Alice Roberts, our resident literary buff, outlines the best travel destinations for literature lovers in the south of England.

Oxford

It is difficult to travel in Oxford without discovering a destination of literary importance. With the inevitability of standing in the same spot as Oscar Wilde or Mary Shelley, Oxford possesses a magnetic pull — as if the streets and buildings still hold the essence of their grand former inhabitants. Perfectly summarizing this point, Thomas Hardy described the history Oxford as so rich that; “the tappings of each ivy leaf on its neighbour were as the mutterings of their mournful souls”.

To begin with the most popular description of Oxford; Matthew Arnolds “dreaming spires” are best seen by climbing to the top of the hill in South Park early on a Sunday when there is little traffic. Hopefully it will still be slightly misty.

If you prefer Lewis Carroll, the fields of Port Meadow and the Deanery in Christ Church were both frequented by Carroll from the mid nineteenth century until his death. Indeed, it was while rowing Alice Liddell and her two sisters along the Thames, which passes through Port Meadow, that Carroll first began to tell the story that would later be expanded into Alice in Wonderland.

The Eagle and Child on St Giles is also worth visiting, especially if you grew up reading Narnia or Lord of the Rings, as it was the principal haunt of the Inklings, a group which included both C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. The dim, medieval interior makes it easy to understand their obsession with fantasy, as does drinking a vintage ale beneath elmwood beams. Alternatively, in the 1920’s Evelyn Waugh drank Vodka and Champagne (supposedly in that order) at The George and The Crown, and as an undergraduate and was sometimes seen in the early hours of the morning stumbling around High Street. However, the heaviest drinking writer was most likely Graham Greene, who could be found at all hours of the day in The Lamb and Flag on St Giles, with whiskey or his signature Rhum Barbancourt. As far as literary pubs and bars go, in Oxford there is a lot of choice.

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Bath

Considered to be Oxford’s smaller, clean-cut, twin, Bath is made of a similar golden stone, but arranged in neat, flat Georgian rectangles. It seems fitting that Jane Austen spent five years there during the Regency period, while Bath was at its height. Austen’s actual home at 4 Sydney place has now been converted into luxury apartments, but The Jane Austen Centre still serves as a museum and tea room (with excellent scones). It is also possible to explore the Pump Room, in which most of the important scenes in Northanger Abbey occurred. Whether its Henry Tilney and his effusions about muslin, or the civilised dances of Georgian society, this well-preserved hall has immortalised the history behind Northanger Abbey. 

Other notable figures that stayed in Bath include Charles Dickens, who frequently visited his friend Walter Savage Landor at 35 St James Square, the satirical Pickwick Papers being principally set there show his fascination and repulsion with the cream of Victorian society who used to gather in the newly established public park and fashionable social rooms. The Old Curiosity Shop is said to have inspired the character of Little Nell, and Dickens held readings in the Assembly room, which is now rather incongruously a fashion museum. The unorthodox Thomas De Quincey – author of The Confessions of an English Opium Eater – also spent a few years of his childhood in Bath, living at 6 Green Park. He attended the grammar school on 15 Broad Street, but after a blow to the head by one of the school prefects, which caused him permanent damage, De Quincey was asked to leave the school and subsequently left the town.

Winchester

Following Keats’ daily walk, which acted as inspiration for his ‘Ode To Autumn’, is the most interesting activity in Winchester – it passes many of the town’s most beautiful buildings. Despite appearances, it is not specially designed for tourists. Rather, it is the actual path Keats used to walk for the purpose of recovering his health, deduced from letters he sent to his friend, John Reynolds. He only lived in Winchester for two months, and where he stayed remains a mystery. However, it is known that the time he spent in Winchester was comparatively happy, and his letters to Fanny Brawne and his sister contain mostly positive accounts of the town and a brief alleviation in his illness.

Thomas Hardy also spent time in Winchester. The city in the last chapter of Tess of the D’Urbervilles is based heavily on Winchester, as suggested by its fictional name ‘Wintonchester’. The prison where Hardy set Tess’ death still exists, although the West Hill, from which Angel and Liza-Lu viewed it is now a busy street. He is also said to have shown his unrequited love Florence Henniker around Winchester Cathedral, and stayed with her in The George Hotel, which inspired the melancholic poem ‘At an Inn’.

Finally, we return to Jane Austen, who spent her last days in a lodging on College Street and was buried in Winchester Cathedral in 1817. Having lived most of her life and written most of her novels in villages surrounding Winchester, the city is visited by a steady flow of Austen-pilgrims. Although the Jane Austen House in Chawton is more famous, a small section of the Winchester City Museum does feature three plaques in the Cathedral dedicated to her memory.

Alice Roberts

Photo Credit to Alice Roberts