The perfect route to bring together the lives and loves of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy on your next trip to the UK
Perhaps no two writers are more typically English than the well-loved novelists Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. Like bookends on an age, Austen and Hardy demarcate the Victorian era, pointing back to whence it came and forward to our modern world. Here is an easy itinerary that brings the authors to life.
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Day 1: To the Wessex Capital of Winchester
From London or either of the airports, take the M3 toward Basingstoke. Jump off at Junction 8 for the Hampshire village of Steventon, where Jane Austen was born and where her father was rector of the parish church. Family memorials fill the country church, and views over the valley are beautiful. Then thread south to Alton and the village of Chawton next door. The small village is the epitome of the country setting Jane Austen loved for her novels. Her home and garden remain very much as she knew them. The pub and tearoom just across the road are great places for refreshment. Jane’s mother and sister are buried in St. Nicholas churchyard.
Continue down the A31 to the ancient Saxon capital of Winchester, where Jane died and is buried in medieval Winchester Cathedral. The TIC is nearby, and there’s plenty to see in the shadow of Alfred the Great. Take another day in Winchester if you have the time.
Day 2: Thomas Hardy Country
Follow the A3090 to Romsey and pick up the A31 southwest to Dorset, the county of vales and butter pastures lying at the heart of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. Stop in the hamlet of Higher Bockhampton to visit Hardy’s thatched birthplace. Instead of walking up the road, from the carpark, take the path through Thorncombe Wood, where centuries-old beech trees form a canopy for the holly bushes on the forest floor, to the cottage, and glimpse the landscape he referred to as Egdon Heath.
Then stop at Stinson Church, which he called “Mellstock,” where Hardy’s father played in the church choir and Hardy’s heart is buried with his wife. It’s just a few miles on to Dorchester to visit Max Gate, Hardy’s home for 40 years. The River Frome curls around the town and separates the High Street from the beautiful Dorset countryside. Among the accommodation options is The King’s Arms, which featured prominently in The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Day 3: A Day to Explore Casterbridge
Dorchester is the Casterbridge of Hardy’s famous novel. It is one of the few places in Britain where you can actually walk through the recognizable scenes of the novel. Start at the Tourist Information Centre and pick up a map. A walking tour unfolds Henchard’s house, the Corn Exchange, the Market, Maumbury Rings, Grey’s Bridge and more. You can see Hardy’s study, reassembled at the Dorset Museum.
This afternoon, you might take a short drive out to Prince Charles’ model community of Poundbury and the prehistoric hillfort of Maiden Castle. Or follow the footpath next to the River Frome out in the surrounding countryside, virtually unchanged since Hardy knew it as boy.
Day 4: Along the Jurrasic Coast
We leave Casterbridge behind for the seaside town of Weymouth and then follow the spectacular route west along Chesil Beach through Abbotsbury and the Jurrasic coast to Lyme Regis. Standing on the jetty where Anne Elliot stood with Captain Wentworth in Persuasion helps make a smooth transition back to Jane Austen.
From the coast, it is a scenic and leisurely drive through the countryside of Somerset to the elegant spa city of Bath. The city’s Palladian architecture amazes visitors from around the world. There are many good lodging options in central Bath, but this is one place you’ll want to have reservations ahead of time. Bath is popular any time of the year.
Day 5: Where Jane Austen Meets the Romans
The city today is the same classical Georgian city that Jane Austen described when it was the fashionable resort for Regency society. Here she lived and observed those foibles of the gentry that became grist for her creative mind.
Begin at the TIC, next door to Bath Abbey. Not only will a street map be invaluable, but the TIC is a trove of information on places and current events. The Roman Baths are just steps away and not to be missed. Of course, you’ll want to visit the Jane Austen Centre on Queens Square, and perhaps stroll across Pulteney Bridge to Sydney Place, where Jane lived with her family on her father’s retirement.
Among the recognizable scenes from her novels is Milsom Street, still the fashionable shopping district. Then there are the Assembly Rooms, Parade Gardens and the Royal Crescent. Some 300 antique dealers set shop in Bath as well, and when it’s time to get off your feet, think afternoon tea at The Pump Room, where a string quartet sets the mood.
Day 6: There’s Never Enough Time
By all means, if you can afford the time, plan to spend another day in Bath. There is much more to see. If you’re heading further afield, the A46 leads north into the Cotswolds. If you’re turning back to London, avoid the M4, and take the “old” road, the gentler A4. Detour for a mile or so at Avebury to see the ancient stone circle far grander than Stonehenge. Pretty Marlborough is a great place to stop as well. At Hungerford, jump up onto the motorway to avoid getting caught in the urban conurbation ahead.
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