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Literary Tour of the United Kingdom

Jo is an experienced traveler and shares her tips for travel in this article. She also encourages others to begin their own journeys.

In the garden at Jane Austen's home in Chawton

In the garden at Jane Austen's home in Chawton

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 40 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.

Our B & B in Kent, overlooking a sheep farm.  The date over the door says 1769.

Our B & B in Kent, overlooking a sheep farm. The date over the door says 1769.

“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.

Canterbury

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 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.

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It was also in Canterbury that we had our first scones and clotted cream of the trip. Served with fresh strawberries, they were also the best scones we had in all of England.

Wayside Cottage, our B & B in Burley

Wayside Cottage, our B & B in Burley

One of the New Forest ponies that wander freely

One of the New Forest ponies that wander freely

Hampshire

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.

Jane Austen

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, and a 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 of 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 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 for 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 Poets' 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.

Thomas Hardy's childhood home near Dorchester

Thomas Hardy's childhood home near Dorchester

The gravesite of Thomas Hardy--where his heart is buried.

The gravesite of Thomas Hardy--where his heart is buried.

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.

Land's End

Land's End

Cornwall

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.

Nab Cottage,our B & B near Dove Cottage, Wordsworth's home.

Nab Cottage,our B & B near Dove Cottage, Wordsworth's home.

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, the early 20-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 ambiance.

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 hometown, Westmoreland, TN. It was a welcome respite.

Scotland

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.

Conclusion

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.

Our granddaughter Josie on train ride back to London from York, very early one morning on this second journey to the UK.

Our granddaughter Josie on train ride back to London from York, very early one morning on this second journey to the UK.

Continuing Our Tour, 10 Years Later

When we planned this trip we were planning to visit the Bronte home in Yorkshire. During our trip we decided to eliminate this stop because it was a little out of the way from our other destinations. And after three weeks of travel on our own, driving in unfamiliar places, on the wrong side of the road and with a touch of weariness, we decided not to travel on to Yorkshire. But we planned to come back some day.

This past year in late September we made that trip with our oldest granddaughter Josie. She turned twelve on the trip over, flying across the Atlantic. It was her first trip abroad.

Our plans were to spend a few days in London to see the sights and then travel by train to York, tour that city, and then take a day trip up to the Bronte home. We were sure day trips would be available.

After we arrived in York we went to the local tourist information center to find out about day trips to Haworth. Unfortunately, we learned there was only one day trip to the Bronte home and it operated just one day a week, not the days we were going to be there. And it was already completely booked.

All was not lost, however. We had read online the information about how to do the trip on our own. To get more information we visited the local tourist information center. A very helpful young lady in the center gave us the information we needed. The trip involved one train change and took us to Keighley. All information we had seen online advised us to take a bus with one bus change from the train station in Keighley to the parsonage in Haworth. The lady at the tourist information center, however, told us not to do that. The easiest way to get to the parsonage, she said, would be to take a taxi from the train station to the parsonage. Great advice. She told us the taxi stand was just outside the train station.

We took the tourist information lady's advice and found that taking a taxi rather than waiting for a bus was a breeze. The cost was six pounds for the three of us, and they were there to pick us up and take us back to the train station when we finished.

One of Josie's favorite parts of the whole trip was riding the metro in London and the train up to York and on to Leeds and Keighley. Here in the South in the USA we mainly use our automobiles for travel. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Josie lives, the only public transportation is some buses, with a shuttle bus downtown. But she's never used them. She was very good at figuring out how these systems worked in England, learning quickly. She loved helping us find our platforms and cars in the train stations.

The day we left for home, we were up very early to get a 5 a.m. train to London from York, a metro from Kings Cross to the airport, a flight across the Atlantic to New York, a flight from New York to Nashville, TN and a one hour drive to our home. Josie was a trooper all the way. Me? I may be getting too old for this.

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