Despite the residual dampness of the day from the earlier rain, Chawton appeared cheery. Colorful flowers dangled from residential window boxes, sheep grazed in a field that ran along the road, and it had the overall effect one feels when entering the countryside, of a weight being lifted off your shoulders. What a difference it was from Alton where we had stepped off the train 40 minutes before.
Alton is the closest train stop to Chawton, and you can either take a taxi or walk the Jane Austen Trail between the two. As the rain had stopped, I was determined, despite the large suitcase I was tugging behind me, to walk to Chawton rather than arrive by taxi. I wanted to experience the place where Jane Austen felt most at home, was the most productive, and happiest, as similarly as I could to the way Jane might have and I was sure that didn’t involve motorized vehicles.
My travel partner for this adventure had met me in London at the finish of the Open Palace Programme, so as we walked I explained what I’d previously learned about Jane Austen in Bath and why I’d dragged her out to this part of the countryside. Jane was one of eight children, so when relatives of the family came in need of an heir, they adopted Jane’s brother Edward. When Jane’s father passed away, leaving his two daughters and his wife dependent upon Jane’s brothers, Edward was able to offer them a home in Chawton on the grounds of the great house he had inherited. It is here, after years of faltered creativity in Bath, Jane picked up writing again. She published four books while living at Chawton, all of which were a great success.
Although the houses on the grounds of the old Chawton estate have since been sold off you can still visit the house Jane lived in with her mother and sister as well as her brother’s house, which Jane referred to as “The Great House”. You can even stay in what was once the Garden House. Jane’s house is now the Jane Austen’s House Museum, Edward’s house is now the Chawton Library, home to a women’s literature rare book library, and the Garden House is an Airbnb.
Jane Austen’s House Museum
Jane Austen’s House Museum opens at 10am, two hours earlier than the Chawton House Library. Starting the day at Jane’s house also makes sense because then you can proceed on foot to The Great House, just as Jane did to visit her brother. So after a hearty breakfast at the Airbnb, I strolled the unpaved country lane to the museum. Along the way I passed dogs walking themselves and Clydesdales looking sheepish in large raincoats. I could already see why Jane liked this place.
The Museum self-tour starts in the kitchen, which is not connected to the main house. Because the ladies left recipes behind, we know exactly what dishes were prepared in this kitchen. The sparseness of the kitchen makes you marvel that dishes were prepared here at all. The main house tour takes you through the drawing room, vestibule, dining parlor, landing, Jane and Cassadra’s bedroom, Mrs. Austen’s bedroom, dressing room, and servant room, and the guest room.
Although not much of the Austen’s actual furniture and belongings remain today, the Museum has done a wonderful job decorating rooms with furniture and artifacts from the same time period. Each closet has been turned into a display cabinet containing items used in everyday life by families such as the Austen’s. And while some rooms have display cabinets in the middle of the rooms, which definitely would not have been part of the Austen women’s decor, the displays are subtle and tastefully done.
One of the few remaining pieces of furniture from the family is Jane Austen’s writing table, although only the top is original. The small wooden table sits in the parlor, protected under glass.
One other original artifact of the Austen family is Jane’s ring, made of a simple band holding one oval shaped blue stone. This particular ring was sold at auction and bought by the American pop star Kelly Clarkson. Unfortunately for the singer, when she applied to take the artifact to the United States the British government denied the request without first providing an opportunity for a British museum to purchase the ring. The Austen’s House Museum raised enough funds through donations to purchase the ring. The gift shop sells replicas of the ring, and Clarkson now wears a replica.
Upstairs at the end of the hall, standing as though looking out the window, a figure stands clad in a blue dress. This dress has been reconstructed from one of the only known watercolored sketches of Jane by her sister Cassandra. Standing at the window next to this shell of Jane, I spotted a tea house across the street called Cassandra’s Cup, clearly named for Jane’s Sister and Mother (They shared the same name.). I decided to return for cream tea after my visit to the library. I would have to walk back this way anyway.
After pleasantly whiling away my morning at the Museum, I followed the signs, tracing Jane’s footsteps, to her brother’s former residence.
Chawton House Library, or “The Great House”
The walk to Chawton was much faster than I expected. Finding the doors still locked, I started to walk the grounds. Behind the house I approached a wrought iron gate in a brick wall. As the gate was open, I stepped inside. I found myself in a walled-in, well-tended version of The Secret Garden. I looked around for a swing, but I didn’t see one. Instead I found an information board explaining that the plants in this garden were chosen based on one of the the books in the library, an early woman’s botany guide.
Inside the house, the self-guided tour led through a sitting room and dining room. A greater than life-size full length portrait of Edward hung on the wall in the dining room and next to it was a window seat where I could imagine Jane once sat. Upstairs had been turned into a series of exhibit rooms. The current display was a comparison of the works of Jane and another contemporary female writer who had been more famous than Jane at the time, but who’s name has since become obscure.
Unfortunately, taking photos is not allowed in the rare book room. The room was floor to ceiling bookshelves around the walls. It was the dream room of any bookworm. Not having a research topic, however, I could only stare wide-eyed around the room taking it all in and trying not to forget any detail of it.
Where to find Afternoon Tea: Cassandra’s Cup Bistro & Tea House
By the time I finished my tour of the Chawton Library, it was time for afternoon tea. I made my way back to Cassandra’s Cup tea house. I was so hungry for cream tea that I consumed my tea and scone before taking a picture, so you’ll just have to believe me that it was delicious.
Where to Stay: The Garden House Airbnb
The Garden House is a lovely, quiet place up an unpaved gravel lane. The only drawback is that pulling a suitcase along the road is nearly impossible. I’m surprised all the wheels stayed on. (We made sure to call a cab for the journey back to the train station when we left.) The house backs up against the property of Chawton House Library, but unfortunately a neighbor’s locked fence now stands in the way of walking between the two so you have to walk the long way around. The breakfasts were filling and delicious and the breakfast room had a view of an inviting looking backyard, which I did not have time to explore. Our Airbnb hosts were lovely and let us play with their weeks-old lab puppy, Frank. He was so cute, I almost forgot about seeing the rest of Chawton. Almost.
After spending just a day touring Chawton, I felt the same way Jane had about the place. Everything was picturesque, the people were friendly, you could breath easier here than in the city, and if you slowed down and looked around…
You might even find a fairy door in a tree. I had come here to walk in Jane’s footsteps, but hadn’t expected to also find my own happy place.