Readers of my blog will know that I love to walk in the footsteps of my favourite authors and witness the settings of favourite novels. From Dickens and Shakespeare to Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Alice’s Oxford, stepping into the shoes of literary heroes and places described in novels is so much fun. None more so than England’s most beloved author – Jane Austen. Why, I have even had tea in the Pump Rooms of Bath in full Regency Costume. That is taking literary fandom seriously!
Where else should you visit to see the places where Jane lived herself and set her novels? Find out with my ultimate England tour for Jane Austen fans…
If you are planning travel in the United Kingdom or an England holiday package, here is everything you need to inspire you, from things to do in Bath to the filming locations of Pride and Prejudice. Many of the locations are possible to visit as day trips from London, or you might like to plan a grand tour of ‘Austenland’.
Growing up in Steventon
Jane Austen was born in 1775 into a large family in Steventon, a rural village in the county of Hampshire. They lived in the Rectory because her father was the local rector. Unfortunately, the house is long gone but there is an old lime tree on the spot, which is said to have been planted by her brother.
In this busy household the first drafts of Pride and Prejudice and other novels were born, reading them aloud to her boisterous family. The church of St Nicholas is still there and dates back to the 12th century.
City life in Bath
Bath is one of the most beautiful cities in England and worth a visit whether or not you love Jane Austen. There are many gorgeous and historic things to do in Bath. Jane’s relocation from Steventon to Bath in 1801 was a reluctant one and driven by her father’s retirement. With her brothers all grown up and independent, Jane and her sister Cassandra had no choice but to stay with their parents and Bath was a more affordable place to live.
The much-reduced family moved from rented rooms to rented rooms (including 4 Sydney Place, where you can stay the night) but Jane did not enjoy city life or the cramped circumstances and this was a difficult period when she almost stopped writing altogether.
Bath, England, was a thriving spa resort at the time and Jane would have been familiar with the elegant Bath Assembly Rooms, the Pump Room and the grand Royal Crescent and other Georgian streets. She enjoyed walks in the Sydney Gardens.
She set large parts of both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in this lovely city. She cleverly satirised the balls and fashionable world; also showing its more poverty-stricken underside. Even if Jane was not very happy here and missed country life, she showed a positive view in Northanger Abbey:
“They arrived in Bath. Catherine was all eager delight; – her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.”
Nowadays the Jane Austen Centre is a must-visit in Bath. You can still drink an unpleasant-tasting glass of mineral water in the Pump Room and have a delicious tea. Milsom Street is still a popular place to go shopping.
There is pampering available at the Thermae Bath Spa but you can’t actually take a dip in the Roman Baths as you could in Austen’s day (clothed of course).
Every year in September Bath celebrates the Jane Austen Festival – 10 whole days of costumed balls, promenades, talks and more.
Artistic freedom in Chawton
After her father’s death, Jane’s brother arranged for the Austen women and a friend to live in a house in the village of Chawton, back in Hampshire. Having security, space and autonomy, as well as access to the garden and countryside resulted in a new lease of life for Jane.
She renewed her writing efforts and finally succeeded in publishing her novels, achieving a modicum of reknown and financial independence. Of course she had to publish anonymously because, as a woman, she could not sign contracts. The house is now a museum and the village is lovely to walk around.
Final days in Winchester
Jane Austen moved to Winchester, which is the county town of Hampshire, to get treatment for a worsening illness. She stayed at 8 College Street, a yellow house near Winchester College. The house is a private home but there is a blue plaque on the wall outside.
Back in the Middle Ages Winchester was the capital of England and has many historic buildings, including one of Europe’s largest cathedrals and the 12th century castle with its famous Round Table. Just outside Winchester is the romantically ruined Wolvesey Castle and Abbey.
Jane died on 18th July 1817 with her beloved sister Cassandra Austen at her side and you can see her burial stone on the floor of the north nave of the cathedral, the inscription on which hardly does her justice but is a must for any Jane Austen pilgrimage. There is also a plaque in her honour in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, London.
Speaking of London, Jane Austen never lived there but visited many times and set a number of pivotal scenes in the great metropolis. Her brother Henry lived in Sloane Street and she would have visited her publisher John Murray in Mayfair.
Settings from the novels include Drury Lane Theatre, in the lobby of which Willoughby learns of Marianne’s illness in Sense and Sensibility. A stroll in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens is one of the top things to do in London both now and in the Regency period and both Jane and Cassandra, and Elinor from Sense and Sensibility walked here.
You could also visit St Clement’s Church, where Lydia and Mr Wickham were married in Pride and Prejudice.
Lyme Regis and other coastal towns
The Austens visited seaside resorts such as Worthing in Sussex and Lyme Regis on the coast of Dorset. They also lived briefly in Southampton. These places were newly fashionable for the sea air, sea bathing and of course the social scene. Austen’s last unfinished novel, Sanditon, is about a new seaside resort trying to establish itself as a fashionable bathing destination. It’s believed this was based on Worthing because she visited in late 1805 when the resort was being developed.
You can still walk on ‘The Cobb’ in Lyme Regis where Louisa Musgrove had her fateful fall in Persuasion. This historic harbour wall and the town are described in the novel as follows:
“the principal street almost hurrying into the water, the Walk to the Cobb, skirting round the pleasant little bay, which, in the season, is animated with bathing machines and company…are what the stranger’s eye will seek.”
A famous Lyme Regis resident – Mary Anning – is likely to have met Jane at the Assembly Rooms during one of her visits to the town. The pioneering fossil collector was another woman who achieved amazing things despite the limitations on poor women at this time. The whole coastline of Dorset is very beautiful and known today as the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site.
Jane often visited Portsmouth, on the south coast of England, because her brothers, Francis and Charles were in the Royal Navy and Portsmouth is where sailors came ashore in the 1780s and 90s. The town and Naval Dockyard also feature heavily in the novel Mansfield Park, and beyond the high street with its handsome architecture, Portsmouth was a place of appalling poverty with no drainage system at all. Jane was not impressed with the town or its population. As Fanny Price said in Mansfield Park:
“The men appeared to her all coarse, the women all pert, everybody under-bred.”
Nowadays Portsmouth is a lovely historic town and makes yet another excellent day trip from London. The museums and heritage buildings, as well as shops bars and restaurants would all have met with her approval, I’m sure.
Have a picnic on Box Hill in Surrey
Box Hill in Surrey is the setting for the fateful picnic in Emma. Jane Austen probably visited this well-known beauty spot and the 2009 version of Emma, starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller used it as a filming location. The views from the top of Box Hill are lovely and it is a good walk and day trip from London. Catch the train from London Waterloo to Box Hill & Westhumble station.
As Jane Austen declared in Pride and Prejudice, there is “no finer county in England than Derbyshire”. Jane loved to walk in the countryside and the Peak District is ideal walking country.
She visited Derbyshire in 1811, staying in the town of Bakewell (at the Rutland Arms) and it is believed that she was revising Pride and Prejudice at the time. I love to think of her striding out across the hills, scenes from her novel evolving in her brain.
I don’t think its accurate to say that Pemberley was based on Chatsworth but she did visit this stunning stately home of the Dukes of Devonshire. Her description of Mr Darcy’s ancestral home certainly comes to mind when you see Chatsworth:
“a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills.’”
The 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice (Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFayden) certainly used both the exterior and interiors of Chatsworth for the Pemberley scenes. In the novel she also has Lizzie visit Dove Dale and Matlock.
Jane Austen filming locations
Bath has been used in a number of film adaptions to stand in for London as well as starring as its own beautiful self, particularly in Persuasion 1995 (my favourite Jane Austen film adaption).
Georgian-era Claydon House in Buckinghamshire is near London and was used in the Gwyneth Paltrow film of Emma.
Lacock village in Wiltshire is probably one of the most popular places in England for filming period dramas (and even fantasy because scenes from Harry Potter were also filmed here) because it is so well preserved. In the BBC Pride and Prejudice, Lacock was used for the village of Meryton and you can imagine the Bennet sisters shopping and flirting with officers on its 13th century streets.
This adaption didn’t use Chatsworth for Pemberley but rather the very grand Lyme Park in Cheshire, in the grounds of which the famous Mr Darcy lake swimming scene was filmed with Colin Firth.
The latest screen venture is the adaption of Sanditon. The town of Clevedon in Somerset was used for the seafront shots, as well as nearby Brean Beach. The grand Sanditon House was filmed at Dyrham Park, also in Somerset.
Remembering England’s Jane
I have loved all of the Jane Austen novels since reading them as a teenager and still enjoy her considerable gifts of humour and social commentary, as well as her timeless characters.
She is all the more remarkable because she was self-taught, worked without any encouragement from or even contact with other writers. She had to have had a deep belief in her abilities and her need to write despite of the limitations of her life of genteel poverty. She barely left south east England and never had a ‘room of her own’ but still managed to produce these exquisite works of literary art.