It used to be that, for me, going on vacation almost always meant going to Italy. But now that I live in Tuscany, vacations can mean traveling to another country in Europe. The proximity to Italy is a great advantage, making travel by air or train relatively inexpensive and quick. I love having the opportunity to explore many new (to me) places. Even better is visiting a place that has lived in my mind through literature or film and where I have a friend who can give me an insider’s perspective.
On a brief respite from Italy’s summer heatwave, I recently spent a few days in the town of Alton, England, which is in Hampshire (about an hour from London by train). I was invited to visit my friend Judy (not my co-blogger Judy but a different Judy altogether). I could not have asked for a more knowledgeable hostess for exploring Alton and the surrounding areas of Hampshire. How lucky to have my own personal tour guide!
Judy’s home is a cozy English cottage and has, like many of the homes I visited in Alton, the three essential components of a British house - its very own name, a conservatory, and a pretty English garden.
It seemed that everyone in Alton had a green thumb, as all through town were pretty and colorful window boxes, planters, and gardens. Whether small or large, is there any place more lovely than an English garden?
Hampshire is Jane Austen country. The small village of Chawton, just a few minutes from Alton, is home to Jane Austen’s House Museum, where the author lived as she wrote and published her famous novels. The names are familiar - Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey. The stories spring to life when walking through the author’s home and gardens. A stop for tea and scones at Cassandra’s Cup, just across from the museum and named for the author’s sister, was just the thing to complete our visit on a chilly morning.
The day before visiting the museum, I was fortunate to be invited to a wonderful lecture by Sue Dell, titled “Reimagining Jane Austen’s Quilt,” which gave the history behind the family quilt (displayed in the museum), as well as the story of the community quilt (also on display at the museum) made to mark the 200-year anniversary of the author’s death. Sue is an expert on both quilts, a volunteer at the museum, and a fantastic storyteller. Her talk made the displays at the museum a much richer experience. For fans of the novelist, or aficionados of vintage quilts, a visit to this museum is a fantastic experience.
Just up the road from the museum is Chawton House. For those familiar with Austen’s novels, this is the model for the “great house” and the place where she often visited her brother who, adopted by the childless owners, had inherited the mansion. That story in itself sounds like a Jane Austen novel.
Where Jane’s cottage is quaint and small, Chawton House is grand, with rich wood paneling and furnishings, ornate ironwork and windows, and multiple sitting rooms and grand staircases. The library is astonishing (and houses information on women writers) and the old kitchen is now an inviting tea room.
The surrounding gardens and rolling hills are evocative of so many scenes in the novels. The small church on the estate, St. Nicholas, is where the Austen family attended services and where Jane’s mother and sister are buried. Jane Austen herself is buried in nearby Winchester at the cathedral - another fascinating place to visit.
A frequent character in any Austen novel is the village Vicar (her father was one). But vicars aren’t just literary figures. They are still an important part of life in Hampshire. During my visit, the local vicar happened to be on vacation, leaving Judy to look after his cats while another friend tended to his chickens. A side benefit of their visits to the vicarage meant that there were fresh eggs to be gathered. I got a kick out of eating eggs from the vicar’s chickens for my morning breakfasts - making me feel rather like a character in a Jane Austen novel. And while I don’t actually recall any chickens in Austen’s novels, I’d like to believe that somewhere, there is an unfinished manuscript in which a woman of a certain age, visiting from Italy, collects eggs from the vicar’s chickens. In the movie, she’d look just like me. -post by Joanne