Britain’s literary legacy

Britain has a rich literary heritage, with its beautiful countryside and fascinating villages, towns and cities. But unique to Britain is the sheer variety of places within a relatively small country that have inspired so many different writers.

We start, naturally, with William Shakespeare (1564- 1516). He spent his formative years in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, in the West Midlands of England. You can visit his birthplace, a half-timbered house on Henley Street, and follow a footpath out of town to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, where Shakespeare wooed the woman who would become his wife.

Much of the countryside around Stratford has been transformed since the 17th century, but in some places it is still possible to glimpse fragments of what was once the ancient Forest of Arden, an imagined, idealised version of which forms a backdrop to plays such as As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the latter, Titania, Queen of the Fairies, sleeps on “a bank where the wild thyme blows,/ Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,/ Quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine,/ With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine”.

Jane Austen's House Museum, Chawton, Hampshire
Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton, Hampshire © VisitBritain/Daniel Bosworth

Far from the enchanted woods, London has inspired writers for centuries and continues to do so, with, for example, the 2003 novel Brick Lane by Monica Ali (1967-) providing a contemporary portrait of the community living in Whitechapel, where the East End rubs up against the City of London. Here the contrast between some of the richest and some of the poorest people in the country is stark, putting one in mind of the inequalities that galvanised Charles Dickens (1812-1870) to write about the desperate lives of the poor in Victorian London.

While many of the places that appear in Dickens’ books have disappeared (thankfully, in the case of the slums in the Fleet Valley where Fagin and his gang live in Oliver Twist), there are some places where you can get a taste of the city Dickens knew, such as Southwark’s George Inn, the last galleried inn in London; or the back streets around the City, where you can still find small shops reminiscent of Solomon Gills’ ships’ instruments shop in Dombey & Son.

Other writers drew inspiration from more rural places. The Buckinghamshire countryside appears in many books by Roald Dahl (1916-1990). Anyone who has read his children’s story Danny the Champion of the World probably finds themselves thinking of Hazell’s Wood, where Danny and his father poach pheasants, if they ever see a copse of trees on a hill at sunset: “we could see the wood ahead of us, huge and dark with the sun going down behind the trees and little sparks of gold shining through”. At Great Missenden, where Dahl lived for the last 30 years of his life, you can visit a museum dedicated to him and follow a village trail past buildings that appear in the books, including the petrol station pumps that inspired the rural filling station where Danny and his father live.

Chalk figure carved on the hillside in Uffington, Oxfordshire
Chalk figure carved on the hillside in Uffington, Oxfordshire © Bosworth/Loop Images/Mick Sharp

A hundred miles west of London lie the North Wessex Downs, where chalk downlands are dotted with sheep, scattered woodlands and prehistoric monuments, such as the stone circle at Avebury, the tomb of West Kennet Long Barrow and the great White Horse carved into the hillside at Uffington. This landscape inspired Adam Thorpe (1956-) to write Ulverton, a series of loosely-linked tragic, comic and chilling stories set in a fictional village somewhere in this area. The imagined village, its trees, fields, hedgerows, farmhouses, cottages and inns and its own prehistoric burial mound on a hillside above the village become long-lived, long-suffering characters, alongside the all-to fallible people of the village.

The Downs also form a part of the world of Jane Austen (1775-1817), although her novels are more often concerned with the lives of the Hampshire and Dorset landed gentry. You can get inside this world by visiting parts of Bath that still retain Regency buildings, such as the Assembly Rooms, where dances take place in Northanger Abbey. Or you can visit Austen’s former home at the village of Chawton in Hampshire, where she lived from 1809.

The most famous chronicler of rural life in Wessex, in his case a region covering Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset and parts of Somerset and Devon, is, of course, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). Among many other sites with some connection to Hardy’s novels and poems, you can visit his birthplace, a cottage that his great-grandfather built for the family in 1800, at Higher Bockhampton near Dorchester. Hardy wrote his early novels Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From the Madding Crowd here in the 1870s. Another house, Max Gate, to which Hardy moved in later years and where he wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, among others, is also open to the public.

Shakespeare's gravestone in Holy Trinity Church / Signpost near Haworth, Yorkshire
Shakespeare’s gravestone in Holy Trinity Church / Signpost near Haworth, Yorkshire © VisitBritain/Britain on View/istock/Duncan Walker

Hardy’s Wessex is a very familiar place, where often only the names of real places have been changed. Other writers have transposed the characteristics of real places into utterly different worlds. John Ronald Reuel (JRR) Tolkien (1892-1973), author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, based The Shire, the peaceful home of the hobbits, far from orcs, dragons and other dangers, on various places in the West Midlands, including the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire; and Sarehole, a village near Birmingham, now swallowed by the city, where the writer lived as a child. Today the 200-year-old watermill and mill pond at Sarehole have been preserved, creating a tranquil island of green in a busy city neighbourhood.

Further north, the Lake District has been treasured since the Lakeland poets rhapsodised on its charms 200 years ago. The best place to find out more about them is Dove Cottage in Grasmere, where William Wordsworth (1770-1850) lived with his wife Mary and their children.

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