Hayley Solano first caught my eye on Instagram (@hayleysolano) with her decidedly enchanting photos of tea parties and books. Like this one:
The California based singer-turned online book club host shares tips for “enchanting your life” and pictures of pretty books on Instagram, but for paying subscribers of her Enchanted Book Club she hosts monthly online book discussions, virtual book show-and-tells, and webinars over Zoom during which she interviews authors, museum curators, and other fascinating book-related individuals. When she announced on Instagram that she’d be interviewing Kevin Sullivan, the director of the 1985 Anne of Green Gables film adaptation, I quickly joined the book club, and I’ve been a member ever since.
Hayley is a Kindred Spirit if ever there was one. Based on my interactions with her via Zoom during her virtual meet and greets, I thought her impossibly sweet, and genuinely excited to gush over beautiful editions of classic books. So when she announced that she’s adding in-person group trips to her offerings and the first one would be to England, I jumped at the chance! Travel with other book-minded ladies all there for the literary sites?!? Yes please! And part of me just wanted to know if Hayley was as sweet in person as she is over Zoom. So in mid-September I hopped on a plane to meet Hayley and a bus full of literary ladies in London.
Hayley, acting as tour host, had worked with two travel agents, to put together a week-long packed itinerary for us. Ellen West, the American travel agent, would be traveling with us, and Emily Elsbury from ECT Travel, her British counterpart (who has a degree in literary travel!), would meet us briefly in Bath to say hello.
The tour group of about 15 women had little interaction before meeting in person. There had been one or two informational meetings via Zoom, in the months before our tour, and some brief email exchanges, but we were largely strangers when we all arrived at 9am at a hotel near Heathrow Airport in varying states of jet lag. Without much preamble, no ice breakers, or introductions, we boarded a little bus. As the driver started up the engine and navigated our van out of London, we each in turn shouted out our names and where we were from.
We were headed to our first tour destination, the village of Chawton, but before we arrived, Hayley had a surprise for us! Hayley loves to surprise her event guests with gifts. As most of us on this trip packed carry-on only, with very little room left to bring home souvenirs, I wasn’t sure she would be able to pull off her usual surprise gift giving, but I was wrong! Hayley had cleverly designed spiral notebooks for us to take notes, record our thoughts, and tape in mementos like ticket stubs throughout the trip. As we rolled along, she gifted us our new journals and a pen for each of us! The covers, pink with flowers read, “The Enchanted Book Club Inaugural Tour of England,” and the pages were just waiting to be filled. I carried this everywhere with me for the duration of the trip and scribbled notes throughout each day so I wouldn’t forget any details!
Day 1: Chawton, Steventon, Bath
After meeting up with the tour bus in London, the plan for the first day was to drive to Chawton where we would visit both the Chawton House Library and the Jane Austen House Museum, then drive to Steventon to visit the church, and finally drive to Bath where we would have dinner and stay for the night. Even though we started at about 9am, that was a lot to pack into one day!
Chawton House Library
Chawton House Library was once the home of one of Jane Austen’s brothers. He inherited the house from wealthy relatives lacking an heir. Today the house is a museum and rare book library dedicated to women’s literature. Most of the delicate literature collection is kept in a climate controlled vault and only available to active researchers, but there is plenty to see despite the limited access to the collection. After a brief introduction to the home by one of the docents, we were let to wander to enjoy the museum displays, the tea room, the chapel, or the garden. Unfortunately we did not have enough time there to do all of those! I decided to skip the opportunity for lunch in favor of spending more time going through the displays inside the house and then taking a walk to the beautiful walled garden behind the house.
Jane Austen House Museum
After strolling through as much of the property as time allowed, I met my group back at the front of the house for a quick stop at the chapel and then our walk into town to see the Austen’s Cottage, the Jane Austen House Museum. Again, here we only had a little while to take in the museum! It felt like just long enough to either take photos out front or zoom through the museum displays inside.
Outside the house, some women from our tour group appeared overcome with emotion at just being there! This was a trip of a lifetime for them. It suddenly dawned on me that the last time I’d been to England was for the Open Palace Programme museum intensive course so I’d been busy trying to take in everything and analyze the display decisions of the museums when I should have been just enjoying being there with other women who were also excited about walking in Jane Austen’s footsteps! Once I realized this trip was more like a cruise, a taste of each location, I was on board.
It’s a good thing I always carry a few snack bars with me when I travel! I shoved a snack in my mouth as our bus drove us to the Steventon Church, where Jane’s father was a preacher before the family moved to Bath. As the parsonage house in which the Austen’s lived while in Steventon no longer exists, the church is the only place still connected to the Austens to visit in Steventon. A volunteer church congregant let us in and told us about the history of the church as it relates to the Austen family. We then took some photos and again boarded our bus.
Dinner in Bath
We pulled into Bath just after sunset and just in time for dinner, which was the only thing left on our tour agenda for the day, after we checked in. Based on the fact that it seemed everyone in the group besides myself was handed a real key for their rooms and I was instead handed a key card, I had the impression our hotel was in the middle of transitioning from old and shabby to chic. It wasn’t book themed or literary related, but it seemed comfortable enough. I dropped my luggage in my room and met my group in the private dining room.
While the dinner itself wasn’t very noteworthy, Hayley had one more surprise for us. While we ate, she passed out to each of us a beautiful Chiltern copy of Pride and Prejudice. These editions have silver gilt edges, shiny pages, flowery embossed covers, and inside we found Haley had placed a personalized welcome note to each of us. Now we were fully equipped for the next day, in which we would again be following in Jane Austen’s footsteps.
Toppings & Co Bookstore
By the time dinner was over, it was completely dark outside and those who were still jet lagged were ready to crawl into bed. Some of us, who had arrived in England a couple days early to overcome jet lag before the tour started, had a little steam left and decided to make the most of our limited time in Bath. Our itinerary had suggested we might want to visit the Toppings & Co. bookstore in Bath during our free time, and after looking at one photo which had shown the shop to have sliding bookshelf ladders, I was determined not to pass up an opportunity to visit. So a few of us made the 18-minute walk from the hotel down to the center of town for a late-night bookstore trip. It was the perfect way to end our first day of a literary group trip.
Read the post Plan the Perfect Jane Austen Vacation for a complete list of all the locations you’ll want to visit during a Jane Austen themed pilgrimage.
Day 2: Bath
Day two started with everyone mobile enough for a walking tour and ended about eight hours later with only three members of our group still following our guide. Our tour guide met us in the lobby of our hotel and from there we made our way by foot to see the sights of Bath. During our tour we learned about the architecture of Bath, where Jane Austen and her family lived, and a multitude of other interesting facts, as we covered what felt like the entire square footage of the city. Along the way, members of our group either saw something that interested them and they went off to do other things, or tired from all the walking and sat down to wait until our walking tour looped back around for them. About mid morning we stopped for tea and bunns at the famous Sally Luns where we had a private room for our party. Our walking guide finally left us outside the Pump Room at 5pm where we were scheduled to have a second tea time.
Our itinerary gave us the evening to ourselves after our second tea. Having already been to the Roman Baths Museum during previous trips, and having discovered during my last trip that if I’d brought a bathing suit I could have indulged myself at the Thermae spa, this time I’d made sure I wouldn’t miss out on the spa. I’d made a reservation in advance to take to the waters in the spa after tea time, and after all the walking we’d done, I was SO glad I’d had the foresight to do so! Happily, I wasn’t alone! So I and a new-found friend from my tour group went to take the weight off our feet for a couple hours and rejuvenate ourselves in the waters of Bath.
We were too tired and still full from our second tea to bother with dinner that night, so after the spa we climbed the hill back up to our hotel with the bells of Bath Abbey playing beautifully over the now empty downtown. Unfortunately, my relaxed attitude was momentarily interrupted when I discovered that my hotel room key card had deactivated during the day! Luckily it was only a matter of moments to return to the front desk and have them reactivate it, but I couldn’t help thinking that I’d perhaps have been better off with an old school key like everyone else had been given!
Read the post To See and Be Seen and Take the Waters Modernly in Jane Austen’s Bath for more about our time in Bath.
Day 3: Oxford, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Day three dawned dark and rainy and I blearily made my way to the shower only to find a MASSIVE spider on my bath mat! I slammed one of the glass cups from next to the sink over it and pushed the whole mat aside. I hurriedly finished getting ready, packed, and was very happy to be putting this hotel in the rear view mirror this morning. (It should be noted here, in later discussion with Hayley, she indicated that this particular hotel would probably not be used again if the trip were to be repeated, and this is not due to either my key card or spider issues!)
I was thankful I’d awoken with less achy legs and feet than I thought I might after the previous day, because according to our itinerary, we were in for another extended walking tour around Oxford for day three. We loaded our luggage and selves into our van in rainy Bath and an hour or two later arrived in Oxford. As the clouds gave way to a hot and sunny day, a tall, lanky, professorial looking gentleman met our group and proceeded to walk us from college to college, stopping in libraries, churches, and quads. All the while he kept up a steady flow of information about the history of what we were seeing and how it connected to C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein, and Lewis Carroll. Luckily this tour was hours shorter than the day before and had more seated breaks thanks to all the chapels we visited, so we started and ended with everyone in tow.
Before we knew it, our tour had run an hour past lunch so we only had 15 minutes of free time to find food and see any last minute things we wanted to before we had to meet our van again. Our tour had ended in what seemed to be the restaurant district of Oxford. While many went off to find healthier options, I elected to grab McDonalds so I had time to run to The Alice Shop and then to wherever our van was waiting.
Next on the agenda was a quick photo op stop outside a former Tolkein home and then a visit to The Kilns, the former home of C. S. Lewis, where he wrote the Narnia books. This house is open by appointment only as it is housing for post bac students who have applied to live there while they study and work. One of the former residents welcomed us and gave us a tour of the house and told us stories about Lewis and his life there. Perhaps because we were all fans of Narnia, or just because this visit included more sitting than walking, the visit to the Kilns was, I think, the highlight of the day for most of us.
We had one more stop to make before dinner today. Our van drove us just around the corner to the neighborhood church where Lewis is buried. Like in Steventon, a volunteer chapel member welcomed us and provided a history of the church in relation to Lewis then showed us the pew where he sat, the window that’s been dedicated to him, and finally we paid our respects at his grave side.
Read the post The Enchanted Book Club Tours Oxford for more about our time in Oxford.
With the sun setting, we once again boarded our little bus, and rested our weary legs as it drove us on to Stratford-Upon-Avon where we’d find dinner and a hotel awaiting our arrival. Our Stratford-Upon-Avon hotel was by far the best hotel of the trip. The rooms were nice and felt clean and modern (I had a soaking tub! Apparently not everyone had one.). The food was also delicious. After checking in and meeting for dinner in a private room that looked like the inside of a hunting lodge, we were served up a meal that looked appropriately rustic to match the decor. Although the hotel was not particularly bookish or Shakespearean, I could imagine Shakespeare indeed having a similar meal in surroundings like these.
Nobody felt like going out after dinner this night. We all crept off to bed or to read and prep for touring the town the next day.
Day 4: Stratford-Upon-Avon
For the third morning in a row, our group met outside the hotel after breakfast and found a walking tour guide waiting for us. I shouldn’t have been surprised by how much walking this group trip involved. Thinking over our itinerary, it had plainly stated we would be taking extended private walking tours most days. My brain had just not computed that into exactly how much walking that meant! Thankfully Stratford-Upon-Avon and Oxford are flat, unlike hilly Bath. Our tour took us to two of Shakespeare’s former homes, only one of which is still standing, by his former school and homes where his children lived when grown, the theater building where his plays are put on today, and finally, to the church where he’s interred.
Our itinerary for the rest of the day was optional, but of course I opted in to all of it. Though first up was finding lunch on our own. Happily, Hayley invited me to join her and a couple others for lunch, so four of us found what looked like an authentically old Tudor style English pub with elevated pub fare. We chatted, got to know one another better, and lingered over a long lunch since we had the time.
In the afternoon our tour had provided entrance to the Anne Hathaway Cottage, the former family home of Shakespeare’s wife’s family, which is now a museum. This, however, was a mile and a half from the center of town and we were on our own to get there, either by taxi or by foot. The small group I was with now opted to hail a cab. We spent an hour or so learning about William and Anne Shakespeare’s relationship and her family’s history, then taxi’d back to our hotel.
We were all planning to attend the optional evening theater outing to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Macbeth, so we’d left ourselves just enough time to have a snack, change into fancier clothes for the theater, and have a little down time to put our feet up. We were on our own again to get to the theater, but it wasn’t very far away. At the theater I found about half of our tour group had opted in for this experience. Half of those would leave at intermission… but that’s all covered in my full post about our visit to Stratford-Upon-Avon:
Read the post Making Shakespeare Understandable in Stratford-Upon-Avon for more about our time in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Day 5: Chatsworth House
After two nights and one more delicious breakfast in Stratford-Upon-Avon, we piled back into a van with our luggage and drove to Chatsworth House, the house which played the part of Pemberly, Mr. Darcy’s estate, in the 2005 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It also may or may not have been Jane Austen’s actual inspiration for Pemberly in her book. When we arrived, we were handed passes to the house and told to be back at the van about five hours later. This was the first day we had no guide and several hours to explore as we pleased. We all dispersed in little groups of one to three to explore the grounds, the house, and the available eateries at our leisure.
Chatsworth has extensive gardens, a barn full of farm animals, some of which you can feed, a number of large gift shops, and of course a tour through the mansion. Not to mention a field of sheep out front with walking paths running through it that provide great views of the house and its surrounding landscape. Without having a guide offering a constant stream of information, we had the rare opportunity to wander and chat with others in our tour group. I was thankful for the opportunity to get to know Hayley better as well as my new spa companion. Between touring the house, the gift shops, feeding animals, and doing a little photo shoot in front of the estate, we managed to fill our time at Chatsworth and we didn’t even get to the gardens! It was a bit chilly however, so we’d made the decision to spend more time indoors than outdoors. Meanwhile, some of the less mobile individuals in our group had taken the opportunity to sit over long lunches and enjoy a more relaxed day.
Feeling more rested than the previous days, we all boarded the bus at the appointed hour. Chatsworth is just outside the town of Bakewell, where we were staying that evening. Once again we were dropped off, checked into our hotel, and met for dinner in the dining room. Our hotel was a former horse and cart Inn stop for travelers. Although, again, not particularly bookish in nature, I couldn’t help thinking of all the times I’ve read about characters in books stopping for the night at horse & carriage inns. This inn was considerably less dodgy than the inns I’ve read about, but it also was slightly more modernized. My room did have books on the windowsill as decor, so it wasn’t entirely non-bookish.
Day 6: Bakewell, Monsal Trail, Hathersage, Bradford
Day six was our least bookish themed day of the trip. Once again we met outside our hotel in the morning where we were greeted by a walking tour guide. Unfortunately, our guide felt the need to immediately disabuse us of the notion that Jane Austen ever came to Bakewell. While she agreed that Chatsworth House could possibly be the inspiration for Pemberly, she informed us in no uncertain terms that Jane Austen probably saw a picture of it in a coffee-table book and never ventured anywhere near Bakewell. Our guide then proceeded to excitedly walk us around her town, but lost half her audience as she did so. Several members of our tour group lost interest once hearing Bakewell had no literary connections and thus again, we ended the tour with three of us as everyone else had drifted off to go find tea, explore shops on their own, or go back to the hotel to sit down.
Overall Bakewell was a cute, quintessential old European looking town with stonework buildings and several tea rooms, but like it had been an overnight stop for changing out carriage horses, it was only an overnight stop for us as well. We’d checked out of our hotel in the morning because we were moving on today. Although we loaded our luggage onto our bus, we were actually walking out of town. Kind of. Our bus took us from the hotel and dropped us at the trailhead to the Monsal Trail. We would be walking about two miles from Bakewell to Monsal Head where our bus would then pick us up.
The Monsal Trail is a former railway line turned path for bikers, hikers, and horseback riders. The full trail is 8.5 miles long, but we only walked about two miles of it. The section that we walked was relatively flat, but we had views of rolling green fields with grazing sheep and stone half walls running all over the landscape. Our hike/walk ended on a viaduct with the most stunning view of a stone house in a valley below. I would have moved into that house in a heartbeat, but unfortunately we had to get back on our bus instead.
Back on the bus, we were again happy to rest our feet as it carried us to our last hotel of the trip. We would be staying in the city of Bradford for the next two nights, but we had a little extra time before we needed to be at our hotel for dinner, so our ride made a short pit stop in the village of Hathersage. We were told that the Brontes used to stop at the carriage stop here which is now The George Inn. So to pass the time during our short break here, I ordered pizza with two of my new literary besties at the George, as it now seemed to be a pizza restaurant. I’d only known these girls for less than a week and I was going to be sad to say goodbye to them in two days!
Too soon it was time to get back on the bus. As we drove towards Bradford, the views of rolling hills and quaint stonework towns changed to busy highways and modern, but run-down city buildings. We were stuck in traffic for the first time in days. We’d left the countryside behind and now were fully back in an industrial city. A city whose former glory days during the wool milling heyday were clearly far behind it.
Our hotel too seemed to have its better days behind it. Although the lobby was nice, the rooms were musty and the furniture was shabby. Overall, the hotel felt pretentious and dated. Ellen informed us this hotel had been a last-minute switch because it had better reviews than the one we were originally booked in, and we were staying in Bradford only because none of the hotels closer to Haworth had enough empty rooms at the time the trip was being planned. (Hayley later divulged to me she didn’t think Bradford or its hotel would make the cut for the next time she did this trip. She hopes to find somewhere more enchanting to stay next time.)
Day 7: Haworth
Considering all I knew of “Bronte Country” was based on Jane Eyre and half of Wuthering Heights, I was surprised to learn that Haworth is not a small village out on windswept Moors, but actually part of the industrial city of Bradford. Having now seen Bradford city center, I wasn’t sure what to expect for our last tour day. But as our bus pulled into Haworth, I was relieved to find it a quaint, small stonework town. While Bradford felt like it was from a different era and had been left to decay, Haworth felt like it was straight out of the 1800s, but preserved well enough that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the people walking in the street dressed in period appropriate clothing.
We spent the first hour or so of our day in Haworth taking the self-guided tour through the former church parsonage house that the Bronte family once lived in. We then went to the church next door where one of the bell ringers told us about the bells, which were installed by Mr. Bronte, and the few remaining artifacts in the church that related to the Brontes. The church itself had been torn down and rebuilt since Mr. Bronte’s preaching days, but a few artifacts remain as well as the graves of the Brontes, which we were told are in a vault under the church.
Then we had the rest of the day free because the hike on our itinerary was canceled due to the day’s inclement weather. Rather than walk Haworth’s cobblestone street in the rain, I went with my two new besties that I’d become closest with throughout the week to find afternoon cream tea. This was the last day I’d be able to spend in a British tea room enjoying cream tea with literature loving ladies and I was going to make the most of it.
Read the post Exploring the Yorkshire of the Brontes & Railway Children for more about our time in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
And then too soon, it was time to take our bus back to our hotel for the last group dinner of the trip. The only thing left on the itinerary was a Zoom session with the rest of Hayley’s Enchanted Book Club, only this time, for the first time, we were on this side of the computer with Hayley!
Finally, it was time to say goodnight and some goodbyes. Tears were shed, this had been a trip of a lifetime for many of us. Although it was apparent that this trip had been a learning session for Hayley and Ellen and they’d be making changes to future trips to make them even better, overall it had been excellent in every way that mattered. We’d all made new friends, been able to see places we otherwise would never have seen, and just for one week, it felt like we’d stepped into our favorite classic books.
The next morning we piled into the van with our luggage for the last time. It dropped us at Leeds train station and after more goodbyes, we all went our separate ways.