Monday 19 April 2010

Me and my mate, Clive, went to Chawton.

During August last year, an old school friend of mine, Clive, came over from Hamilton Ontario to spend two weeks with Marilyn, my wife and my family.

Clive arrived on the 7th August. I met him off his flight at Heathrow and drove him home to Wimbledon in South London by way of the M25, the motorway that circles London. The traffic is so bad on the M25 it has been called Britains largest car park by some humorous wag.

One of the things I wanted to do while Clive was over here was to show him Jane Austen's cottage at Chawton.

We set off for Hampshire and Chawton the following morning.From where I live Chawton is about 45 miles due south along the A3 to Guildford. A very pleasant drive over the Hogsback and past Farnham and along the A32. Fields, woodlands , valleys and rivers pass by.The imposing structure of Guildford Cathedral high up on it's hill could be seen on the left as we drove south. It was built in the 1950's and is one of Britains newer cathedrals but it is still magnificent with it's great tall golden statue of the Archangel Michael surmounting it's central tower. The views from the Hogsback looking over the rolling Surrey country side are wonderful. Jane Austen often travelled from Chawton to London on this same route. She wrote about the Hogsback and it's marvelous vistas in her letters.Travelling to London in a curricle with her brother Henry on Thursday 20th may 1813, she writes , "the weather was delightful the greatest part of the day,Henry found it too warm & talked of it's being close sometimes, but to my capacity it was perfection.- I never saw the Country from the Hogsback so advantageously."

Clive and I saw the country from the Hogsback advantageously too the day we travelled. There is a small roadside cafe on the Hogsback. We stopped there for the view.

We arrived in Chawton and parked in the village car park next to the pub car park. They are two distinct car parks, separated by a scraggly thin looking hedge. Both are free to park in but to use the pub car park you really should go into the pub and have a beer or a bite to eat.Any excuse!!

Fields with wide extensive vistas populated by single trees, clumps of trees and dotted with sheep, surround Chawton. The countryside is as it would have been in the 18th century.

The main crossroads in Chawton has a traditional sign post that shows the directions to the parish church of St Nicholas, to Alton, the local town that Jane knew well, and the direction to Jane's cottage. The flag pole occasionally flies the union jack, especially on St Georges day.

I wanted to show Clive Jane Austen's cottage before our pub lunch.

The cottage stands, red bricks and tile roofed, massively, on the corner of the crossroads in Chawton.

Jane Austen, her mother, her sister Cassandra and her best friend, Martha Lloyd, moved into this cottage on her brother Edward Knight's estate in 1809. She was to live here for the rest of her short life. She died in 1817 at the age of 42, still in the process of writing two more novels, Sanditon and The Watsons and still fighting to get her work published and trying to get a good price for them.
I always think that the best thing to do is to explore the cottage quietly on your own. The very kind, friendly and knowledgeable people running the cottage, which is owned by the Jane Austen Society, will answer any questions you might have. They allow you to take photographs as long as you don't use a flash. That's OK with me. Flash,unless used appropriately and expertly bleaches a picture . I'd much rather adjust the ISO number and exposure time and focal length. The mood , richness and quality of pictures are much better without flash.Using natural light and the light available sets the scene much better too.
This is our tour of Jane's cottage and Chawton.
The dining room is at the front of the cottage. Jane sat at the window here looking out onto the road. It was the main road from London to Gosport, Winchester and Alton.She wrote at a small table positioned in the window. A large table is set with Regency tableware, for dinner. To the left of the fireplace is a cupboard in which Jane kept the families precious supply of tea.

In one bedroon is a naval officers bed. It is easily dismantled and put together again.It belonged to one of Jane's brothers, Francis, who was an officer and became an admiral in the Royal Navy. On the wall behind the bed are pictures of some of the ships he served in.
Jane and her sister Cassandra had a small bedroom at the back of the house overlooking a courtyard. There was a single bed for each of them in here.
Jane and Cassandra would often sit together, either side of the fireplace, in the evening, talking and taking turns to read Jane's writing, discussing characters and ideas as her novels progressed.There is a reconstruction of the sort of bed, with it's drapes, that Jane and Cassandra would have slept in. It is made by the same firm that Jane and Cassandra's original beds came from.

In a small side room upstairs there is another bed which has a copy of Jane's quilt spread across it. In her letters there are references to a quilt she is making. Jane often asks Cassandra to look out for peices of material that she can include in the making of this. Writing to Cassandra on Friday 31st may 1811 ," Have you remembered to collect peices for the Patchwork? - We are now at a standstill."
Earlier in the same letter we are treated to an example of Jane's wit and maybe, in this case, a sort of false tact. She tells Cassandra about the state of some mulberry bushes that Cassandra had obviously planted in the garden at Chawton. " I will not say that your Mulberry trees are dead, but they are not alive." A Jane Austen joke, well maybe.

Downstairs there is a pianoforte. Jane liked the music of the day and often played a pianoforte. Some sheet music, that Jane would have enjoyed, is placed on the music stand.

An original bookcase from the time of Jane, has a large selection of her first editions.

Tradition says that Jane relied on a creaking door, that lead into the dining room where she wrote, to warn her of people appraoching. If anybody entered from the rear of the house the door would creak and it gave Jane time to hide her writing. She was very protective of her work. She didn't want everybody to know that she wrote novels at first.This is a symptom of the attitudes of the time towards women.

At the back of the cottage there is a large yard surrounded by out buildings. There is a well in the yard that Edward, her brother, had dug especially for his mother and sisters moving into the cottage. Jane's bedroom is on the left above the glass roofed extension.

This is a sight Jane would often see. It is the view as you come out of her bedroom to walk downstairs.
Mrs Austen,her name was Cassandra too, had a much more spacious bedroom than her daughters room.
Jane's writing table is a flimsy delicate looking peice of furniture. She must have used other tables and other surfaces but by tradition she wrote on this table. You can imagine her editing Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice and writing Mansfield Park on its grained and scratched surface.

After Clive and I had spent some time in the cottage it was time for a pub lunch. Across the road from the cottage is the Greyfriar, a Fullers pub. Fullers are a brewery in North London. They brew some great real ale.The pub has a wonderful menu. The food is excellent, especially when accompanied by a pint of London Pride ale. The back garden is relaxing to sit out in on a sunny summers day. You can look into the neighbours back gardens.The gardens are English country gardens brimming with holleyhocks, roses, bluebells in spring and a whole variety of English country garden plants.Take your note books and cameras when you visit.

After a tour of Jane's cottage I was desperate to get across the road for a beer.

The back of the Greyfriars is a jumble of extended buildings, oak tables,terracotta pots with climbing shrubs and plants and our two pints of beer begun, but not yet finished. After a filling repast of steak and kidney pie cooked in ale and one pint of quenching beer, I was driving, so one pint was my limit, we decided it was time to take the Gosport Road. Gosport is about twenty miles from Chawton and we had no intention of walking all the way there. The road itself is the road that passes the windows of Jane's cottage and leads towards St Nicholas's Church and The Great House. It leads nowhere else nowadays. There is a new Gosport road that bypasses the village.

On our left, on the other side of a moss capped flint wall,was Chawton Cricket clubs pitch.The club dates from 1883 and it's President is Robert Knight, who decends from the same Knight family Edward, Jane's brother, was adopted into. The most famous of the early cricket clubs in England was at Hambledon only about thirty miles from Chawton. Hambledon Cricket Club was founded in the early 1760's. Cricket became a very popular country sport. It brought villages together regularly to play against each other and set up friendly rivalries.Although Chawton didn't get it's own official club until long after Jane died it would have been played in the area amongst the farmers and farm labourers on an adhoc basis. Jane may well have seen a game played amongst the villagers herself.

Oh yes getting back to that moss capped, flint wall. You come across many walls made from napped flint. Some cottages are built from it.Flint is a hard crystalline formation found in sedimentary rocks mostly chalk and limestone. The South Downs of England are made from chalk deposits so there are a lot of areas flint can be procured from near Chawton.It has been a very useful material over the millenia. Stone age man was able to make sharp tools such as scrapers, knives and axes from it. It has and is used as a building material and also it is great for creating a spark, when struck, to light a fire. In the 17th and 18th century small pieces of flint were inserted into the firing mechanisms of flintlock rifles. A spark from the sharply struck flint ignited the gunpowder in the pan and created a small explosion that fired the musket ball.

I thought this wall looked so wonderful I just had to take a picture of it.

Then of course Clive had to take a picture of me taking a picture of the flint wall. It all got a little crazy, especially when a lady wearing a bonnet, pelise and attired in a long dress, walked up to us, introduced herself as Jane and offered to a take picture of us.
Clive and I stood, arms around each others shoulders in the long driveway that leads up to The Great House.Picture taken by......!!!!!!!!!! Well, who else do you think could have taken it?

Just checking to see how much battery life I had left in my camera and the amount of space I had left on my memory card.

A mile stone on the old Gosport Road.

On our walk from Jane's cottage to St Nicholas's Church and The Great House, Clive and I passed many beautiful old cottages. Most of them would have been here in Jane's time.

Thatch is a common roofing material in Chawton.
You can find traditonal thatched roofed cottages in many Hampshire villages. Throughout England you can see many varieties of thatching.

Thatching has been used for centuries. Iron Age huts , Roman buildings, Saxon, Norman, Tudor Elizabethan,Stuart, Georgian buildings , up to this day.Water reeds are the most durable and can last up to fifty years before needing to be replaced.Straw and wheat can be used too.The gentle contours and swelling shapes made by a thatched roof give the cottages a homely comfortable feel.

On the way along the Gosport Road towards St Nicholas's Church there are many gardens that can be described as traditional English country gardens.Wisteria climbs around some of the doorways and works its way along the eaves. The gardens are a mass of informally scattered flowers. A whole artists pallet of colours created by tall holleyhocks,climbing roses, delphiniums, allysum and interspersed with fragrant herbs and wild daisies.The untidyness is important.An English country garden is wild and unkempt but becomes a glorious mass of colour reaching all heights and levels.

Most of the cottages in Chawton are made of brick.
Bricks have been made in the vicinity of Chawton for centuries. The brickyard at Selborne, five miles from Chawton, has been there at least since 1872. It still makes handmade bricks. All the bricks that were used to build Jane's cottage and the other 17th and 18th century and some older, cottages were handmade from local clays.

Bricks have been layed in different patterns throughout the centuries . Bricks are layed to create a strong wall that can stand the test of time. In the late 17th century and early 18th century English bond was popular. This consisted of alternate courses of headers and stretchers. The header is the smaller end of the brick. The stretcher is the long side. Clive and I really needed a ruler with us to test the measurements of the bricks. You might find it interesting to know that a 17th century brick generally measured 2 inches high, 4 5/8 inches wide and 9 3/4 inches long, while an 18th century brick measured 2 5/8 inches high, 4 1/4 inches wide and 8 3/4 inches long. Of course, we could tell which was which by just looking from a distance.

Back in the Greyfriars Clive recorded the name of the beer he had drunk. Well, that's going to be a literary gem for the generations to come.

Just outside of the gateway to The Great House is an 18th century shepherds hut. A shepherd would live in a hut like this in the fields where his flock were grazing, especially during the lambing season, so he could keep an eye on their wellfare. I couldn't resist having a look inside. It made me think of the scene in Thomas Hardy's ,Far From The Madding Crowd, where Gabriel Oak is tending his flock on the Dorset cliffs.Gabriel Oak was living in a hut very similar to the one near The Great House. It also has associations with Bathsheba Everdeen played by Julie Christie in the film. OH!! memories of Julie Christie............. Sorry,........ mustn't go there.

The present day St Nicholas Church is not the church Jane would have known. It as been rebuilt since her day.

If Clive can catch me out looking into the shepherds hut here's a picture of Clive getting a good angle on St Nicholas's.

In the fields around The Great House you can often see shire horses grazing, like these. In Janes time they would have been used to pull ploughs and heavy carts. In George Orwells Animal farm, Boxer, the workhorse was one of these shire horses. Boxer's maxim was, " I will work harder."

The graves of Jane's mother and sister are in the churchyard of St Nicholas.
As you face the two graves her mother, Cassandra, is on the left and her sister, Cassandra Elizabeth is on the right.
Mrs Austen died on the 18th January 1827 at the age of 87. Her sister, Cassandra, died on the 27th march 1845 at the age of 72.
The Great House is just as Jane knew it. It belonged to her brother Edward who was adopted into the wealthy Knight family. It is now a library for women authors who wrote from 1600 to 1830. It is open to the public but you have to phone first to make an appointment. It has strong links with the University of Southampton, providing resources for it's masters degree in 18th century studies. The grounds of the house are being restored to the landscape style of the 18th century. At the end of our Chawton sojourn, Clive and I returned to my car in the car park, near Jane's cottage and then we drove home.

Sunday 11 April 2010

Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens nearly said ,"Hello."

Charles Dickens argued with the waiter over his bill.
Thomas Hardy hesitated when approaching Dickens and the moment passed.

Claire Tomalin recounts a story about Thomas Hardy in her excellent biography,"A Time Torn Man."

Hardy was a young man. He was living in Surbiton, one of the London suburbs near Kingston upon Thames at the time. He had just married Emma Gifford and they moved into a house called St Davids Villa in Hook Road.He was working as an architect for a firm in London and hadn't become famous as a writer.

Hardy was in the Strand and popped into a coffee shop for a cup of tea and a bite to eat. Charles Dickens was sitting there. He was immediately recognisable to Thomas Hardy as he would have been to anybody. Hardy was about to go over and introduce himself and say hello but Dickens called over a waiter and began arguing about his bill. Dickens was ever concerned about the money.Hardy hesitated and the moment passed. The two greatest novelists of the Victorian period nearly met.

Thomas de Quincey and Charles Dickens

Thomas de Quinceys blue plaque in Tavistock Street.
The house Thomas de Quincey lived in while writing, Confessions of an Opium Eater.

The Lyceum Theatre in Wellington Street just off the Strand. Many of Dickens stories were dramatised here and it became famous for the production of HAIR in the 1960's.

The corner of Wellington Street and Tavistock Street. The offices of All the Year Round were in this building. You can just see the Lyceum theatre in the background. The pale stone fronted building further down the street was the site of the offices for Houshold Words.

Dickens had a flat on the top floor for when he wanted to stay in town over night. He was living at the time at Gads Hill near Rochester. A thirty mile walk for Dickens, which he often did.

The offices for Dickens magazine, All the year Round. There is a coffee shop now on the ground floor.

The studious, hard working Dickens, showing total concentration.
Dickens,strong and determined.
Thomas De Quincey.The eyes tell a story. I have got a passion for photographing blue plaques in London. For those who have been to London I am sure you have noticed blue plaques dotted about the place on various buildings.

They are there to commemorate a famous person who once lived in that house. A blue plaque usually gives the name of the person, their date of birth and death and their occupation.

Tavistock Street and Wellington Street are two such roads that have the honour of having blue plaques. The two streets join each other. They are close The Strand. The Lyceum theatre is in Wellington Street about 100 yards from the corner of Tavistock Street.

Thomas de Quincey, the writer of Confessions of an Opium Eater, lived in Tavistock Street. Charles Dickens opened the offices of his magazine, All The Year Round, on the corner of Tavistock Street and Wellington Street. De Quincey died in the year 1859 the very year Dickens moved into the corner offices. However Dickens had worked for the magazine Household Words before this. The offices to this magazine was also in Wellington Street opposite the Lyceum Theatre. Dickens may well have seen or met De Quincey.

Dickens would often dash down Wellington Street to the Lyceum to help his friend , Fletcher, with the productions at the the theater. Stage versions of ,The Cricket on the Hearth, and A tale of two Cities, as well as other adaptations of Dickens works, were performed there.

De Quincey might have been amused with the goings on at the Lyceum theater in the 1960's, a mere few hundred yards from his own front door. The musical HAIR opened there. Nudity , lewdness, drug taking, the psychedelic experience, De Quincey would have known it well. Did he invent the phrases, "Yeah man!. Cool. Right on." De Quincey definitely, "let it,all hang out."
"Give Peace a chance!" De Quinceys friend John Lennon thought that up. Oh sorry, I'm getting confused,must cut down on my opium intake. The fantasies are taking over. John Lennon and de Quincey, of course not!!!!!

Tuesday 6 April 2010

A cup of tea with Jane Austen

Tea clippers. These were specially designed fast sailing boats that brought tea back from China as fast as possible. The best could reach 18 knots in speed. This was about twenty miles an hour.
The entrance to Twinings at 216 The Strand.

The Opium Wars in China.

The Boston Tea Party.

A Coffee House in 18th/19th century London. Although they were called coffee houses, this was where tea was drunk too.

Another view of the entrance to Twinings in The Strand.

The dining room at Chawton. The cupboard on the left was where Jane locked away the tea.

An example of the crockery that Wedgewood, Royal Doulton and Spode made to meet the demands of tea drinkers.

In a letter written to Cassandra on Saturday 5th March 1814 from Henrietta Street, amongst gossip about the theatre, mending a petticoat, Henry having a cold, going out for walks and meeting people, Jane writes,

"I am sorry to hear that there has been a rise in tea. I do not mean to pay Twining till later in the day, when we may 0rder a fresh supply."

Tea, that quintessential of all English habits. Taking tea, preferably in the afternoon, was a very genteel past time.

Before 1784 tea was smuggled into England. Tea changed the business and political landscape. Opium was traded for it in China. It was a cause celebre in The American War of Independence.It gave a boost to ship building and the efficient design of boats. It was tinder under the industrial revolution causing a great leap forward in the designs and techniques of the pottery industry of The Midlands.

Tea carried with it enormous taxes.Only the very wealthy could afford to buy it legitimately. The merchants dealing in the Chinese tea trade made their fortunes.Because of this it was ripe for smuggling. Ships captains, who brought the tea back to Britain in their ships, carried their legitimate cargo but often stashed illegal tea in their cabins to sell on the black market and make their own fortune.

There are records of brutal encounters with some smugglers. In 1747 The Hawkeshurst gang in Poole in Dorset, attacked the customs house killing the customs officials and taking back their tea that had been confiscated. This gang, that numbered sixty members, were also accused of the brutal treatment of anybody who informed on them.

In 1783, Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister. One of the first things he did was to solve the problem of tea.
In 1784 The Commutation Act was passed. This reduced the tax on tea considerably. Because tea was now relatively cheap smuggling was stopped in it's tracks. The smuggling of tea was made unprofitable.

One of the prime reasons for The American War of Independence was that America was ruled from Britain and the taxes the British levied were brought back to Britain. The colonists were expected to pay taxes to a country 3000 miles away. They felt that they should have the autonomy to make their own decisions and decide on taxes that benefited themselves. Tea was one of the problems. It was expensive and the colonists found they could buy their tea cheaper from the Dutch and French. In 1773 The Tea Act was passed by Lord North, the British Prime Minister, and the British Parliament.This act forced the colonists to buy tea only from British merchants at a much higher rate. Conflict was bound to ensue.

Perhaps one of the most shameful links to tea, was the opium trade with China.The Chinese people were becoming affected badly by addiction to opium. The British paid for tea partly with silver, and partly with opium from India. It was not grown in China itself. In 1839 the Chinese rulers tried to curb the British trade of opium but two wars ensued and the Chinese lost both.

In the early 1800's, at the time Jane is writing her letter to Cassandra, tea had become cheaper and was within the price range of most middle class families or even lower class families. The Austens had obviously formed the new habit of taking fternoon tea. Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford has been credited with introducing the habit of taking afternoon tea.

The telling phrase that Jane writes in her letter is, ".....there has been a rise in tea."

What could this mean?

It refers to a rise in the price of tea, but why?

In 1814, the Peninsula War ended. Napoleon's armies had been defeated in Spain by Arthur Wellesley . The French had been driven back and even Paris had been taken. Napoleon abdicated that year.Perhaps the British Government needed to raise taxes to strengthen the army so it could police the defeated French. The Spanish were now a strong ally and they might need help in rebuilding their war torn country. Or it could mean bad weather. If tea clippers had been lost at sea because of stormy weather, tea would have become scarcer and so more expensive. War, bad weather or both? Perhaps failed crops in China had been a cause?

Jane's concern with the price of tea and her hope to replenish their supply at Henrietta Street has many resonances.

Jane bought her tea from Twinings in the Strand. The shop and entrance are there to this day.

Thomas Twining opened his first shop at 216 the Strand in 1706. Twinings are still a thriving company dealing in different teas. They were the first to blend tea to obtain a consistent flavour.

If you visit Jane's cottage at Chawton in Hampshire there is a cupboard in the corner of the dining room to the left of the fireplace. The door to the cupboard has a lock on it. Jane had the responsibility of looking after the treasured, tea and coffee supplies. She held the key to unlock the tea cupboard.