Literary Tour of the United Kingdom
America’s Cultural Connection With the United Kingdom
In the United States many, if not most, students will at some time in their educational careers study British Literature. We often have a course in American Literature one year and then a course in British Literature the next. We don’t usually, routinely, study French Literature or German Literature or Chinese Literature. And I doubt that the British, routinely, study American Literature. But the curriculums of American high schools often include Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native or Charles’s Dickens Great Expectations, as well as the plays of Shakespeare.
Though we fought a revolution to rid ourselves of the British, we were loath to rid ourselves of their culture, and it has permeated our lives ever since.
This connection was especially true for my husband and me since we were both English majors in college. We both also went on to teach English, my husband for almost forty years. I left that profession after a few years but never left reading British literature. Through the years we have both devoured many such books.
The moors of Thomas Hardy or the drawing rooms of Jane Austen seemed almost as real to us as our native Tennessee hills.
A few years back we decided to combine this love of British literature with our love of travel and visit some of the haunts of the authors we had admired through the years.
Deciding on an Itinerary
We do not use travel agents and we usually don’t do tours. For the most part we plan all of our trips online, and we like to remain flexible so we can change our itinerary as we go along if we wish. For this trip we first decided which areas we would most like to visit and found lodging near each location. We wanted to find lodging off the beaten track.
“We don’t use cruise control much in this country,” the agent at the rental car agency had told us at the airport. “The roads are too bendy.”
The District of Kent
We began our tour on the east coast of England in the District of Kent. Our first lodging was in a bed and breakfast in a rural area of the district.
“We don’t use cruise control much in this country,” the agent at the rental car agency had told us at the airport. “The roads are too bendy.” We found out exactly what he meant while trying to locate this first bed and breakfast. After knocking a mirror off our rental car and making a few calls to the bed and breakfast, the gracious owner finally came and got us. But it was such off-the-beaten-track experiences that made this trip memorable.
This B&B was set in an idyllic location near the Channel Tunnel, or Chunnel, overlooking pastures of sheep. It was built in 1769. Just to put it in perspective, that’s older than the United States. It was also ideally located for access to the first two sites we were visiting—the White Cliffs of Dover and Canterbury.
White Cliffs of Dover
We chose to visit the Cliffs of Dover not because of their literary significance but because I had never seen the cliffs. And they are such a symbol of England and are often featured in British literature. Formed by chalk and facing the continent across the narrowest part of the English Channel, they were often the sight of invasions and formed the first and last views of England for many travelers.
After Dover, we visited the most famous literary site in Kent, Canterbury. This historic English city is the sight of Canterbury Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in England. It was here in 1170 that Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered. Because of his martyrdom, the Cathedral became the site of Christian pilgrimages through the years. These pilgrimages provided the theme for Geoffrey Chaucer’s literary classic, The Canterbury Tales.
At St. Margaret’s Church these tales of Chaucer’s are recreated with colorful characters on their pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket. Audio guides are provided to help appreciate this accurate recreation of medieval life in England.
It was also in Canterbury that we had our first scones and clotted cream of the the trip. Served with fresh strawberries, they were also the best scones we had in all of England.
From Kent we traveled to the district of Hampshire for the next part of our journey because it was centrally located for sites associated with other English authors we admired. We landed at the town of Burley, a small but interesting English village, and stayed at the picturesque Wayside Cottage Bed and Breakfast.
The quaint little town of Burley has an interesting history and a long association with witches, smugglers, and dragons—none of whom we saw on this trip. It is located in the New Forest, originally created as a royal park for hunting, mainly deer, and now a national park. It is also the setting for a novel by English author Edward Rutherfurd called The Forest. The New Forest Ponies are one of the attractions in the forest. They are indigenous to the forest and roam freely, even onto the roads. Since they are protected and have right of way over vehicles, we were stopping frequently for ponies on our way in and out of Burley. This association with New Forest was not a planned part of our trip but an added bonus.
From our lodgings in Burley, our first literary visit was to Jane Austen’s home in the little village of Chawton, an easy drive from our Bed and Breakfast. It was here that Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life and wrote her most mature works, including Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Emma.
From reading about Jane Austen through the years, I had decided she had led an unhappy life, a depressed spinster who had to depend on her brother for support. I came away from Chawton with a different idea about her life—at least these last eight years.
She moved to the house in Chawton, a gift of her brother Edward, with her mother, sister Cassandra, and long-time family friend, Martha Lloyd. These four compatible females seemingly lived a serene existence here in this peaceful English village. Cassandra was Jane’s only sister, her closest confidante, anda great supporter of her writing. Their days consisted of long walks, playing the piano, writing, and in the evenings sewing, chatting and often listening to Jane read her writings. Nearby were her brothers, nieces, and nephews, who visited often. Jane was a favored aunt for these children and loved making up fanciful stories for them. Not a bad life for a sensitive writer.
It pleased me to learn she had spent her last and most productive years here in this pastoral setting.
Salisbury: Site of Susan Howatch’s Starbridge Cathedral Series
We decided to visit Salisbury because of our interest in the writer Susan Howatch and her Starbridge Cathedral series of novels on the Church of England. Salisbury Cathedral is the model for Starbridge, and she was inspired to write these novels while living in Salisbury. We planned our visit so that we would be in Salisbury on Sunday and could attend church at the Cathedral.
Salisbury is very near Stonehenge which we included on our tour. Near Stonehenge is Sarum, a historical site dating back to the the Iron Age and the title of another Edward Rutherfurd novel.
Dorchester: Home of Thomas Hardy
Our next stop after Salisbury was Dorchester, home of Thomas Hardy. Of all the English novelists I have read, Thomas Hardy remains my favorite. He’s another of those writers that I wish had written more books.
When we first arrived in Dorchester, we went to the tourist information center. There we learned that a tour for those interested in Thomas Hardy was scheduled later that morning. When we arrived back at the center for the tour, we learned we were the only people signed up for the tour, so we had our own personal guide through the town to tell us about the haunts of Thomas Hardy.
Hardy’s fourth novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, was his first literary success. The film of that novel made in 1967 and starring Julie Christie was filmed in Dorchester, and our guide showed us where scenes from the movie were filmed. Back home, we rented the movie to watch again and see the sights from a different perspective.
After leaving our guide, we visited Hardy’s birthplace at Bockhampton, a hamlet about three miles outside of Dorchester. We also visited his grave at the small family church where he and his family had wanted him to be buried in the same grave as his first wife, Emma. The executor of his estate, however, thought he should be buried in the Poet’s corner at Westminster. The compromise was that his heart would be buried at Stinsford and the remainder of his remains at Westminster. So his heart is buried with Emma.
The Cotswolds, Bath, and Stratford-on-Avon
We chose the Cotswolds, located in west-central England, as our next stop because of its proximity to the literary sights we would be visiting next. Our location here was the lovely little town of Bourton-on-the-Water. Even the name sounds English. And our bed-and-breakfast in this little town was easy enough to locate.
Besides exploring Bourton-on-the-Water, we made excursions to Stratford-on-Avon, Shakespeare’s home, and Bath while we were here. Jane Austen was reportedly not happy in Bath and we began to empathize with her when we began to come down with an illness while visiting the town. When we had attended church services at Salisbury Cathedral the previous Sunday, the minister had prominently mentioned the Swine Flu and made a point of not being deterred from using communal cups for communion. I always blamed our illness on those communal cups.
Though we recovered after a day or so, we decided to cut out a trip to Dylan Thomas’s home in Wales the next day.
Thomas Hardy also lived for a time in Cornwall. He was working as an architect at the time at a small parish church and this is where he met Emma Gifford who was to become his first wife. So from Hampshire we drove to Cornwall. The moors we crossed driving to Cornwall seemed reminiscent of Hardy.
Our bed and breakfast in this location was so remote we never found it. We arrived in the late afternoon with our directions, called the location twice, and stopped for directions twice, but still failed to locate it. So we drove into Penzance to find a hotel. That night we enjoyed Fish ‘n Chips along the boardwalk and the next day completed our tour here with a visit to Lands’ End.
Since we had not had much success finding our way around when we got off the main roads, we decided to forgo a visit to Hardy’s home here and head instead to our next destination, the Cotswolds.
The Lake Country: Home of William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter
The Lake Country is a mountainous region in North West England. Much of the region is a part of the Lake District National Park. It is a popular tourist attraction (and very crowded), famous not only for the scenic beauty but also because of its literary significance.
The most famous literary figure associated with this region was William Wordsworth. He attended school at Hawkshead, a small village in the district, and later came to live here in his adult years, first at Grasmere and later at Rydal Mount. We visited his home in Grasmere and the school he attended at Hawkshead.
We also visited the home of Beatrix Potter, early twentieth century author of the Peter Rabbit series of books. She lived at Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey, located between Lake Windermere and Hawkshead. Here we purchased copies of a couple of her books for our granddaughters.
While in the Lake District we stayed at another scenic and quaint Bed and Breakfast, Nab Cottage. This house, within walking distance of Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, was once the home of Wordsworth’s friend, the writer Thomas de Quincy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge also lived here for a time. Quincy was addicted to opium and his opium room can still be seen in the cottage. Wordsworth often visited in the home. Originally built in 1565 and extended in 1702, some original parts of the structure are still here. This Bed and Breakfast made the place we had stayed at in Kent seem very modern. It was not the most comfortable stay we had in the UK but well worth the stay because of the ambience.
Since the Lake District is often crowded with tourists and the roads are narrow, driving for those accustomed to driving on the right side of the road can be a challenge. More than once, we were in areas where meeting another car meant someone had to back up. Meeting a bus, and there were many of them, always meant we had to back up. So when we left Nab Cottage, we decided to hit the freeway. That night we stayed in a regular motel on the freeway at a place called Westmorland, reminiscent of our home town, Westmoreland, TN. It was a welcome respite.
From the Lake District we headed north to Scotland. Because of our illness a few days prior, we cut our time in Scotland short. We had planned to visit Robert Burns’ home, Loch Ness, and Edinburgh, but only visited Edinburgh. We did not have favorite authors whose homes we were visiting here even though Edinburgh does have a rich literary history. In fact, it was declared the first UNESCO City of Literature in 2004, and was the home of many famous authors from Sir Walter Scott to J.K. Rowling who began her first Harry Potter book in a coffee shop here.
Traveling on your own, without tour guides or travel agents, can be stressful at times, but, as far as I’m concerned, it is by far the best way to travel. Traveling through the United Kingdom is in some ways easier than other countries. They speak English after all. But they also drive on the wrong side of the road and train service is not as reliable as other European countries.
Sometime during this trip as we were trying to navigate the narrow roads and find our way around, I looked at my husband and said, “We may be getting too old for this.” So shorter trips and train travel may be on the agenda next time. We’ve also taken up cruising.
This is one of the best trips we’ve ever made and I’ve marked a few things off my bucket list. But we didn’t make it to all the places we wanted to visit, so we’d like to go back—Wales and the Bronte home would be high on our list of places to see next time.