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I recently returned from a three-plus week trip to England. The following recounts 1-1/2 days near the end of the trip,
when I was in Hampshire in southern England. I had spent the prior day at the Chawton House Library, researching
early English women writers. This next day, 4 June, I had reserved to visit sites related to Jane Austen. This is the
first in a series of travel journals.
Wednesday, 4 June 2008 (and part of
Thursday, 5 June 2008)
PAGE THREE (last)
So I took some photos, then headed out into the churchyard to walk around.
He followed me out there as well! Although I do have to admit, he showed
me the wall-dials (sun dials carved on the exterior stone wall, which I had
never seen before and had not known about in relation to Saint Nicholas.)
And he showed me as well that, when they moved the church door from the
long side to its present location (after JA’s time there), they also moved the
wall-dial. Sure enough, it was there… even though it was now in a location
where it was of no use, as the sun would never hit it there. He walked
around with me to James Austen’s grave in the church yard.
Finally, I got in my car to leave, with my new friend waving me off like some
long-lost uncle. I didn’t really mind his company – he’d been interesting if a
bit dogged and I felt like I’d done a good deed somehow in entertaining his
attentions. But I definitely put Steventon and Saint Nicholas back on my list
for a revisit some day, when hopefully it will offer more of the quiet
atmosphere in which I hoped to find something of JA. As I was driving down
the lane, I laughed to think that maybe it was her idea of a joke, that she’d
“sent him” for my amusement.
I was a little bit surprised, on gaining the corner again where the rectory
would have stood, to realize just how far it was from there to the church.
But then I recalled reading in one of Jane’s letters about how they had taken
the wooded walk that Sunday morning to the service; and I could easily
I had earlier thought that on the way back down, I would pull over
somewhere and walk to the “rectory” plot, and look for that noted pump.
But it was late afternoon, and everything was so overgrown there was little
opportunity to pull the car over, and most importantly, I was afraid I would
no sooner get out of the car than I’d be met with an elderly gentleman on a
bicycle who would walk me through that scene as well. So in the end, I did
not stop. Another place to return some day for a closer look; perhaps to
walk up from Deane (where JA used to go to pick up the family’s mail.)
I did stop the car at the Deane Gate Inn (where said mail would have been
retrieved, as well as where coaches would stop for riders) and might have
gone in for a drink or snack but it had closed about a half hour earlier and
wouldn’t reopen until six. So I headed once more to Overton, passing
through it and continuing on to Basingstoke, from where I would take the
road back to Chawton. I ended up getting caught in some construction traffic
in Basingstoke and, somehow missing a turn on a diverted road, took longer
to get through it than I’d have liked.
I got back to Chawton at 4:45… just too late in fact to go into JA’s house that
day. So I went in to my cottage-room and cleaned up, and after JA’s House
had closed a little after five, I took my book and notebook and walked over
to the garden. I was hungry now, not having had lunch after all, but the
local pub next to my room didn’t open until six so I thought I’d read or write
notes until then. It was so lovely, so peaceful sitting on my garden bench,
and still so warm and bright out, I got engrossed in what I was doing and it
was after 7:30 before I realized what time it was.
So I smiled at my wonderful
day – the imperfections
having added to its overall perfection – and smiled at Jane’s house, now
shuttered for the day, and took myself off to the pub for dinner. I would
have loved another day to return to Steventon, and walk through Ashe and
Deane, maybe drive up to Ibthorpe. But, another trip. I would have loved
another day or three at Chawton House Library. Another trip as well. It’s
not difficult to find reasons to come back.
On Thursday (5 June) I determined that I had to return the car to Heathrow
by one(ish) and that I could wait and go into JA’s house right when it opened
at ten and still make it back to Heathrow in good time. (I wasn’t flying that
day, only returning the hire car and heading into London for a few days.) I
had finished breakfast, packed and loaded the car by 9:45, so went over to
the JA House Garden to wait for them to open their doors at ten. There were
two young women also waiting, looking quite eager, and wearing Regency
day dresses. They were much like the pattern of my own dress that Rita
made for me, except that these were definitely morning dresses in informal
cotton prints. The two of them took turns taking each other’s picture in front
of the sign indicating JA’s House; so I offered to take a photo of them
together. They were enthusiastic. I took a couple with the house in the
background, then a couple with the garden in the background. By the time
we were finished, the doors were opening for the day.
I was first in, followed closely by the two young women (who were, as it
turned out, from Australia.) We were followed shortly thereafter by about 4-
5 other people. But as I was first, and had been there before (which meant I
didn’t dwell on all the details quite as much as other folks did as I’d seen
them before) I found myself alone in rooms as I went through the house.
They ask you not to take photos, and I did follow that as far as the rooms
themselves were concerned. However, they also have several mannequins
throughout the house with costumes of the day… and as I was unsupervised,
I did succumb. I took several photos of the clothes.
Ball/Wedding Gown: copy of evening dress at Gallery of English Costume, Manchester. C 1816-19
|Day dress: cotton,
washable for everyday
wear, copy of dress in
collection of Victoria &
Albert Museum, London
Day dress: more formal muslin
with a train (which would have
been shortened to update the
dress later for fashion, copy of
dress in collection of Salisbury
Museum, C 1805
Riding Habit: of lightweight
wool, not washable, hence using
dark colours (this one is dark green)
A very long skirt all around,
extended at the back to enable
pleasing and respectable look on
The skirt can be tied up with tapes
(visible at the front) for ease of walking
This is a replication of a riding habit in
the collection of the Salisbury Museum,
Articles owned by the Austen family –
lace shawl believed to be JA’s; quilt
made by JA, her sister Cassandra and
I ended up, as I always do, in the tiny gift shop at the back of the ground
floor, and found a few CD’s of music to buy. There are plans for some
substantial renovations to the house and yard that will open up the house a
bit more and also move the gift shop to a separate outbuilding. Another
excuse – as if I needed one – to return to the area.
With a last wave goodbye – the JA’s cottage, to my little cottage B&B room,
and to the village of Chawton, I left about 11:30 and drove back to
Heathrow, very complaisant indeed with my Hampshire interlude. Did I find
Jane Austen? Not really. And yet – perhaps… in the quiet moments in the
garden at Chawton; in the windowed alcove of the room in her brother’s
great house where she used to watch guests arriving; in the humour of a
German couple searching all over for her whilst standing on her grave; in the
dappled sunlight and shade of the Dean’s garden across from her College
Street lodgings; in the “character” of an elderly man who shared an
appreciation of her. I can’t really say. But I know one thing: she would
have written of the journey with wit and humour.