Monday, September 13, 2010

In Jane Austen Country

We were talking about some kind of England trip, weren't we? So, previously on the blog: Maggie, Kristin, and Rachel arrived in London and immediately start sight-seeing. We packed in as much as possible in that one day (which is huge and rife with history). The next day we still spent the day wandering around, but this time it was wandering around the country-side, as we traveled to Steventon and the surrounding area, the home of Jane Austen.

We took the train about an hour west from London and met up with our friendly tour-guide, Phil. Yep, that's right, we decided to book a private tour with Phil who offers tours of Steventon for Jane Austen-philes like us. We felt super posh as Phil met us at the train station and drove us around in his nifty van. And I think he was super impressed by Kristin's encyclopedic Jane Austen knowledge. In fact, we had a great mix of knowledge: Kristin knew everything, I knew some stuff, and Rachel was a complete newbie. So Phil had his work cut out for him, but at the end of the day he assured us he couldn't remember the last time he had so much fun giving a tour.

Our first stop was Steventon Church, where Jane Austen's father was the rector and where she attended church. It's tucked down a narrow country lane and isn't distinguished by any great architecture or signs, which somehow makes it even more special.

Steventon Church

Here's the three of us outside the church:

To the right of the church's door is a huge yew tree which, according to Phil, is more than 1,000 years old. I'm not sure the pictures accurately portray the size of the thing, but it looks like something out of a fantasy book, Middle Earth, or something like that. Apparently, there is a registry for yew trees like this throughout all of England, and people go on tours just to visit them. Dorks. *said the girl on a Jane Austen tour*

After the church, we continued our tour of the area. What's so great about Steventon is how unspoiled it is. Not just in terms of tourism, but also with development. Sure there are modern houses, but right next to them are thatch-roofed cottages and buildings that were visited by Jane Austen herself. For example, the traveler's stop where she would walk to pick up her post is still there (the original building) and it's still kind of a rest stop: it's a restaurant and pub located off the main road.

One of the places we went after the church was the site of the rectory, the Austen's home and where Jane grew up. While the house is gone, and it's just a field (with a bunch of cows) now, the lime tree planted by Jane's brother, George, is still there. It too is rather large. But you would be too if you had been planted almost 200 years ago.

After some more ramblings (I kind of have a tendency to take off in whatever direction I am pointed in when visiting the country), we stopped by The Vyne, a 16th century estate built for King Henry VIII's Lord Chamberlain that you can now walk around and eat at the restaurant, etc. The rooms were, of course, impressive and the Austens were guests there when the family held balls. Think of the Bingley's in Pride and Prejudice having everyone over to dance. Before touring the house, we wandered around the grounds during a break in the clouds, and of course it started pouring rain about 2 minutes later. Welcome to England! Another interesting thing at the house was a special art exhibition: in each room one or two extremely modern furniture pieces or accessories were mixed in with the traditional furnishings. It made for a fascinating juxtaposition, and sometimes you couldn't even tell the difference!

The Vyne

Our last stop of the day was also the most emotional. We went to the small cottage in Chawton where Jane, her sister, and her mother moved after the death of her father. Jane was not happy to leave her childhood home, and after some time in Bath, the family ended up in Chawton. Their home was modest, but it was her actual house. She walked across those floors, looked out the same windows, and sat in the garden. On display in the house was some of her original hand-written piano music, letters she had written her family, and even a lock of her hair given as a gift to a family-member.

But I think the coolest thing we saw was a quilt that Jane, her sister, and mother had sewed for brother while he served in the Navy. Again, what gets me are the tangible items that Jane touched and created, things that prove that she was a real breathing person and not just a name printed on the spine of a book.

As a special treat, the Chawton house had one of those historical actor people posing as a nineteenth century apothecary. Apparently, he and Phil were friends, and Phil called me over to meet him since he performed a lot in Williamsburg (and Phil knew I had attended William and Mary). The actor guy was really English, but he lived in Williamsburg part of the year as he did so much work there. Small world, huh?

Thus endeth my adventures in Jane Austen land. It wasn't really something we could have done on our own, since you've got to have a car to get around to all those sights. I also don't think there's any way we could have found half the houses since the roads there aren't exactly well-labeled. So getting our own private tour guide ended up being more than just a treat, it was a necessity. But we seriously had a great time, and just like Phil said, we laughed the entire day!

No comments: