Jane Austen's County
Jane Austen lived her entire life in the county of Hampshire, except for the five years her family spent in Bath. It is a part of England known for its quintessential countryside, the cities of Winchester, Southampton and Portsmouth, and it is increasingly renowned as being the home of Miss Austen, one of England's greatest – yet humblest – novelists.
Why visit Hampshire? First of all, it is so thrilling to walk in the footsteps of Jane, to stand where she stood and see the sights she knew. Secondly, it is because visiting those places gives us insight into who Jane Austen was. When you visit Hampshire you will learn about her through the information provided by the museums and libraries, and through the peaceful, beautiful countryside that so inspired Jane.
From the village of Chawton where she lived from 1809 until her death in 1817 every Jane Austen site is a mere half an hour away (or less) by car. So if you are planning an Austen "pilgrimage," Hampshire is an excellent place to start, and Chawton is a convenient base for exploring the rest of "Jane Austen Country."
It may seem daunting to plan your own trip and be your own tour guide, but with a little research, the help of technology, and a sense of adventure you can have the trip of a lifetime at your own pace and on your own terms, and get to know Jane Austen as never before!
Here are some basics to get you started.
One of the most special places to visit is the little village where Jane Austen spent the first twenty five years of her life. It is here that you get a sense of the imaginative girl and the sparkling young woman growing up happily amongst her six brothers and sisters, gathering inspiration and trying out her writing skills in that lively and literary family circle. You can easily imagine Jane walking along the lanes with Cassandra to visit friends or attend church on a Sunday. She really comes to life in the bright, quiet countryside of Steventon.
The Austen's home is no longer there, being torn down in the 1820s, but the meadow where it stood still gives us an idea of what life must have been like for the Austens.
Just up the road is St. Nicholas Church where Jane's father George Austen was the rector, and it is little changed.
For a details on visiting Steventon and what you need to know, check out our article here: Finding Steventon.
St. Nicholas Church in Steventon, shaded on the left by the 800 year old yew tree where the church key was kept in Jane's time.
After living in Bath from 1801 to 1805 Mr. Austen died, and the Austen ladies needed a more affordable place to live. It was the familial spirit of the Austen family that came to their rescue when Jane's brother Captain Frank Austen asked them to share a house with him and his family in the harbor town of Southampton.
Jane seems to have enjoyed life here since, being by the sea, it offered more open spaces than Bath, and they were able to have a considerable garden in the rear of their house. They also took boating trips in the harbor and visited nearby sights such as Netley Abbey.
Southampton is often relegated to a less-important Jane Austen location on most travel itineraries, and, in terms of her literary life, there is little or no reason to visit. But, not only is it a very pleasant place to see, it is relevant to understanding Jane's character and life.
Simply as a city Southampton has many interesting things to see, not least of which are the many stretches of its medieval city walls. There are connections to the Wars of the Roses, Henry V, the Pilgrims, the Titanic and much of England's nautical history. There is The Tudor House (where Tudor life is reneacted) with its Elizabethan Garden, guided walks, the SeaCity maritime museum and Buckler's Hard, a recreated 18th century seaside village.
But if you simply wish to see the Jane Austen sights, then everything is within a very convenient walk. You can park in a paid lot, just off of the High Street, then walk a couple of blocks to find Castle Lane and the spot where the Austens' house once stood. The original buildings have been long torn down, so what used to be the house is now The Juniper Berry. But it is easy to imagine the Austens living there, with their garden stretching behind the house up to the city walls, which used to overlook the harbor. It would have been a pleasant spot, indeed!
If you walk down to the harbor, the remains of the city walls there have several plaques that will tell you about Jane Austen's life in Southampton. There is a pleasant spot overlooking the water that would be suited to a picnic on a park bench – if the weather cooperates, of course. It was a time when Jane, her mother and sister had the opportunity to spend more time with family, since their house in Castle Square with Frank had more space than their lodgings in Bath. There are accounts of her brothers, neices and nephews coming down to stay, and their taking boating trips and excursions to see the surrounding sights. This presents a definite contrast with Bath, where they escaped to the seaside from their rather cramped lodgings where there was no room to invite guests, and that contrast tells us why coming to Southampton was a sort of release for Jane, who had grown up in the fresh air and space of the countryside surrounded by her family. Their house by the sea offered Jane the opportunity to be free again and see more of the family she loved.
This hidden gem is even less familiar to Austen travelers than Southampton, and it happens to be just outside of the city. It's free to visit, and it's connection to Jane Austen makes it a particularly fun place to see, since it is here that she brought her two nephews during their visit to Southampton. Jane arranged an outing to Netley as part of her plan to comfort and distract them after their mother unexpectedly died. They rowed over to the shore and spent an afternoon playing among it's medeival and Tudor ruins.
There is a small parking lot at the site, but if that is full there is another lot belonging to a sort of community center just up the street within a five minute walk. This second lot is next to a park which is an excellent place for a picnic overlooking Southampton Water.
Chawton & Alton
This place is the most famous Jane Austen location for many reasons: she wrote the final drafts of all her major novels here, it is the location of the Jane Austen's House Museum, and it is one of the pleasantest spots in the world.
There is a train station in Alton, which is only an hour's train ride from London, and then it is a 35 minute walk (1.8 miles) from the station to Chawton or a 15 minute bus ride. If you don't rent a car it is very worthwhile to pick up a bus schedule (check the train station or the Tourist Information office just off of the High Street at the center of town, located at 7 Cross and Pillory Ln).
Many of Alton's buildings have been there since Jane's time and earlier, and she often walked from Chawton to Alton. It's fun to imagine her walking along the main street arm and arm with Cassandra.
But the one place to which every Jane Austen traveler must go is the village of Chawton.
To see the place where Jane lived while she wrote and revised her novels, to walk through the rooms where she talked, laughed, ate and worked with her family, and to be close enough to touch objects she knew, such as her writing table and her father's bookcase, bring Jane Austen to life.
That is what you'll experience upon visiting the Jane Austen's House Museum in Chawton. There is a parking lot just across the street next to the must-visit Cassandra's Cup restaurant and tea room. You enter through the shop (which is stuffed full of books and other fun Jane memorabilia) to purchase your ticket, and from there you are directed to the bakehouse, where Jane's original donkey cart is housed. You then meander through the garden and up to the house. There are friendly and knowledgable docents in each room who will answer any questions you have, and you are free to take pictures (and video) inside! The last stop is the kitchen, where there is always something fun to do, including an assortment of dresses and bonnets to try on.
We always take some time to sit in the garden at the end of our tour before going on the short walk down the road to visit Chawton House Library.
Chawton House was owned by Jane's older brother Edward Austen-Knight (who also owned Chawton Cottage), and inside it still looks much as it did in 1809. It is now a library and study center for women's literature from 1600-1830, and the house and gardens are open to visitors. Jane knew this place well, coming to have dinner with her brother's family or to take a refreshing walk in the grounds, which makes it a special place to visit.
The house has an antique, comfortable atmosphere, with lots of creaky oak floors and family paintings, and the gardens are as pleasant as can be. They are managable by foot, and include a walled garden, the "little wilderness," a lime walk and a beautiful green lawn. There is also a tea room in the kitchen (with some seating in the courtyard available in nice weather) and a small shop with books and souvenirs.
Jane Austen was born in Hampshire and she died there, in Winchester. When her health became worse she was moved there with her sister Cassandra in May 1817 to get more constant medical treatment. But she died on July 18, and was buried in Winchester Cathedral.
In light of her connection with Winchester it may seem like a sad place to visit. But, in spite of the fact that this is where she died, it also gives us a glimpse at her true mind and spirit. When we read some of her last letters her peace and even cheerfulness are inspiring, as she waxes eloquent on how thankful she is for her family, or advises her nephew on his writing skills. Visiting her grave only reminds us that she isn't there – the real Jane Austen, her spirit, is in the presence of "her Redeemer."
Jane and Cassandra lodged in this little house on College Street, a few minutes' walk from the cathedral. It's a quiet place, across the street from a little garden that is now just a couple of trees that blossom beautifully in the spring. It is an actual residence, so you cannot go in without advanced notice.
Winchester Cathedral is really an amazing place! The city has been an important spot in England since at least the Anglo-Saxon times, and the cathedral played an important part in the city. Many kings, polititians and military figures are buried here, including King Canute, and a part of the floor dates from the 13th century. After wandering around the cathedral it's quite nice to pop into the Refectory for a spot of lunch or some ice cream.
We hope we have persuaded you to take the plunge and travel to England to find the real Jane Austen! There is so much more to Jane than what she reveals about herself in her novels. She was talented, witty and principled, but those were allowed to flourish because of where she lived and those she knew and loved. Those people and places encouraged her by providing freedom, support, variety and stability – making her the incomparable author we know and love!
By Anna Morton for Thither
All photos ©Thither