Jane Austen’s Hampshire
By Monique Burns
In search of Jane Austen, the English author who penned classics like Pride and Prejudice, most people head to Bath, 1 ½ hours west of London. There the 18th–century beau monde came to dance, attend concerts, flirt with suitable mates, and “take the waters” at ancient Roman springs. Briefly a Bath resident, Austen set two of her six novels there: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (see “Jane Austen’s Bath”)
But that’s only part of her story. More country mouse than city slicker, Jane spent most of her life in her beloved Hampshire county, just east of Bath. In Steventon village for her first 26 years, she wrote three of her best–loved novels—Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Sense and Sensibility. In the Chawton cottage known as Jane Austen’s House Museum, she wrote Emma, Mansfield Park and Persuasion. She also visited Alton, now the setting for the annual Jane Austen Regency Week with its lively Regency Ball. Finally, in Winchester, the beloved author was laid to rest in the famous cathedral.
Visiting Hampshire for a week or a fortnight, you’ll see some of England’s most historic towns and cities, and ramble through acres of gently rolling farmlands shaded by venerable oaks and elms. In the evenings, you’ll retreat to sprawling country–house hotels set on impossibly green lawns strewn with horseshoes and croquet mallets, and savor dinners at welcoming pubs and restaurants offering innovative farm–to–table dishes along with local ales, award–winning English sparkling wines, and bespoke gins distilled with home–grown botanicals.
Before heading to Great Britain, go online and purchase a BritRail train pass, taking you from London to virtually all towns connected with Jane Austen. If you’re comfortable driving on the left side of the road, rent a car instead on arrival in London or once you’re in Hampshire.
For your U.S. to London flight, consider Norwegian Air. Along with low fares in both Economy and Premium classes, the carrier consistently earns kudos for its excellent service.
Leaving London’s Gatwick Airport, take the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station. Hop on the Tube, or underground, and ride several stops to Paddington Station. Then pick up a Great Western Railway train to Basingstoke, an hour west of London. Basingstoke has excellent rail connections to surrounding towns. If you’d like to add Bath to your itinerary, it’s in neighboring Somerset county, a two–hour train ride west of Basingstoke.
Audleys Wood Hotel is 10 minutes by taxi from Basingstoke station. The brick Neo–Gothic Renaissance manor, trimmed in white gingerbread, sprawls across endless green lawns. Big fireplaces, and leaded–glass windows with stained–glass armorial crests, adorn darkly paneled public rooms. The sun–filled dining room—with a soaring cathedral ceiling of blond wood and iron beams—serves locally sourced dishes. Upstairs, 72 well–appointed guest rooms offer big comfy beds, roomy closets and spacious marble baths.
Die–hard Austen fans can visit Steventon, a 1 ½–hour train ride or an hour’s drive northwest of Basingstoke. But the rectory where Jane Austen was born in 1775 and spent her first 26 years was pulled down in the 1820s. Apart from an old lime tree planted by her brother James, Austen’s only trace is the stocky little 12th–century Anglican church where her father preached.
The village of Chawton, home of Jane Austen’s House Museum, is a 25–minute car ride or a 60–90 minute bus ride from Basingstoke. Across from Cassandra’s Cup bistro and tea room, and The Greyfriar pub, the big brick house is surrounded by lush gardens.
Known as Chawton Cottage, the house was a godsend for Jane. After her father died in Bath in 1805, Jane, along with her mother and sister, briefly joined her brother, Francis, and his wife in waterside Southampton. Brother Edward, who inherited the estate of wealthy but childless relatives, later offered his mother and sisters Chawton Cottage, a 10–minute walk from Chawton House, his baronial manse.
Upon entering Chawton Cottage—or, more properly, Jane Austen’s House Museum—you’ll see a small Drawing Room with a mahogany–cased square piano much like the one that Austen owned. It’s next to a tall secretary–desk, which the Rev. Austen used in Steventon Rectory where his large library was available to Jane and her siblings.
The Dining Parlour has a fireplace, polished wood dining table and chairs, and a cabinet filled with tea paraphernalia. In the corner is the 12–sided walnut table—barely two feet high and not much more than 18 inches in diameter—where Austen revised her early novels, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Sense and Sensibility, and wrote her later works, Emma, Mansfield Park and Persuasion.
Upstairs, Jane Austen’s Bedroom—the small, sunny room that she shared with her sister Cassandra—has a canopy bed draped in white muslin and a closet with a blue–and–white china washbowl and chamber pot. Above the fireplace is “Hunter in a Landscape,” an 1802 watercolor by Cassandra, who, much to the delight of Austen scholars, also sketched her sister.
The Admirals Room honors Jane’s two brothers in the Royal Navy. One nautical painting depicts HMS Canopus, which Francis Austen commanded in the early 19th century. Also on display: The ceremonial sword that Simón Bolívar presented to Charles Austen, commander of HMS Aurora, in Caracas, Venezuela, on March 11, 1832. Eventually a Rear Admiral, Charles probably inspired the character of midshipman William Price, brother of Mansfield Park heroine Fanny Price. Francis—the likely model for Captain Harville, friend of Captain Wentworth in Persuasion—attained the Royal Navy’s highest rank, Admiral of the Fleet.
While at Chawton Cottage, don’t miss seeing Jane’s turquoise and gold–plated ring. In 2012, American country singer Kelly Clarkson bought it for £152, 450. Declaring the ring a national treasure, Britain’s then–Culture Minister Ed Vaizey barred its export, and a “Bring the Ring Home” campaign raised enough money to buy it back.
From Chawton Cottage, take a 10–minute walk along the same dirt road that Jane Austen took to visit the hilltop manor where her brother, Edward, his wife and their 11 children lived. Now Chawton House Library, the sprawling brick manse has over 100,000 books by writers like Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, and oil paintings of women writers like the well–known George Sand, and the lesser–known Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who wrote poetry, fiction and travel accounts.
A frequent visitor to the “great house,” as she called it, Jane Austen almost certainly sat at the big burnished–wood table in the spacious dining room, decorated with Edward’s full–size portrait. Steps away, in Chawton Church, marble plaques honor Jane’s mother and sister, Cassandra, who lie buried in the churchyard.
From Jane Austen’s House Museum, drive 10 minutes or take a 20–minute bus ride to the town of Alton, site of the annual Jane Austen Regency Week. The June festival includes Alton Regency Day, with a market fair and other events. But the highlight is the Regency Ball. With locals and visitors dressed in 18th–century waistcoats and flowing gowns, it’s reminiscent of the Netherfield ball where Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy meet in Pride and Prejudice.
On Alton’s Jane Austen Trail, there are eight stops, five on the town’s shop–lined High Street. No. 10 is the former offices of Austen, Gray and Vincent, a bank run by Jane’s brother, Henry, between 1806 and 1811. At nos. 31–33, the Swan Hotel, with rooms and a pub still open to the public, Jane picked up her mail and occasionally caught the coach to London. Less happily, no. 4 is the home of William Curtis, whom Jane called her “Alton Apothy.” Curtis treated the author when she fell ill, possibly the victim of poisoning by arsenic, then used to treat arthritis.
While in Alton, consider riding the 19th–century Watercress Line, which once carried watercress from local farms to London. Now a popular tourist attraction, the little green train makes a pleasant 20–mile round–trip journey between Alton and Alresford.
Back in Basingstoke by evening, head to Crookham Village and The Exchequer, 20 minutes away by taxi. Serving locally sourced specialties, the restaurant has several light–filled dining areas as well as several sunny patios perfect for relaxing over a gin–and–tonic. Or choose English sparkling wine from award–winning Hattingley Valley Wines, which offers tours of its ultramodern facilities, 18 miles southwest.
The next morning, head to Winchester, a 15–minute train ride south of Basingstoke. Great Britain’s ancient Saxon capital and now the county seat, it’s where Jane Austen spent her final days.
To sense the city’s greatness as well as its sylvan beauty, stroll along The Weirs. Encircled by gardens, the tree–shaded path skirts the city’s old Roman walls and the River Itchen, considered, along with the nearby River Test, to be among England’s finest chalk streams.
The river’s gin–clear waters are perfect for trout fishing. In the center of town, in a 600–year–old half–timbered house with low ceiling beams and cozy rooms, The Chesil Rectory is one of the best places to sample trout and other Hampshire delicacies.
The River Itchen’s gin–clear waters are also perfect for distilling gin. Taste Hampshire–made gins—including those from Winchester Distillery—at the recently opened Cabinet Rooms. The bar’s innovative owners also have established two stylish annual events: Winchester Cocktail Week in February and The Ginchester Fête in June.
The Weirs road continues to College Street, home of 600–year–old Winchester College, a British “public school,” comparable to top–ranked American boarding schools like Phillips Exeter Academy and St. Paul’s School. Steps away, in a three–story pale–yellow house, Jane Austen, aged 41, finally gave up the ghost on July 18, 1817.
Follow College Street five minutes northwest to 11th–century Winchester Cathedral, Europe’s longest Gothic cathedral and the resting place of early English monarchs and bishops.
In the north nave aisle, beneath a commemorative stained–glass window, Jane Austen’s last earthly remains lie beneath a slate slab recalling “the benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind.”
IF YOU GO
For London flights, visit Norwegian Air at www.norwegian.com.
Consider basing yourself in Basingstoke at Audleys Wood Hotel (www.handpickedhotels.co.uk).
For information on Jane Austen’s House Museum, visit www.jane–austens–house–museum.org.uk.
For details on Alton’s Jane Austen Regency Week and the Regency Ball, visit www.janeaustenregencyweek.co.uk.
For more on the Watercress Line railway between Alton and Alresford, visit www.watercressline.co.uk.
For dining, consider The Exchequer (www.exchequercrookham.co.uk) in Crookham Village near Basingstoke. In Winchester, try The Chesil Rectory (www.chesilrectory.co.uk) and No. 5 Bridge Street (www.idealcollection.co.uk).
To learn about July’s month–long Hampshire Food Festival, plus local food purveyors, restaurants and lodgings, visit www.hampshirefare.co.uk.
Monique Burns is a longtime travel writer and editor, and a European Correspondent for Jax Fax Magazine, a travel magazine for U.S. travel agents. A former Travel & Leisure Senior Editor, she travels frequently to Europe, but can sometimes be found in far-flung locales like India and Asia. After more than 30 years in the travel business, she still appreciates the world’s many cultural differences and can honestly say that she’s never met a place she didn’t like.