Britain’s literary legacy

Thomas Hardy's cottage in Higher Bockhampton, Dorset
Thomas Hardy’s cottage in Higher Bockhampton, Dorset © VisitBritain/Britain on View

Other writers captivated by the Lake District include Arthur Ransome (1884-1967), who set the Swallows and Amazons books around Coniston Water; and the childrens’ author Beatrix Potter (1866-1943). Potter’s house, Hill Top, near Hawkshead, is a very popular tourist attraction. The countryside is immediately familiar from the books: from Lingholm House on the shore of Derwent Water, where Potter holidayed with her family during the 1880s, and the view across the lake to St Herbert’s Island is clearly the stretch of water over which the squirrels paddle their rafts towards Owl Island in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.

To the east in Yorkshire is another famous literary setting: the bleak, haunting moors that appear in many of the books written by the Brontë sisters Charlotte (1816- 1855), Emily (1818-1848) and Anne (1820-1849).

It was Emily Brontë who did most to create the enduring image of the wild, windswept moors, in her only novel, Wuthering Heights, a tale of doomed love and brutal revenge. Many of the visitors to the former Brontë family home, Haworth Parsonage, come because they are looking to feel closer, in some way, to Wuthering Heights itself, an isolated stone house high upon the moors. The bleak landscape that Brontë describes is still very much evident today: “… one may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun…” says Mr Lockwood, one of the narrators of the novel, “… the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall…”.

Far to the south the unique county of Cornwall, really a country in its own right, with its own language and traditions, served as the muse of Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989). Many of her novels and short stories were dreamed up as she walked over the hills and around the coves and rocks of the shoreline. There is now an annual festival dedicated to the writer in the port of Fowey close to where she lived.

Sarehole Mill in Birmingham; Bodinnick in Cornwall, home to Daphne du Maurier
Sarehole Mill in Birmingham / Bodinnick in Cornwall, home to Daphne du Maurier ©VisitBritain/Adrian Houston/John James/Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd

North across the Bristol Channel, one of the most celebrated Welsh poets of the 20th century, Dylan Thomas, grew up in Swansea, which he called a “lovely, ugly city”. In one of the stories in his autobiographical collection Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog Thomas and a friend cycle across the Gower Peninsula to Rhossilli Bay. They cross the sands at low tide to Worm’s Head, a spit of land said to resemble a dragon’s head and suffer the fate feared by any walker who does the same thing today.

“We did not speak as we climbed. I thought: ‘If we open our mouths we’ll both say: ‘Too late, it’s too late.’”… We stood on the beginning of the Head and looked down, though both of us could have said, without looking: ‘The sea is in.’” But if you can avoid being stranded on Worm’s Head the Gower is a wonderful place to visit, with some superb beaches and magnificent walks offering glorious views out to sea to the south and west.

College Court in Gloucester, with the Beatrix Potter shop
College Court in Gloucester, with the Beatrix Potter shop ©Phil Wills/Alamy

Later in life Thomas lived west of the Gower, at Laugharne in Carmarthenshire at the Boathouse, on a hillside above the Taf estuary. Here he wrote some of his most famous works, including Under Milkwood, his much-loved ‘play for voices’ about the people of a small coastal town, Llareggub (read it backwards), based on Laugharne. Alongside the Boathouse Thomas’s ‘writing shed’ is preserved much as he left it, complete with a soothing view across the estuary.

A wistfulness pervades Thomas’s works, but for pure nostalgia and sentimentality it would be difficult to match the Waverley novels, by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). Scott’s historical melodramas created an enduring romantic and not entirely accurate image of the Highlands and fierce, kilt-clad clansmen.

Scott’s work gave the reading public a taste for fictional adventures in a wild Gaelic landscape, which probably contributed to the success of some of the books written by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). In his Kidnapped, a young nobleman, David Balfour, is shipwrecked on the islet of Erraid, an outlying part of the Isle of Mull to which you can walk at low tide. To modern tourists the Scottish islands are among the most beautiful places anywhere in Britain. But when Stevenson visited as a young man this remote and wild place clearly made a great impression, which he recalled and used to great effect when describing Balfour’s plight. Today Erraid is privately owned by the Findhorn Foundation, who welcome visitors keen to escape the rush of the modern world.

Top Withins
The ruined farmhouse of Top Withins on Haworth Moor in West Yorkshire is said to have been the inspiration for Wuthering Heights © VisitBritain/Britain on View

But Scotland’s favourite writer was inspired not by the dramatic rugged beauty of the Highlands and islands, but by the people and places of rural Ayrshire. Robert Burns (1759-1796) was born in Alloway, not far from Glasgow, and grew up in a tenant farmer’s cottage which is now part of the Burns Birthplace Museum. His poems, many of which address deceptively ordinary subjects, have captivated millions around the world. For example, in To a Mouse, one of his most famous works, Burns begins by apologising to a fieldmouse for destroying her nest while ploughing, before going on to reflect on the advantages the mouse has over him. “Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!/The present only toucheth thee:/But Och! I backward cast my e’e,/On prospects drear!/An’ forward, tho I canna see,/I guess an’ fear!”

In a way this encapsulates what great literature can do: taking us away from the worries or boredom of daily life and into different, long-lost or wholly imagined worlds. Visiting the places that have fired the imaginations of so many British writers and that continue to do so, helps us to gain a deeper appreciation of their talent and the stories they leave behind for us to enjoy.

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