This trail takes us through literary Wessex and the south west of England, exploring one of Europe’s oldest landscapes; a landscape that has inspired writers and artists for centuries and continues to exert its power and resonance today.
The trail includes the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge, Salisbury and its Cathedral, which boasts the tallest spire in England; the rolling hills of Hardy country; the city of Bath, with its Roman heritage, and Winchester; the coastal town of Lyme Regis; and the picturesque Isle of Wight, lying a short ferry trip from the mainland.
Starting in London, you can re-discover the locations associated with some of the country's greatest literary figures - Shakespeare, Dickens, Johnson and Pepys.
This trail below is set out as a tour offering realistic daily schedule. We can also offer expert guiding; please contact us if you would like to discuss.
Literary Wessex Day 1 Exploring Charles Dickens and Dickensian London. Beginning at the Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street for a guided tour. We will then walk through Dickensian London to Fleet Street, the city’s old publishing centre, to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, where Dr Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, David Garrick, William Makepeace Thackeray, Dickens, Oscar Wilde and W.B. Yeats Rhymers Club met to discuss their work.
In the months following their marriage Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived not far from Cheshire Cheese and ate here regularly because neither had learned to cook.
Literary Wessex Day 2 In the morning leave London for Jane Austen’s House, in Chawton, not far from Winchester.
After lunch, drive on to Winchester Cathedral, the inspiration for Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, and visit Jane Austen’s grave. Take the opportunity to visit King Arthur’s Round Table at the Great Hall and follow John Keats’ Walk, the inspiration for his ode – ‘To Autumn’.
I take a walk every day for an hour before dinner and this is generally my walk. I go out at the back gate across on street, into the Cathedral yard, along a paved path, past the beautiful front of the Cathedral, turn to the left under a stone doorway – then I am on the other side of the building – which leaving behind me I pass on through two college-like squares seemingly built for the dwelling place of deans and Prebendaries – garnished with grass and shaded with trees. Then I pass through one of the old city gates…
Literary Wessex Day 3 In the morning drive to Southampton to take the ferry to the Isle of Wight and the Farringford Hotel, formerly the home of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
The hotel is close to Freshwater Bay, where Lord Tennyson, Julia Margaret Cameron, G.F. Watts, Annie Ritchie, Edward Lear, Virginia Woolf and others lived and wrote. Woolf’s only play, Freshwater (1935), concerns her life and friends here.
Pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron’s had her home and studio at Dimbola Lodge, just inland from Freshwater bay. Dimbola Lodge is now a museum and exhibition space. Dr Brian Hinton MBE, Chairman of Dimbola Lodge is an authority on Tennyson, Cameron and the literary history of The Isle of Wight.
Literary Wessex Day 4 In the morning, visit Literary Bonchurch, the hotel where Charles Dickens wrote parts of David Copperfield, the house where Algernon Swinburne was raised and the grave in which he is laid to rest. We will then travel to the northern part of the Island and visit Shanklin and Colebrooke, where John Keats lived and wrote.
Keats wrote ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, ‘Lamia’ and part of his epic ‘Hyperion’ at Shanklin, which he described in a letter as:
a most beautiful place, sloping woods and meadow grounds reach around the Chine, which is a cleft between the Cliffs to a depth of nearly 300 feet at least. This cleft is filled with trees and bushes in the narrow part, and as it widens becomes bare, if not for primroses on one side, which spread to the very verge of the Sea, and some fishermen’s huts on the other, perched midway in the Balustrades of beautiful green Hedges along their steps to the sands – But the sea, Jack, the sea – the little waterfall – then the white cliff – then St Catherine’s Hill.
Take the ferry back to the mainland.
Literary Wessex Day 5 Exploring the heart of literary Wessex - sites and landscapes associated with Thomas Hardy and the Vale of the Little Dairies. These include:
Sturminster Newton, where he wrote The Return of the Native (1878) and in Marnhull Tess’s Cottage (no public access), and the Crown - which in Tess was The Pure Drop Inn.
Dorchester - Hardy’s Casterbridge, and just outside of the town 'Hardy's Cottage', his birthplace and childhood home, and Max Gate, the house that he built nearby. Also, Stinsford Church, where his heart is buried.
Hardy chose to build his home at Max Gate as it looks out across open fields towards Winterborne Came and the world of his friend, the dialect poet, William Barnes who, like the musicians gallery in Stinsford church where Hardy’s father played the violin, reminded him of a rural way of life celebrated in Under The Greenwood Tree (1872).
The destruction of that way of life is artfully shown in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), where Henchard’s reliance upon weather lore, verbal agreements and rule of thumb are replaced by Farfrae’s more calculated economic methods and technical innovation.
Literary Wessex Day 6 In the morning take the opportunity to visit Sherborne Abbey, where poet and statesman, Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42), who pioneered the sonnet in England, is buried. The former lover of Anne Boleyn and favourite of Catherine Howard died of a fever whilst passing through Sherborne on the king’s business. His Songes and Sonettes (1557), translations and imitations of Petrarch’s sonnets, appeared in Tottel’s Miscellany, setting the trend for aristocratic love poetry.
In the afternoon, Sherborne Castle, built by the poet, courtier and adventurer, Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), who in 1594 wrote The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage, in 1594. He developed the castle from a medieval hunting lodge after persuading Queen Elizabeth I to allow him to buy the deer park from the church.
Ralegh’s literary friends included Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and John Donne - all of whom fell in and out of favour with court circles.
Ralegh seduced the Queen’s Maid, Elizabeth Throckmorton, and was imprisoned. He eventually married Elizabeth and moved to Sherborne. After he was beheaded in 1618, Elizabeth took his head back to Sherborne so that his friends and staff could pay their respects.
Literary Wessex Day 7 In the morning travel to the coastal town of Lyme Regis, with its Cobb and harbour walk, inspiration to Jane Austen in Persuasion (1818) and to John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), which is set largely in 1867 Lyme Regis. Jane Austen holidayed in Lyme Regis in 1803 and 1804, and there is a Jane Austen Garden.
John Fowles (1926-2005) moved to Belmont House in 1965 and curated the Lyme Regis Museum from 1978-88. Here Fowles wrote The Ebony Tower (1974), Daniel Martin (1977), Mantissa (1982), A Maggot (1985) and The Tree (1992).
John Fowles's house is now a Landmark Trust property available for holiday let.
Fossils have been discovered locally since the early nineteenth century and it is believed that the tongue twister, ‘She sells seashells on the sea shore’ is derived from the exploits of Mary Anning, who found an entire marine dinosaur in 1811 and continued to find and sell fossils in Lyme Regis throughout her life.
Henry Fielding, Tennyson, Llewelyn Powys and Graham Swift have also been inspired by Lyme’s Jurassic landscape.
The literary Wessex tour then moves to the Somerset levels and the Isle of Avalon, the centre of King Arthur’s Wessex.
Literary Wessex Day 8 Glastonbury, the site of the legends of King Arthur and the ancient home of Christianity in England, remains a spiritual centre and place of pilgrimage. Its history inspired medieval writers and chroniclers, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth and Thomas Malory, as well as Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859), John Masefield’s novel, The Badon Parchments (1948) and A Glastonbury Romance (1933) by John Cowper Powys. We will visit the Abbey ruins where monks are believed to have found the remains of Arthur and Guinevere in 1191 and the Tor where some suggest Joseph of Arimathea and his followers buried the Holy Grail.
John Cowper Powys captures the spirit of the place:
As these two slept, the shapeless moon sank down over the rim of the Polden Hills. As these two slept, little gusts of midnight air, less noticeable than any wind but breaking the absolute stillness, stirred the pale, green leaf-buds above many a half-finished hedge-sparrow’s nest between Queen’s Sedgemoor and the Lake Village flats. Here and there, unknown to Sam Dekker or any other naturalist, a few among such nests held one or two cold untimely eggs, over whose brittle blue-tinted rondure moved in stealthy motion these light-borne air stirrings pursuing their mysterious journeys from one dark horizon to another.
Literary Wessex Day 9 In the morning travel to Bath, with fabulous Georgian architecture - don't miss the Royal Crescent; the Roman Baths and the Pump rooms, and the Jane Austen centre.
Literary figures associated with Bath include the wits, Congreve, Gay and Arbuthnot; Dr Johnson, Hester Thrale; Fanny Burney; Richard Brinsley Sheridan; Sarah Siddons; Shelley and Mary Godwin; Dickens; Thackeray, and many others.
Literary Wessex Day 10 To see Stonehenge, of which Henry James (who visited in 1872) wrote:
You may put a hundred questions to these rough-hewn giants as they bend in grim contemplation of their fallen companions; but your curiosity falls dead in the vast sunny stillness that enshrouds them, and the strange monument, with all its unspoken memories, becomes simply a heart-stirring picture in a land of pictures …
The centre of the stones is also, of course, where Tess, of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the Durbevilles, dies.
Travel on to the Cathedral city of Salisbury, following in the footsteps of Samuel Pepys, who visited Salisbury in 1668.
Literary Wessex Day 11 In the morning we conclude our tour of literary Wessex proper with a visit to Salisbury Cathedral, inspiration to Anthony Trollope’s The Warden (1855) and William Golding’s The Spire (1964). Golding taught at Bishop’s Wordsworth school next to the cathedral.
The Cathedral contains a commemorative stone to Sir Philip Sidney’s sister and inspiration for The Arcadia (1590), the poet, Mary, Countess of Pembroke, inscribed with an epitaph by William Browne, and a bust of local writer and naturalist, Richard Jefferies.
From Salisbury, complete the circle in travelling back to London.
Literary Wessex Day 12 Round up the tour with a visit Westminster Bridge, about which Wordsworth wrote Earth has not anything to show more fair following his walk on 3rd September 1802 across the bridge.
Close by are the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey within which Poet’s Corner pays tribute to the country's most celebrated poets and writers.