Jane Austen, which took forensic artist Melissa Dring three years to sculpt. Although a true likeness is difficult to verify, the figure is based on the sketch by Cassandra Austen from 1810 as well as surviving quotes that describe her appearance.
As to my Aunt’s personal appearance, hers was the first face that I can remember thinking pretty. Her face was rather round than long – she had a bright clear complexion and very good hazel eyes. Her hair, a darkish brown, curled naturally – it was in short curls around her face. Caroline Austen
The centre is located at 40 Gay Street, Queen Square, in the regency centre of town. The museum itself seemed more dedicated to Regency life rather than Jane Austen’s life exclusively, but I walked away with a greater understanding of her world and how pertinent it was to the content of her novels.
Bath also plays host to the annual Jane Austen Festival, a ten day Jane Fest that is held every September.
After non-stop showers and thunder storms in Bath, I was actually quite happy to drive away into the green rolling hills of Somerset to find some sunshine in Hampshire. Bath is such a beautiful city, but the rain was so heavy and persistent that even an umbrella was rendered quite useless. Any hopes of enjoying the panoramic views from the top of the city were unfortunately ruined by a thick curtain of rain and fog.
The next stop was the small village of Chawton and the Jane Austen House Museum. The museum is actually the cottage where she lived for the final eight years of her life from 1809 to 1817, with her mother and sister Cassandra. In this house Jane revised three of her unpublished manuscripts (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey) and wrote three more novels (Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion) and began writing another novel that was never completed, called Sanditon. Jane lived at this house until the final months of her life when she briefly moved to Winchester to be closer to the physician who was treating her, but sadly died a few months later at the young age of 41. After Jane’s death, her sister and mother continued to live in Chawton Cottage until it was eventually sold and subsequently opened as a museum dedicated to Jane Austen’s life and written works.
Jane Austen may be famous for writing sentimental romantic plots with perfectly manicured happy endings, but if you read her work more critically you will notice that her words are artfully stitched together by her sharp wit. Many of her novels critique the society in which she existed, casting judgement of the system that meant women had to secure an advantageous marriage to guarantee their survival. Unmarried women like herself placed an ongoing financial burden upon their male family members, which was particularly evident in Jane’s own life as she moved from place to place for a number of years while her brother Edward Austen Knight sought to financially support his mother and sisters. Edward inherited three estates from Thomas Knight, a wealthy but childless man who took an interest in the Austen family during Edward’s youth. Edward was bequeathed several properties in Chawton on the provision that he altered his name from Austen to Knight, and Edward was able to provide his mother and sisters with a small cottage nearby his estate at Chawton House.
Chawton is a lovely village of only 380 people with pretty tree lined streets, rows of wisteria covered cottages, the cosy Greyfriars Pub, and Cassandra’s Cup, a tea shop named lovingly after Jane’s sister. Chawton is located in East Hampshire, 50 miles (80 kilometres) from London.
It was surreal to step inside the house where Jane Austen actually lived. I closed my eyes to listen to the birds twittering outside, knowing that she sat down to write in that same environment with the afternoon sun lighting up her desk. Chawton Cottage is a red brick house set on a corner block with a lovely garden filled with flowers and vegetables. The village is tranquil and idyllic, a sanctuary from the chaos of London. I could easily imagine that Jane would have been quite content with the quiet environment at Chawton, the perfect creative setting for her prolific writing to flourish.
After exploring the house you can wander the cottage garden that is lovingly maintained by gardeners and volunteers. The garden lawn is the perfect place for a little picnic lunch where you can sit alongside plants, herbs, and wildflowers from the area.
Entry to the house and garden is £8 and the house is open from 10.30 to 16.30 from March to May / September to December, and from 10.00 to 17.00 from June to August. I arrived via car making access extremely easy, but you can also take the train from London Waterloo to Alton, and there is a coach service (the number 64) to Chawton from there. A special vintage bus service also operates on the first Sunday of the month in summer.
Working in unison with the Jane Austen House Museum, the nearby library at Chawton House is an independent research library and study centre that aims to protect and restore neglected womens writing from 1600 to 1830. Set in the 400 year old estate where Edward Austen Knight once resided, the library has a collection of over 9,000 rare books and manuscripts, including work by Jane Austen herself, Mary Shelley, Ann Radcliffe, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Chawton House Library is just a short walk from the museum and your ticket will get you a £1 discount off the entry price. By a disappointing twist of fate I missed Chawton House, which is even more disappointing in retrospect after recently learning so much about the history of the house from Jane Austen’s fifth great niece, Caroline Jane Knight.
To complete your Jane Austen road trip, you can also pay your respects at Jane’s final resting place at the Winchester Cathedral just 30 minutes drive from Chawton. Further afield you may wish to take a drive around Steventon where Jane Austen grew up, although the buildings associated with her are sadly no longer there.