Jane Austen's England

Bath Abbey at night.

After my negative reaction to France, I got to thinking about why it is that I'm always so happy when I'm traveling in England, when everywhere else in the world can be hit or miss. After all, Paris, Dublin, and New York — all major tourist cities — have never really clicked with me.

And I started thinking that perhaps literature plays a large part. Two of my favorite novelists — Jane Austen and Patrick O'Brian — both set their novels around the time of Georgian and Regency England. London has always held some sort of special lure for me, but beyond it, I find it's the places mentioned in the books of these two authors that I'm often compelled to visit.

Portsmouth features heavily in O'Brian's books (and is seen in a less-favorable light in Austen's Mansfield Park), and I've now been there three times, each a delight. But this time around I wanted to spend a little more time in Jane Austen's world, and that prompted a repeat visit to Bath.

The first time I visited Bath, I hadn't really been an Austen fan. I started trying to read Pride & Prejudice in my early 20s, and bailed early into the book. I couldn't handle the looping, intricate formality of the language back then. Fast-forward through all 20 of O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books, and it seems natural to me now, and when I tried Austen's books again, I was hooked.

Roman and Regency all rolled in to one.

Bath is the setting for one of my very favorite books, Persuasion, although neither Austen nor her heroine Anne Elliot liked the city, preferring the countryside to a place of so much gossip and posing. I, however, enjoyed myself very much this time around. After a lovely, relaxing evening at the Thermae Bath Spa, I woke the next morning and took an early walk around the town.

A pan around the Crescent.

There are few places so consistently historic as Bath — only the Royal Mile in Edinburgh comes to mind. All of the buildings with their cream-colored Bath Stone facades and their wrought iron details are largely the same ones Anne Elliot would have walked past. My walk took me through Bath's two most architecturally famous features — the Circus and the Crescent — around the gardens, and then eventually to the Jane Austen Centre.

Georgian Garden.

Jane Austen might not have liked Bath, but Bath certainly loves Austen, calling her its most famous resident. And in the Centre, a row house similar to the one up the street where the Austens actually lived, you get both biographical details of her life, and a greater understanding of what it was like to live during the Regency era (including an understanding of just how very rich indeed Mr. Darcy's 10,000 pounds a year made him).

Jane Austen Centre.

After touring the Centre's museum, I went upstairs to its Regency Tea Rooms for a cream tea. If you've never had cream tea, you should — it's a pot of tea, with scones, jam, and clotted cream. Clotted cream is made through some sort of magic performed on regular cream that solidifies it, and if you take the best aspects of butter, cream cheese, and whipped cream, and blend them all together, well, that's what clotted cream tastes like, and it's even more fantastic when combined with jam on a fresh, warm scone.

Cream tea, nom nom.

Moving on, because now I really want a cream tea and alas there is none to be found in Silver Spring. After the Austen Centre, I went to the nearby Assembly Rooms. These were where the Regency semi-elite gathered for balls, tea, and music (the true elite were more often engaged in private parties), and it was strange walking through them because I'd already seen them in movie versions of Persuasion, so they were new and familiar at the same time.

Ballroom at the Assembly Rooms.

The Assembly Rooms contain a quite nice Fashion Museum in the basement, which really covers a full evolution of women's fashion. And as a special exhibit for the royal wedding, they were showing wedding dresses from various years.

Wedding dresses on display.

I did some more walking, back down through the city, but soon enough it was time to take a cab to Castle Combe. If you read this blog, you know I have quite an aversion to cabs, but it would have been more expensive to rent a car (plus the whole driving on the opposite side of the road thing), and there really is no other good way to get there.

Adorable Castle Combe.

Castle Combe is a delightfully tiny little village in the Cotswolds. If I had just come from Persuasion's Bath, then this was much closer to Emma's Highbury, and as Emma is my other favorite Austen book, I was completely charmed. I learned the full story of Castle Combe from the cab driver who took me to the train station the next morning. He explained that it had been full of mills for the garment industry back at its height, but then the river shrank, leaving the mills inoperable, and the town frozen in time.

This could totally pass for Highbury.

There's not a lot to do in Castle Combe, but I had a lovely afternoon and evening there. I checked into my room at the Castle Inn Hotel, and marveled at the exposed beams, crooked walls, and impressively renovated bathroom for awhile. Then I headed out for a walk. This was a full-on English walk, through forests and sheep pastures, over stiles and through gates, along impossibly green countryside.

Walking in the Cotswolds is delightful and sheepful.

Then I cleaned up and washed the sheep poo out of my shoes, went to the pub across the street (the only pub in town) for a pint, and back to the hotel restaurant for dinner. It was there that I discovered I actually do like mussels, or at least I do as long as they're fresh Cornish mussels in a garlic cream sauce.

Fresh Cornish mussels...mmmmm.

I had breakfast early the next day, as I was due to head back to London and from there to Paris. And it was at breakfast that I got to talking to the server about where I lived, and traveling to the United States. She asked about San Francisco, a place she's been wanting to travel to, and as I've been there, I could give her some details about what I enjoyed. Then, to my surprise, she asked about North Carolina.

North Carolina? My sister lives there, so I also had some details to offer, but I was puzzled as to why, of all places, she was interested in North Carolina. Then she offered up that she liked the books of Nicholas Sparks. Ohhhh. I haven't read any of his books, but I knew they were set in the Outer Banks (another place I've been).

And you know what? I bet if she ever makes it to the Outer Banks, she'll enjoy them just as much as I enjoyed Bath and Castle Combe. Because there's something about being in the place of your favorite characters, walking through the scenery you've read so well-described. When you've already connected to a place in a great book, it's so much easier to love it on arrival.

No comments: