Our final stop on our UK Summer trip was a trip to the southwest of England – Jane Austen territory. We’d be staying in Winchester where she was buried but we’d take a day trip to visit the house she lived an hour’s bus ride away in Chawton.
Winchester is a town on the western edge of the South Downs National Park. It’s well served by trains from London and sits on the Itchen river. We stayed in the King Alfred Pub which was pretty much equidistant between the train station and the centre of town.
We got up early to head to Chawton. The buses start their journey in Winchester and then head into Alton which is just on the other side of Chawton. The bus driver takes the time to let us know how to get to the village of Chawton as the bus doesnt actually go through it – just dropping us off by a roundabout a very short ten minute stroll away. We have iPhones with google maps but it’s always nice when locals take the time to ensure that tourists don’t get lost.
Jane Austen’s House
We’re starting to get near to Jane’s House when we notice a fairy door in the base of a trunk of a tree on the side of the road. It’s the first sign of whimsy and puts a smile on our faces.
Around the corner is Jane Austen’s House. It’s a lovely little house set on a decent sized section. Entrance is through the gift shop and after getting your tickets which are valid for a year from purchase, you head into the grounds.
We’re directed into the first outbuilding which houses a short video on Jane’s life and gives a really good context of what we’re about to see.
And then we’re off to the main house. It’s not huge – a modest home, but the curators have done a great job of presenting the exhibits with accompanying signs with the context of what you are seeing.
Looking around I see people really enjoying the Museum (some people have even dressed in Regency-era fashions) – then I realise that if you’ve managed to make it all the way to Chawton then you must really want to come to the Museum and therefore thoroughly appreciate the opportunity to learn about Jane Austen and her works.
Chawton House Library
After we’d enjoyed everything the Museum could offer, we decided to head down the road to Chawton House Library. A little back story here: Jane Austen’s brother inherited a number of estates and allowed Jane and her sister to stay at the house where the Museum is, and so we were very interested in the manor house where he occasionally stayed.
It’s not a long walk along a country lane to the House but when we arrive we discover that it’s closed. On a Saturday. We look at each other in confusion.
Who would have a stately house where you charge for entry and have it closed on Saturday? Naturally disappointed, we instead went next door to the local parish church, where, nestled behind the church itself was an old graveyard, surprisingly well maintained.
Towards the back we found the gravestones of Jane’s sister and mother. A bit of a pilgrimage site for fans of Austen (Austenites? Austenophiles?) after visiting the Museum as evidenced by the little mementos left on the graves.
The buses ran every hour so as we had wrung as much as we could out of Chawton, we hustled back to the bus stop – not wanting to be stuck in town with nothing to do for an hour.
We made it to the bus stop in time and in the distance I heard the tell tale sounds of a steam engine. Looking around I noticed the railway line going over the road and not long later the steam engine hove into view, chugging away from Alton.
I later found out that this was the Watercress Line – a ye olde train line going from Alton to Arlesford, named after its original purpose of taking the locally grown watercress into the markets in London. I guess if you wanted to stay in Alton and visit Chawton, then it might be a nice quaint way of getting to Arlesford and you could catch the bus from there instead.
We arrived back in Winchester feeling a bit cheated because of Chawton House being closed but didn’t let it affect us. We wanted to check out Winchester Cathedral, the place where Jane Austen was buried, and the house where she attempted to recover from the illness that ended up killing her.
But first we stopped off in the Abbey Gardens beside the medieval Guildhall and enjoyed a nice ice cream. The sun was out, people were enjoying the day and it was all very pleasant.
The Cathedral was a short walk away and we arrived just in time to join a free tour. We’d only just missed the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death and there were posters and displays still clustered around her grave.
Funny story – her family managed to get her interred in the Cathedral before the height of her fame, and the original memorial does not mention her success as an author. So subsequent memorials have been created to rectify this situation. But there’s more to the Cathedral than Jane Austen as our guide was quick to point out!
The Winchester Bible (no photos allowed!) is the last surviving 12th Century bible in existence and is housed in its own specially lit room. The surprising thing for me was the vibrancy of the colours – after close to a millennia it is still a gloriously illustrated document.
The best story on the tour though was about the attempts to fix the structure of the Cathedral. The foundation of the church was built on peaty soil and in the early 1900s they noticed that the foundation had started to sink, causing a lean to the walls and the danger of collapse.
The Itchen river had invaded the foundations, so they tried to pump the water out so that they could prop up the foundations with concrete. Unfortunately the water came back as quickly as it was pumped out. Then someone suggested instead of getting rid of the water so that they could lay the concrete, why not get a deep-sea diver to do the work? And so that was what they did.
William Walker spent six years working underwater laying the concrete which helped save the cathedral, getting him a special medal from the Queen and, after he had passed away, a statue in his honour near the corner of the Cathedral where he had spent all that time. Only thing is, when they unveiled the statue the family pointed out that they had made a statue of the wrong guy. Lol! #awkward!
After our visit we headed home and walked back up the stairs to our room. Walking along the lurid magenta corridor I glanced at one of the many photos on the wall. “Hang on”, said Ange, “That looks familiar”.
Turns out all the photos all over the corridor were newspaper cuttings, diagrams and other artefacts documenting the efforts of William Walker. Describing in fascinating detail the lengths that they had gone to to save the Cathedral and the difficulties of operating in such an environment. I had walked past the photos on the wall, ignoring them, and here they were celebrating what we had just seen in person.
Chawton House Library Again
We were moping about a bit that evening, feeling hard done by that Chawton House had been closed, and then I had a brainwave – if our train tickets weren’t time bound, then we could leave our luggage at the Alfred Pub, head back to Chawton and check out the House and then come back, pick up the bags and head to the train station.
A quick look at the bus time table confirmed that while the gap between buses remained at an hour that there were much fewer on the Sunday. The good folk at the Inn agreed to hang on to our luggage and so the next morning we retraced our steps and headed back to Chawton.
On the way back to Chawton on the bus I had mentioned one of the information boards and Ange had missed that one, so we swung back to Jane Austen House first and checked it out. Got to love tickets which are good for a year! We then headed back down the country lane to Chawton House Library and with a sense of satisfaction walked through the now open gate at the base of the hill and strolled up to the manor house.
I good naturedly gave the ticket sellers a bit of cheek about being closed on a Saturday and to their credit they looked a little sheepish. They did mention that they had recently done their planning for the new year and would be changing their opening hours, so maybe if you head there you’ll be able to do it all in one day. The House is impressive and we get access to the Library at the end, which is sort of behind a secret door and is accessed by giving a secret knock*.
We had a little time before the bus leaves, so get some Devonshire cream teas from the cafe there, and sit in the sun outside to enjoy it. Then we tempt fate and head behind the house into the gardens to have a look around, trusting that we wouldn’t lose track of time and cause us to have to wait two hours before the next bus.
A walled and gated vegetable garden reminded me of the Lost Gardens of Heligan which we had visited in Cornwall. A family picnicked under one of the trees and the pastoral outlook of sheep grazing on gently rolling hills reminded me of New Zealand.
Then a hurried walk got us back to the bus stop in time for a non-descript trip back to Winchester where we retrieved our luggage and made our way to the train station. This time, instead of bidding Ange adieu until next weekend, we both made our way back to London, the UK portion of our travels over for the summer.
*not really. You just knock and someone lets you in.