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8 Stops on a Literary Tour of England


British authors from William Shakespeare to JK Rowling, from Chaucer to Zadie Smith, are part of the collective culture of the English speaking world. Their stories, in all sorts of formats, entertain generation after generation.

Visiting the places that shaped our favorite authors' lives - their birthplaces, schools, writing rooms, final homes - is always fascinating for book (and eBook) lovers. But where to begin? There are hundreds, if not thousands of candidates and everyone has their own, arbitrary list.

For this first list of favorites, I've opted for writers who have stood the test of time. Their work has been interpreted and reinterpreted in films, television, even radio, over and over. We read them in school because we had to and, later, enjoyed them simply because we wanted to.

To help you plan a tour that takes in at least some of your favorites, follow the links to learn more about each location or check this map of literary landmarks, for more stops on the literary trail.

1. Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens
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Born in Portsmouth, where his father was a Naval Clerk, Dickens spent part of his childhood living near the Chatham Dockyards in Kent. Though he lived and wrote for part of his life in London, Kent is the county most associated with the author of A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby, Bleak House, David Copperfield, Dombey and Son,Little Dorrit and dozens of other familiar stories. He spent many holidays in Broadstairs, still a pleasant town on the Kent seaside where the house that inspired Bleak House is now a B&B, and lived the last 14 years of his life at Gads Hill Place in Gravesend, now a private school that can be visited in groups, by arrangement.
  • Dickens Birthplace Museum - A modest Portsmouth house not far from the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
  • Chatham Historic Dockyard offers a glimpse of the world in which Dickens grew up.
  • The Charles Dickens Museum The author's only surviving London home where he lived for two years while writing Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist. Reopened in late 2012 after extensive renovations.
  • Broadstairs in Kent was a favorite for summer holidays. Dickens wrote David Copperfield in the house that modeled for Bleak House, now a luxury B&B (Compare prices). Broadstairs has a Dickens Festival every June.
  • Gads Hill Place Group visits to Dickens' final home can be arranged through Towncentric, Gravesend Visitor Centre, on +44 (0)1474 337600, info@towncentric.co.uk.

2. Jane Austen

Getting ready for the Jane Austen Festival

Though the Georgian city of Bath, with its Roman Baths and UNESCO World Heritage status, proudly claims Jane Austen as a favorite resident, Jane was actually unhappy there. One of the most widely read authors in the English language, she produced virtually nothing while in Bath and, perhaps as a possible means of escape, accepted a marriage proposal - though she rejected it less than 24 hours later.

Jane, her sister Cassandra and her mother, were happier in Chawton Cottage, a large cottage on the edge of her brother's Hampshire estate. She moved in in 1809 and published four of her most famous novels while living there - Sense and Sensibility,Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were also written while she lived there but published posthumously.

Chawton Cottage, now known as Jane Austen's House Museum, about an hour and a half south of London, is open to the public.

3. Oxford Literary Lights

Pictures of Oxford - Merton College from Merton Field
© Ferne Arfin

Oxford has produced famous high achievers in virtually every walk of life. Quite a few household names of English literature were Oxford students and academics. JRR Tolkien spent most of his adult life there - first as a professor of Anglo Saxon at Pembroke College and later as a professor of English Literature at Merton College. He wrote The Hobbit while at Pembroke.

C.S.Lewis, who spent time with Tolkien in The Inklings, an Oxford writers' group, also had a strong attachment to Oxford. He was a Fellow and Tutor in English at Magdalen College, Oxford for 29 years and though he moved to Magdalene College, Cambridge in 1954, he maintained a house in Oxford all his life.

Charles Dodgson (aka)Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Matthew Arnold, W.H. Auden,John Fowles (author of The French Lieutenants Woman and The Magus), William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies), and many more studied, taught or lived in Oxford.

Pick up the literary vibe in one of Oxford's literary pubs:

  • The Eagle and Child on St. Giles, called by Tolkien and others "The Bird and Baby," was the meeting place of "The Inklings", the literary discussion group favored by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
  • The Lamb & Flag the inn across the road, dates from 1695 and counted Graham Green as a regular.

4. William Shakespeare

English Cottage Garden surrounding Anne Hathaways Cottage near Stratford-upon-Avon
©Ferne Arfin

The most famous writer in the English language - arguably the most famous writer in the world - is better known through his works than through his biographical details. Just about every aspect of his life, from his marriage to Anne Hathaway to the recipient of his sonnets to the actual authorship of his plays is open to discussion and subject to lively debate.

Fans in search of the Bard can visit his hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon, to explore:

5. Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie's Greenway
©Ferne Arfin

The UK's "Queen of Crime", Agatha Christie, was born in Torquay on the English Riviera. Every year the resort celebrates the creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple with a festival that features talks, walks, banquets, vintage dressing up and plays by the local theatrical society.

Christie was married to archaeologist Max Mallowan and during much of her married life she accompanied him on archaeological digs, while writing her very English novels in the Middle East. From 1938 until her death in 1976, she spent most summers completing and editing her books at Greenway, her summer home overlooking the River Dart, just outside Torquay.

The house is now owned by the National Trust. When you visit, you can immerse yourself in the Christie mystique by exploring her collections and her lovely gardens, dining in her kitchen and even staying in a self-catering apartment at the top of the house.

6. Daphne Du Maurier

Scene from The Birds
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Daphne Du Maurier was once the queen of atmospheric thrillers. Alfred Hitchcock turned to her again and again for inspiration, creating films of her novels Rebecca ("Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again") and Jamaica Inn as well as her short story The Birds. Nicholas Roeg created one of the steamiest sex scene in mainstream cinema in the 1970s film version of her story Don't Look Now, with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.

Fowey, in Cornwall, and the real Jamaica Inn, on Bodwin Moor, shaped her fantastic and dark imagination. Nowadays, the film versions of her work are more famous than she is. In a sad commentary on the fleeting nature of fame, Fowey, the town where she lived and wrote for 30 years has recently changed the name of its Daphne du Maurier Festival to the Fowey Festival of Words and Music.

7. William Wordsworth

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
If, like the 19th century Romantic poet William Wordsworth, the sight of a field of golden daffodils has ever cheered your lonely hours, you'll want to visit Dove Cottage in Grasmere. Wordsworth lived there for eight years with his wife Mary and sister Dorothy. It was on a walk with Dorothy in the Lake District countryside nearby that he spotted the famous field of nodding flowers that inspired his poem, Lonely as a Cloud, known by most people simply as The Daffodils. While at Dove Cottage, Wordsworth was visited by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and other figures in the 19th century Romantic movement. The modest cottage, now owned by the Wordsworth Trust, is open to the public on guided tours. It is part of a complex that includes a museum and a research center containing the poet's archives.

Find out more about visiting Dove Cottage.

8. The Brontës

Haworth Village
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The Brontë sisters - Charlotte (Jane Eyre), Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) - their dissolute brother Branwell and their father, Anglo-Irish clergyman, Patrick, all lived and wrote in the Parsonage of the Yorkshire West Ridings village of Haworth.

The house, now open to the public as a museum, gives a sense of the claustrophobic and reclusive atmosphere the Brontës inhabited. No wonder their only escape was through the overwrought romanticism of their fevered imaginations.

Explore the nearby moors, windswept and lonely, to find Top Withins, said to be the inspiration for Heathcliffe's home, Wuthering Heights, and other landmarks from Emily Brontë's novel.

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