England 2014 (3) – Finding Jane in Hampshire

Jane was born in Steventon, Hampshire and lived there for the first 25 years of her life. At 25, her father retired and moved the family to Bath where she lived for 6 years. After her father die, she moved back to Hampshire and remained in Hampshire until the last of her days. After Bath, she lived at first at Southampton for 3 years before settling at Chawton Cottage as her last home. When her illness worsened, she moved to Winchester to be near her doctor. Sadly she died there weeks later and was buried at Winchester Cathedral.

Jane left her foot prints at many places, but Hampshire was her home, the center of her universe and where she left the most of her marks. To me, Hampshire is the Jane Austen country; it is the heart and soul of Austen land.

If Bath and the festival were the perfect start and warm up for my quest to find Jane, I was ready for more. We now made our way towards Steventon, Hampshire, with great anticipation, albeit not exactly clear what to expect.

Steventon

Although Steventon Rectory, the house where she lived in Steventon, had been demolished, site of the house remains unoccupied, and Steventon’s St Nicholas Parish Church, of which her father was the rector and an important part of her life there, stands intact. Besides Steventon, Jane’s social life often took her to nearby villages and towns where she visited and stayed with friends or attended social events.

I had made a wish list of places with a connection to Jane; which, among others, included Dean House of Overton where she reportedly met Tom Lefroy the first time, Ashe Rectory of Ashe Village where Lefroy’s aunt and uncle lived and where she visited, Basingstoke Assembly Room where she danced, which is now Barclay Bank, and Oakley Hall, from which Jane reportedly drew inspiration for some elements of her Mansfield Park. Luckily Oakley Hall is now a hotel and was available for the night I would be in the area. With access to Oakley Hall securely covered, my primary desire was to find the church and the site and see what else come my way.

As we drew closer to Hampshire, glimpses of rolling, green hills came into sight; it gladdened my heart and excited my imagination for it seemed to be announcing proximity to Jane Austen country. Finally we arrived at Steventon late afternoon.

With an address being no more specific than “St Nicholas Church, Steventon, Basingstoke, Hampshire”, we fumbled a bit around the small village before turning on to a narrow one car gravel path lined by tall and heavy hedges on both sides. Several minutes on it, Voila, I spotted a sign for the church pointing to another path on the right that looked just like the one we came from.

We turned right accordingly, pushed forward searchingly and slowly, several more minutes later, the path widened up and the hedge on the left side thinned out, we could see fenced fields and paddocks. Shortly after that, the road seemed to be coming into a cul-de-sac like end of road. Straight ahead, a sign of “Private” marked the begging of a tiny dirt path which quickly disappeared into the woods; to the right, we could see a large red brick house wrapped in scaffolds, obviously under renovation and/or expansion, was it the Steventon Manor House? It seemed a substantial house and quite handsome but I did not linger any more on it.

The huge tree on the left drew my attention, and one single car that parked not far from it. With a few more paces forward, there it was, the front of St Nicholas Church of Steveton revealed itself, with a façade that I had seen multiple times in photos, no longer behind the huge span of that big tree.

I did not rush in. I stood still and stared for a moment. By now, I figured out the gigantic tree to be the 900 year old Yew tree that I read about, so I went forward to take a closer look. While I was taking photos, my husband approached the front door and found it locked.

Before he had a chance to communicate to me what would have been a devastating news, the door was opened from inside and two ladies walked out. They were from US too, visiting Jane while in England for a holiday. We chatted and exchanged well wishes before we parted ways. And I was ready to go in.

Small and unassuming, it was Jane’s church, and it just felt so dear and special to me. I took my time inside, checking out all that I could and then I sat down on a bench on the first row. I sat there quietly and thought, “This is probably as close as I can get to Jane.”

When we left, we made sure we closed up the door tightly but left it unlocked just in case; I would hate to disappoint anyone who might come in later. The church is supposed to remain open during the day but someone comes to lock it up for the night.

Finding the site of the former Stenventon Rectory proved to be a bit trickier. We decided that it was most likely the field at the corner where the two paths intersected but there was not any sign to confirm it. The hedge on the path in front of the church was so thick we could hardly see through it. On the other path however, we found a railed up opening in the hedge and pushed up close to look the field over. Across the field from there were a bunch of wooden planks standing up in a higgledy wiggledy circle with a sign that says something to the effect of Danger, Keep out, which my telephoto lens help read. There was another sign on the field stating the field is private and under a conservation project. I realized that could be the old water pump on the site.

And then I spotted a house with white exterior sitting on the hill across the path and the drive leading up to it was securely gated up. The firmly closed gate was anti climax but it was my Ah Huh moment nonetheless. It reminded me of a photo I saw. This house very well could be the new Steventon Rectory that Jane’s brother Edward Knight built for his son after demolishing the former one where Jane had lived.

To ascertain, I turned back to the path leading up to the church and traced the hedge until I found a relatively thinner spot where I could squeeze through up to the fence. There what I saw perfectly matched the one I had seen before of the site and the Steventon Rectory that Edward Knight built.

Until that moment, I did not realize how quiet the village had been, besides those two American women and a few horses, there had been no encounter of anyone else. And there stretched out in front of me serenely was the field with the lime tree and the boarded up old pump that was the site of Jane’s former home. It was a large field; to the far left, there were horde of cows grazing, to the far right beyond the fence, new Steventon Rectory perching on its hill, in the distance in between, the silhouettes of a few other houses rubbing shoulders with trees, further into the distance were rolling hills and woods and the horizon. The search in Steventon ended with that memorable picture that I took home with me.

St Nicholas Church of Steveton

St Nicholas Church of Steveton


St Nicholas Church of Steveton

St Nicholas Church of Steveton


A Plaque St Nicholas Church of Steveton dedicated to Jane Austen

A Plaque St Nicholas Church of Steveton dedicated to Jane Austen


I made it!

I made it!


Site of former Steveton Rectory

Site of former Steveton Rectory

Oakley Hall

Oakley Hall, only 3 miles from Steventon, is an enchanting place. The 18th century manor house is handsome and elegant. It has a rambling ground with walking path that stretches far in the back of the house. Gracing the front of the house is a pleasing view of gentle hills and open fields.

Owners of the house in Jane’s time, the Bramstons, were good friends of the Austen family. It is suggested that Jane Austen’s novel “Mansfield Park” is based on Oakley Hall and that Lady Bertram was based on Mrs. Bramston.

Besides the guest rooms in the main building, there are more rooms in the building that was formerly the stable. The building might be 18th century, all rooms are elegantly and conveniently contemporary. The breakfast room is decked out the same contemporary style that the rooms are. The library however looks as though it’s kept its former grace and glory. Both the breakfast room and the library are located on the back of the house and look out to pleasant view of the ground.

A little chat with a staff member led her to mention about the cottage in the back, where, according to her, Jane had stayed and done some writing. A little foot path in the back of the house took us to the cottage in a few minutes. Sitting between lawns and fields, and although not far away, the cottage could not be seen from the house due to the trees and shrubs by the path. Ambling down the path and around the cottage in a faint drizzle and a delightful peacefulness, I felt slighted intoxicated, as if I had been touched by the very spirit of Jane Austen country.

Oakley Hall’s front facade

Oakley Hall’s front facade


Oakley Hall - view from the front

Oakley Hall – view from the front


Oakley Hall – back of the house

Oakley Hall – back of the house

Oakley Hall - Cottage in the back

Oakley Hall – Cottage in the back

Chawton

I would have liked to linger at Oakley Hall a bit longer but Chawton awaited.

Chawton is no more than 16 miles from Oakley Hall. The postmodern reality between Oakley Hall and Chawton however created an anachronistic illusion and made it seemed further. Almost as suddenly, we arrived at Jane Austen House Museum, aka Chawton Cottage, a red brick house that I had seen multiple times in photos, and by then, the sky had cleared up beautifully.

Chawton Cottage

Chawton Cottage was owned by Edward Knight, Jane’s brother who was adopted by their father’s rich nephew Thomas Knight and eventually inherited the knights’ estate. The cottage became available when Jane was living in Southampton and Edward offered it to his mother, sisters and a friend of the sisters to live for free for the rest of their lives. Chawton Cottage was sold by the Knight family to Thomas Edward Carpenter who later donated it. Jane Austen House Museum is now owned and run by Jane Austen Memorial Trust.

The ticket office cum souvenir shop is in an angle shaped building separated from the main house so the tour starts with a show of this building that used to function as storage and bake house, etc. After that, a lovely garden greets you. It is a large garden with trees and shrubs and tall hedges marking its borders in the back, left and right. An open green lawn dominates the center, to one corner, is a garden of flowers, the other, a sitting area with a tree in the center and a bench wrapped around. On the back hedge, there is an opening in the shape of an arched door, by the hedge on the left side, there is a little foot path quietly screened by the hedge and shrubs, as if a little secret place for lovers to steal a kiss.

The first part of the house we saw was the kitchen. Taking a quick turn in it, the kitchen scenes in Miss Austen Regrets came to mind. A poster in the kitchen explains the situation as although the Austens employed a cook, the Austen sisters helped out with the housekeeping at Chawton Cottage. They would not have been involved with this kind of chores however when they were visiting their wealthy brother Edward Knight.

Next was the drawing room. When we entered, a few people were already in there. Moments later, none but one gentleman remained and he approached me.

“Are you a fan”, he asked.

“I call myself a fan,” I answered. And we smiled.

He introduced himself, at the same time pointing to his name tag that said “Jeremy Knight”. Not waiting for my reaction, he immediately turned and pointed to the family tree on a wall close to us while saying “Does the name mean anything to you?”

“Of course”, I replied excitedly, “you are descendant of Edward Knight”.

And yes, he is indeed direct descendant of Edward Knight and he volunteers at the cottage museum during summer time. It was my lucky day. And how could I resist asking for a photo op? He obliged but not before taking his nametag off. He was so adroit at it and I was so excited that I did not notice the act until he put it back on later and explained that it’s his standard practice.

We chatted on. I asked him which of Jane’s book he likes most. Instead of answering, he joked that I was probably finding out if he had read the novels or not. I replied I was picking his brains because I would consider him expert on the subject. I also asked which of the heroines would be his favorite. And of course he did read all the novels. It sounded like Eleanor of Sense and Sensibility might be high on his list; but he added that Sense and Sensibility however is a story bit close to home. Other visitors had been around and I could no longer monopolize him. I thanked him for making my day and continued on with the rest of the house.

In addition to the kitchen and drawing room, there are dining room and reading room on the ground floor. Bedrooms are upstairs. The house is set up to show how it would have been in Jane’s days but most items while from the same period are not originally Jane’s or the family’s. According to Jeremy, a table and cabinet in the drawing room however are some of those that came from the family, specifically from Jane’s father and his house in Steventon. It is a miracle if you consider that they had had to sell everything before moving to Bath. A note there at the house tells a story about that move. Jane fainted when she was told that they had to sell everything including her piano. But since some of their things were purchased by family members (Edward Knight in particular did make purchases just to help out), it made it possible for some of these things to be tracked down many years later. Jane Austen’s turquoise ring, which caused the drama involving Kelly Clarkson, was purchased earlier this year and now permanently owned by Jane Austen House Museum.

Actually being there at the house where Jane lived for many years and became a published authoress, learning more about her, including the little things of her life, was very dear and special, she became more alive and real. A small round table in the dining room set by the window with ink and pen on top of it was especially evocative; it brought to mind the iconic image of Jane bending over the table, pen in hand, writing and capturing all those characters, stories and dialogues bursting out of her brilliant mind. And interestingly that exact same image is framed and hung on the wall above the table.

Jeremy recommended a tour to Chawton House which was exactly what I had planned to do. So that was where we were heading to next. But not before leaving a comment on the guest book. Thanks to Jeremy’s suggestion on my way out; I forgot and almost walked out without doing it. Here is what I left in the comment book, “Jane, I love you. You have inspired me to come all the way from the other side of the pond to follow your footsteps. I am happy to be here to pay tribute to you.”

Chawton Cottage- aka Jane Austen House Museum

Chawton Cottage- aka Jane Austen House Museum


At Jane’s House

At Jane’s House


Chawton Cottage – One Corner of the Garden

Chawton Cottage – One Corner of the Garden


Chawton Cottage – Dining Room

Chawton Cottage – Dining Room

Chawton House

Chawton House is a quarter mile down the street from Chawton Cottage. It had been in the knight’s family since 1524 and was one of the three estates that Edward Knight inherited from Thomas knight. Chawton house still belongs to the family in name but is on a 125 year long lease to the former founder of Cisco, Sandy Learner, who is a Janeite, writer herself and animal right activist, and has turned it into Chawton House Library, a research and learning center of women’s writing from 1600 to 1830. Its collection of books is open to “scholars and general public alike”.

It is also open to public for guided tour. Limited tours are offered each day, call or email ahead to find out about scheduling and make your appointment. We were lucky to catch the only tour of day, albeit it was on a route that was a bit different from the routine one due to a conference on Jane Austen that was to take place that weekend at the house and a few of the rooms regularly open for tour were being set up for the conference and off limit to tourists.

As soon as you turn up to the path leading up to the house, you are welcomed by a delightful prospect; St Nicholas Church, larger and more elaborate than the one in Steventon, is about midway on the right and opposite to the church are paddock and stables.

As a grade II listed Elizabethan Manor house, Chawton House is almost 500 hundred years old and the architecture indeed reflects the style of its age, especially the interior. It had been “rumored” to be in a bad shape before Sandy Lerner took over. If that was true, it has certainly been restored to the richness and elegance befitting to the great manor house that it is. Photo taking inside the house was very limited since some areas do not allow photo taking and others do not allow flash light.

It is believed to be the model for Donwell Abbey, Mr. Knightly’s home in Emma and Miss Austen describes Donwell Abbey as “rambling and irregular”. I have to say it did seem a bit rambling and irregular with its interior layout. Maybe it is the model for Donwell Abbey, as both the surname and the house might suggest.

A small reading alcove in a room on upper level was pointed out to us; it is believed to have been used by Jane. The Austen connection probably made the house more interesting to fans, Chawton House is however a house worthy of a tour with or without the Austen connection. One lady in our tour group had been there two times before and was back for more, and that is a great recommendation for you. Another lady of our group was a teacher of literature from Philadelphia and on a 6 week sabbatical in England.

The sun beaming and air fresh, the garden and ground could not have been lovelier; we had a delightful walk through the garden and woods nearby.

With Oakley Hall still fresh in mind, I couldn’t help but compare the two. Both rich and elegant, they are very different in their architectural and decorative styles. Chawton House reminds me of Thornfield Hall of Jane Eyre, Oakley hall, Harfield of Emma.

As I strolled through churches, houses, gardens and grounds in Hampshire, I felt awe, wonder, warmth, joy and a kindred spirit, a sprit that will stay with me.

Chawton House Front View (Northwest facing)

Chawton House Front View (Northwest facing)


Chawton House (Angle View

Chawton House (Angle View


Chawton House (Southwest side)

Chawton House (Southwest side)


St Nicholas Church of Chawton

St Nicholas Church of Chawton

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