Why we all need to get out more…  

Do you have a list of ‘Places I Must Visit’? If so, make this summer break the time you leap into the car, guidebook in hand and fulfil those promises. It will do you the world of good as LESLEY FINLAY found…

There is something quite haunting and awesome in treading the floorboards in a house where one of your literary heroes once lived. I remember, as a late teenager, walking into the Brontë Parsonage at Haworth, stepping in the shadows of my heroine Emily Brontë, my eyes stinging with tears of reverence. ‘She was really here..she breathed this air…she walked this floor…’

Then out onto the moor I duly strode – breathing in the bitter wind, imagining I was Emily herself – looking over the desolate landscape, full of the angst and drama only that age engenders. Of course, those memories make me smile now but they illustrate why the homes of literary giants are preserved.

And preserved they are, generally by a hardy band of volunteers who are dedicated to the task.

Today, the Brontë Parsonage Museum is a busy place, offering a full menu of educational tours and creative learning opportunities, including a chance to experience a Victorian school lesson and drama workshops.

This is the impression I got when I visited Jane Austen’s House in Chawton, Hampshire. Tucked away off the busy trunk road to Southampton, the village in which the house sits is quintessentially English, with a beautiful green.

The house and its contents are lovingly exhibited, curated and discussed, while the gardens are a treat, and the kitchen and working areas of the house particularly interesting. The displays give just enough information while an education room supports a full programme of activities for students of all ages.

Austen lived here for the last eight years of her life, with her sister Cassandra, who took the decision, after the author’s death, to destroy the bulk of her correspondence. If only she had not.

Austen completed three of her novels in Chawton and wrote the final three in the house, which puts into context the sheltered world depicted in her books.

This house is a real treat for any fan of Austen, whose 19th century world we can still enter in the 21st century.

A rather different experience is Dickens World, a purpose-built, modern temple to one of Kent’s most famous adopted sons. Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth but spent his early years in the back streets of Chatham, then moved to the rural idyll of Gads Hill Place once an established writer.

The Medway Towns, comprising Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham, have claimed him as their own, with an annual Dickens Festival, and this attraction.

The exhibits cover a mix of information about Dickens’s life (a reproduction of the blacking factory, for example) and his novels (the Victorian schoolroom as depicted in Nicholas Nickleby).

It is more than worth a visit, for all lovers of Dickens, and you will certainly pick up some great ideas for schools trips. But having said that, summer is the time to feed your own soul – so first, go on, eat, drink and be merry.

The Brontë Parsonage Museum Haworth, Keighley, West Yorkshire BD22 8DR
Email: info@bronte.org.uk Tel: 01535 642323
Jane Austen’s House Chawton, Alton, Hampshire, GU34 1SD Tel: 01420 83262
Dickens World Leviathan Way, Chatham Maritime, Kent, ME4 4LL
Tel : 01634 890 421 Email: enquiries@dickensworld.co.uk