I have been home from my Jane Austen Tour to England for almost two weeks yet I am still basking in the afterglow. We visited many amazing cities, museums, stately homes and gardens associated with Jane Austen and her family which will fill up many future posts, but as I looked through photos and memorabilia for inspiration on where I should begin it brought back moments when my world went silent in surprise and awe. After years of appreciation and study of Austen’s novels and her world, this was my first trip to the country that she and her characters lived in—and my first step back in time to an era two hundred years ago—far removed from our lives of modern conveniences and technology. Here for your amusement are a few personal moments that I would like to share of my journey through Jane Austen’s world.
A Sunset in Ramsgate:
“When my niece Georgiana went to Ramsgate last summer, I made a point of her having two men-servants go with her.” – Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 37
After flying into Heathrow, touring thorough the grounds of Buckingham Palace, The British Museum, Covent Garden and The National Portrait Gallery in London we headed south east to the port city of Ramsgate in Kent. After a very long day of travel by plane (16 hours) and touring in Town followed by a three hour coach ride to our seaside destination we arrived at our lovely vintage hotel The Pegwell Bay Inn overlooking—you guessed it—Pegwell Bay, a shallow inlet in the English Channel coast at the estuary of the River Stour between Ramsgate and Sandwich. Exhausted, and running on pure adrenalin, I checked into my room, dressed for dinner and descended to the dining room, whose large terrace overlooked the bay. As the sun set to the west I was given an incredibly beautiful welcome to my first day in England—a sunset so vibrant and mesmerizing it would be worthy on anything I have witnessed in California or Hawaii. As the sea gulls swooped and cawed above me I understood this site’s draw to the Georgian and Regency gentility who frequented this delightful seaside town. Austen fans may remember it as the place mentioned in Pride and Prejudice where dastardly Mr. Wickham followed and wooed the fifteen year-old Georgiana Darcy, but it shall always be for me the first night in a country that I had long dreamed of visiting.
G & G:
“Our men had but indifferent weather for their visit to Godmersham, for it rained great part of the way there and all the way back.” – Jane Austen’s letter to her sister Cassandra, 1 September 1796
While in Kent, we toured two significant stately homes that Jane Austen visited many times: Godmersham Park, the primary residence of her wealthy elder brother Edward (yes, he owned multiple estates which earned more than the astounding £10,000 a year that her character Mr. Darcy’s estate of Pemberley generated), and Goodnestone Park, the home of the Bridges family whose daughter Elizabeth married Edward in 1791. Both of these estate names are ancient and inspired by the Dutch who settled this region centuries ago. Our tour guide kept getting the names mixed up as she described the estates. We laughed and were too merry to correct her. Even our trusty coach driver got them mixed up and took us to Goodnestone instead of Godmersham. Not to worry. They are within 9 miles of each other and the detour resulted in a serendipitous experience as we traveled down a narrow one lane country road lined with ancient oaks so large and dense that they created a dark tunnel of green enveloping us. When the trees ended quite suddenly we were brought back into the sunlight resulting in the sensation of total amazement as we viewed the rolling green countryside dotted with sheep and patchwork hedgerows. This was indeed the England that I had envisioned; so beautiful it took my breath away.
The Blue Bench Beckons:
“It was a sweet view — sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.” – Emma, Chapter 42
As a classically trained landscape designer, I was well aware that England was renowned for its long history of passionate gardening. I had my firsthand introduction at two country manor house gardens at Godmersham and Goodnestone, and despite viewing them in a down-pour to rival the weather I experience weekly at home near Seattle, WA, I was able to capture some beautiful photos which I will share in later post. What really stopped me in my tracks was this beautiful turquois blue bench nestled on a quiet pathway at the back of St. John’s College in Oxford. We were there to view the great university town known for its fabulous architecture of dreaming spies and (to Janeites) the alma mater of Jane Austen’s father George and her two brothers James and Henry. As we walked through the meticulously manicured quads of St. John’s College, admiring the stonework of the buildings, we came upon their back garden which opened up to a large lawn surrounded by ancient trees. The gravel footpath encircling it lead me to this delightful turquois blue bench. It reminded me of what the British do so well in their landscape design: create intimate garden rooms offering a secret respite among the clamor of daily life. Who could not resist the sirens call to sit there, but a moment, and drink it all in?
A Bird in the Hand:
“Having therefore, agreable to that & the natural turn of her mind to make every one happy, promised to become his Wife the next morning, he took his leave & the two Ladies sat down to Supper on a young Leveret, a brace of Partridges, a leash of Pheasants & a Dozen of Pigeons.” – Frederic and Elfreda, Chapter 3
Traveling south west from Winchester our day was to have a naval theme. We were headed to the sea and the port of Portsmouth, the former Royal Navy harbor where Jane Austen’s brothers Frank and Charles received their early training as mid-shipmen and launched their significant naval careers. Our first stop was at Cadland House, Fawley, to see the Drummond family’s amazing collection of nautical, equestrian and portraiture art and objects. As we departed by coach, squeezing down the narrow country lane, a pheasant and his ladybird skirted in front of our path dashing off into the thick brush on the side of the lane. Several of my fellow travelers spotted them too, including our colorful coach driver Mervin who commented in his charming Cotswold accent that they were inches away from becoming his dinner. We were all aware of hunting and killing birds as a gentleman’s sport from the many times Austen’s male characters talk about shooting, or engaging in it, in her novels and begin to fathom the importance of it when Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice offers to her neighbor, “When you have killed all your own birds, Mr. Bingley,” said her mother, “I beg you will come here, and shoot as many as you please on Mr. Bennet’s manor. I am sure he will be vastly happy to oblige you, and will save all the best of the covies for you.”
I had never seen a pheasant that was not dead, plucked, roasted and ready for consumption before. I had no idea that they were so beautifully plumed. The birds were so prized that they are raised by the estate gamekeeper and set free so the gentlemen would have “covies” to shoot on their own property. The estate manager at Godmersham told me that shooting foul was big business in England and hunters flew in from all over the world for the privilege of taking their aim at an English pheasant. Who knew that dotty Mrs. Bennet was indeed giving a great honor to her neighbor in offering her husband’s prized targets up for his enjoyment? Regardless of their value as game, I was so struck by finding pheasant in their natural environment that I will never look upon a roasted bird again with the same relish.
The Pastry Case:
“You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me.” – Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra, 15 June 1808
I had a delightful luncheon in Bath with fellow authors Jane Odiwe and Juliet Archer and their DH’s at Bea’s Vintage Tea Room behind the Assembly Rooms. The meal was superb, and like Jane Austen and her interest in sponge-cake, the attraction to the pastry and cakes on the menu was very interesting indeed. After sampling Bakewell Tart in Lyme Regis the day before, and adoring it, I abstained, and in Jane’s honor selected lemon sponge-cake. You can see by the pastry case at Bea’s they do a splendid job with their desserts and I was all anticipation of another new English discovery. My plate arrived and I dove in. It was delightful, but, the entire time I spied Jane Odiwe’s husband enjoying his slice of Bakewell tart and envied his selection. I had many great meals while I was in England but the local crab sandwich and Bakewell tart in Lyme Regis was to die for. The first thing I did when I returned home was to hunt down a recipe online and attempt to replicate it. I served my first attempt to willing guinea pig and fellow Janeite Christina Boyd. She enjoyed it too—along with the three slices I sent her home with—which were eaten in quick succession over the next twenty-four hours!
Traveling does open up your horizons and introduce you to things you never imagined to experience firsthand. Those special surprise moments I experienced on my trip will stay with me forever—along with my memories of the people I met and the mazing Austen sites I visited.
Stay tuned for my travelogue of further adventures in Austenland over the next few months.
© 2013 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose.com