I have four big passions in life…literature…history…music and theatre. Since I was a child I have been an avid reader of anything and everything and this love of books is something I’ve been working hard to introduce to my son. The first time I was introduced to Jane Austen was when I visited her house in Chawton as a child. We lived quite nearby and therefore the village was easy to get to, there was a nice tearoom, countryside walks and it was therefore on mums list.
I don’t think I’ve been back since and therefore it was added to this summer’s holiday list of places to visit back in January. The village of Chawton is only a couple of miles outside Alton in Hampshire and is easily accessible from, just off the A31 from Farnham/Guildford.
It’s a small village full of history and character and beautiful chocolate box cottages with wooden fences, hollyhocks growing by the front door, and foxgloves adorning the shingles pathways. Jane Austen’s house lies in the centre of the village, it is not an imposing house, in fact it is really quite modest and that seems just perfect.
Jane Austen lived in this cottage from 1809 to 1817, spending the last eight years of her life here and it was in this cottage that her writing flourished. She lived here with her mother and sister, Cassandra as well as a long standing family friend, Martha Lloyd. The cottage which in a previous life had been a farm, cottage, and more recently an Inn, was a gift from her successful brother Edward Knight, which enabled his mother and sisters to have a permanent residence which was close by to him and his family. He had inherited the manor which had been built for the Knight family in the sixteenth century and at the time this was the bailiffs house.
When she arrived Jane had written three of her novels in draft form: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey. It was here that she revised these and also here that she wrote Emma, Persuasion and Mansfield Park. In 1817 Jane was taken ill and moved to Winchester to be nearer the doctor. Sadly, she died in Winchester not long afterwards and never made it back to her beloved Chawton.
Often when you enter the home of a writer, you feel as if you’ve entered a home. They are often small, cosy cottages – after all the life of a writer was not the easiest and not the most well paid of jobs. Dove Cottage in Grasmere the home to William and Dorothy Wordsworth has this feeling, as does Dickens House in London, albeit on a slightly grander scale. But you feel like you’re entering a home and you can truly imagine the writer sat at their desk, looking out at their garden and penning the works for which they have become famed.
Just before the front door is an old kitchen which on the day we went had activities. We had great fun trying to write with a quill and ink – it’s very scratchy in case you’ve not tried and if you’re left handed then seems very difficult as the ink smudges! And we also had a go at making little lavender bags in muslin, a tradition that Jane and her mother and sister would have enjoyed. Mine is now sitting on top of my desk. There were also lots of activities and old games in the garden for children. William was very happy to be able to play old fashioned skittles, hoopla and put wooden figures in the right rooms in an old dolls house. Despite the torrential rain – he was not deterred and there was a great little covered area so he could play on the grass in the rain and not get too wet.
As soon as you enter the door, I had a sense of her home. 2017 is the 200 year anniversary of her death and the museum has created the exhibition, Jane Austen in 41 Objects. She was only 41 when she died and this exhibition tells the story of her life and legacy in 41 objects around the home. Not all 41 objects are displayed all the time due to the limited space in the cottage, but there is a revolving exhibition between March and December. The website is full of interesting information about the objects which can be found here 41 Objects
There are several rooms on the ground floor and first floor to explore with interesting objects such as her fathers writing desk, three items of jewellery (Including the ring which Kelly Clarkson tried to take to the US!), letters, illustrations, china and paintings. One of my highlights, was being able to play the beautiful Clementi piano in the entrance room. One of the guides was trying to persuade a gentlemen to play – much to his dismay, so never being one to pass up an opportunity I offered to play. I grabbed one of the Clementi books on top of the piano and treated everyone to a mini recital. I was in my element – what a wonderful opportunity to be able to play Clementi, on a Clementi piano in Jane Austen’s house. I was in heaven and this for me was an incredibly special moment!
The guides are all very helpful and very knowledgeable and this cottage is a must for anyone who loves literature or Jane Austen.
The cottage is surrounded by a beautiful cottage garden full of pink hollyhocks, candy pink foxgloves and alive with bees and butterflies at this time of the year. In between the rain we walked around it and there’s a little hidden path which William enjoyed exploring. Its a perfect sized garden, with enough space for beautiful cottage planting and a vegetable patch, hidden seats and lawns overlooking the centre of the village.
The museum also run a number of events throughout the year relating to writing and to the works of Jane Austen or her home and I’m looking forward to attending some of these in the autumn. Events
The cottage is small and interesting and will probably take you between 30 minutes and an hour to go round depending on how much you read and how much time you want to spend soaking up the atmosphere! The garden is delightful and a great place to sit, write and contemplate life. When you’ve finished there is a great little tea rooms opposite, aptly named Cassandras Cup. They serve a wonderful range of cakes, afternoon teas, light hot and cold lunches and ice creams. There’s an inside and outside seating area and despite the torrential rain (And I mean really torrential – the sort of rain that creates lakes in the road within seconds) we sat outside under cover and had the outside heater on. We were absolutely fine and the waitresses were all really friendly, quick and efficient.
If you wish to continue on the Jane Austen trail there is the Chawton House Library a little further up the road as well as the the village church which is where both Cassandra and her mother are buried.
Jane Austen becomes the face of the new £10 note in 2017 and in order to raise much needed funds an appeal for people to donate their first new £10 has been launched. The appeal was launched by Jane Austens House and is called #BringJaneHome. A great idea to help raise £150,000 for Chawton House after their main funder withdrew. I shall certainly be doing this. There’s also a great social media campaign that has been launched called The Darcey Look, encouraging all supporters to drench a man wearing a white shirt with water – I just need to find a Mr Darcey for that to work, but I’m on the case! They’re also applying for funding from the Arts Council. It is so sad that yet another great piece of English heritage is struggling for capital to not only remain open but also to ensure its preservation for generations to come.
This is a great little place to visit if you have a spare morning or afternoon and you can easily make a whole day of it by visiting both homes and taking a walk round some of the beautiful Hampshire countryside the village has to offer.