VISITING AUSTEN’S COTTAGE IN CHAWTON
On Friday my daughter and I set off on the next stop in our Georgian journey: Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, Hampshire. My daughter hasn’t finished a whole Austen book yet but she is working her way through Pride and Prejudice, having been drawn in by Marcia William’s clever and beautiful book, Lizzy Bennett’s Diary, and we have started watching the television adaptations, so she was really excited about visiting the home where Austen did most of her writing.
‘Chocolate-box village’ is a cliche but if ever there was an appropriate location for the label it’s Chawton. You would never think that such a beautiful village lies just off the A31 but there it is with its thatched cottages, traditional pub, tea room (Cassandra’s Cup, named after Austen’s sister and which we regret not visiting as it is meant to be lovely), village green and, currently, daffodils, blossom and spring springing all over.
We parked in the small free car park just over the road from Austen’s cottage. It cost just over £14 for us both to go in but the price includes free entry for a year after your initial visit. The first thing you see when you pass out of the reception and gift shop is Austen’s donkey cart and then the Bakehouse with its original copper and oven. There is a learning centre that plays a short film on loop about Austen, her family, her writing and
the property. There are also some activities for children like magnetic Austen Snakes and Ladders (you slide down a serpent for going unchaperoned to Allenham with Willoughby, for example) and a model house where you can act out scripts with wooden characters.
Walking into the small but perfectly formed garden for a moment we ducked into the ‘Historic Kitchen’ for some dressing up and activities. There are some good quality bonnets, gentlemen’s hats, fans, cloaks, and dresses to try on; my daughter wore hers all round the cottage! There is also a table where you can make lavender bags and try writing with a quill pen (a note asks for a donation towards costs).
The house itself is on a small scale but very interesting and the staff very friendly. My daughter did two children’s trails and we were both rewarded with a badge. You can walk around the cottage at your leisure, visiting Jane Austen’s bedroom which she shared with Cassandra, the dining parlour where she wrote on a tiny walnut-top table still in situ, the drawing room and many other rooms containing memorabilia about Austen and her family. One such treasure is Austen’s ring, a simple gold ring with a blue stone that is either turquoise or the cheaper semi-precious stone odontolite. The stone was the subject of controversy a few years ago when the singer Kelly Clarkson bought the ring but was then actually prevented from taking it out of the country despite being the legal owner. The Jane Austen’s House Museum raised money and bought the ring for to keep it accessible to the public for posterity. Another fascinating article is the patchwork coverlet exquisitely sewn by Jane, Cassandra and their mother.
When you have finished looking round the museum and garden you can take a walk up the road to the family’s church, St Nicholas, where Mrs Austen and Cassandra are buried, and Chawton House Library, once the home of one of Austen’s brothers, Edward. I wish we had wandered up for a look but I didn’t see the little map in our guide book until we were back home. I am sure we will be back for another visit, however. Instead, we drove on a short distant to the National Trust property Hinton Ampner where there is a Victorian mansion that had to be completely restored and refitted after a huge fire in 1960. Much of the interior decoration is Georgian, ticking our history box, but we actually enjoyed the gardens far more. They are just gorgeous on a beautiful, warm spring day. As we entered the walled garden the scent of the narcissus hit us like another wall. Everywhere you looked there were flowers, blossoms, birds chirping, butterflies flitting. We could have stayed all day. There is also a little church, All Saints, which is 13th century, although it was built on an older Saxon church.
Hampshire was warm, welcoming and beautiful. We are looking forward to visiting it again soon!