If you fancy a book pilgrimage this year, look no further than our round-up of Britain’s top literary destinations, taken from the pages of Make The Most Of Your Time In Britain.
The Hay Festival
Hay-on-Wye is a lovely, little Welsh border town that is a pleasure to hang out in for a variety of perfectly good reasons. But it is really about books. Secondhand books. And antiquarian books. And book festivals. And bookshops filling the former cinema. And book cafés. In fact the whole town has been taken over by the book trade with over thirty bookshops packed into a town (really little more than a village) of around two thousand inhabitants.
It’s home to the Hay Festival, an annual celebration of all things booky that Bill Clinton famously dubbed the “Woodstock of the mind”. A-list authors – the likes of Norman Mailer, Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis – have becume regular features, and Arundhati Roy and DBC Pierre effectively launched their careers here. Now, around fifty thousand festival-goers flock to a self-contained site on the outskirts of Hay-on-Wye, complete with massive marquees, stalls and cafés. Many talks are now broadcast or turned into podcasts, and the festival has even expanded to almost a dozen similar events in Mexico, Spain, the Maldives and India, but there’s no substitute for experiencing the original.
Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts takes place in last May or early June – visit www.hayfestival.co.uk.
Novelist, poet…architect. Thomas Hardy’s early profession is his least known, and on first glance of Max Gate near Dorchester, the home he designed for himself in 1885, your first thought isn’t of a talent wasted but slight relief that he turned to writing. It’s a gloomy place, solid red brick – but this curiosity is an intriguing stop on the trail of Dorset’s most famous son.
Dorset’s towns and villages, landscape and language permeates all of Hardy’s writing – so Dorchester itself is Hardy’s Casterbridge, the coastal town of Bere Regis becomes Kingsbere and Cerne Abbas is Abbot’s Cernel, the last two both featuring in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. A full tour of Hardy country would take in all these and more – certainly starting in Dorchester. But, more than visiting any individual town, it’s when you explore deep into rural Dorset that Hardy’s words most resonate.
At the centre of his Wessex Heights – which stretch roughly from the Wiltshire/Berkshire border in the east to the Quantocks to the west – is “homely Bulbarrow”, a magnificent hill in north Dorset with an Iron Age fort, Rawlsbury Camp, and views across the county, including Blackmore Vale, Hardy’s “vale of little dairies” and the home of Tess.
The final stop is where his story started: the absurdly picturesque cob and thatch cottage in Higher Bockhampton, back towards Dorchester, where he was born in 1840, where he wrote his early novels, and which had been the Hardy family home for several generations. Nestled in among the trees, with an attractive garden, it’s the archetype of rural Dorset cottage, and little altered since the family left – a perfect snapshot of his world.
Max Gate and Hardy’s Cottage are both managed by the National Trust (www.nationaltrust.org.uk)
If William Wordsworth really did feel “lonely as a cloud” while strolling beside Ullswater in Cumbria on April 15, 1802, it was an abstract mood, as he wasn’t alone that day: his companion was his devoted sister, Dorothy. Her journal records their delight at seeing a belt of daffodils “about the breadth of a country road”. Make a pilgrimage to the same spot and you can’t help but feel a cosy glow of recognition, mixed with a dash of dreamy romance. Every spring, thanks to the National Trust, a fresh “host of golden daffodils” appears in the dappled shade of Glencoyne Wood on Ullswater’s peaceful shore. You can visit on foot, or cruise the lake aboard a Victorian steamer.
Dorothy’s journal is on display at the Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere, where notebooks, publications, items of clothing and household objects help round out a picture not only of the Wordsworths but also of their close friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the other Romantics. There are more traces of their lives in Dove Cottage next door, home to William and Dorothy from 1799 to May 1808.
Wordsworth considered Grasmere “the fairest place on earth”, but eventually the growing family moved to a larger house, Rydal Mount, a few miles away, remaining there for 37 years. When their beloved daughter Dora died, he and Mary planted hundreds of daffodils at Rydal in her memory; these, too, still emerge every spring.
Dylan Thomas’s “heron priested shore”
On a peaceful tree-lined lane in the shadow of the twelfth-century Laugharne Castle stands a simple, pitched-roof, green shed. Cup your eyes against the small window to reveal a few sketches pinned to the wall, a plain writing desk and a few pieces of balled-up paper scattered on the floor. It is as though Dylan Thomas has just popped out for a pint at his favourite haunt, the snug at nearby Brown’s Hotel.
Swansea’s wild genius poet spent the last four years of his drink-shortened life in the small south Wales town of Laugharne producing some of his finest works from this shed. He’d wrestle over tight lines of poetry for five intense hours each afternoon before wandering along the lane to The Boathouse where he lived with his wife, Caitlin, and their three children. Until Dylan’s death in 1953, aged just 39, the family lived in this gorgeously sited three-storey house with its views of the “heron priested shore” of the Taf Estuary.
Thomas undoubtedly drew inspiration from this beautiful spot, but his real muse was the town and people of Laugharne, which many credit as the model for Llareggub, in his classic Under Milk Wood. Walking the narrow streets of this “lazy little black-magical bedlam by the sea” almost sixty years on from the first performance of his “play for voices” it is hard to conjure up characters like Captain Cat, Mr Waldo and Myfanwy Price.
The final station on the Dylan Thomas tour is the graveyard of St Martin’s church. It is perhaps fittingly underwhelming in a town that has always had a grudging love for its most famous son.
Visit www.dylanthomasboathouse.com for more.
Bloomsbury in Sussex
Daubs, swirls and blocks in earthy colours decorate lamp bases, table tops and chair-backs. Plump nudes recline under a mantelpiece scattered with sepia photos. Spilling over a chimney breast is a fluid mural including a still life, complete with painted-on frame. Who needs gilt frames, when your entire house is your canvas?
This is Charleston Farmhouse, the East Sussex home of post-Impressionist painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Immaculately preserved, it’s a museum to their unfettered creativity. It’s also rich in memorabilia from the freethinking set of writers, artists and intellectuals to which they belonged: the Bloomsbury Group.
The couple moved to this calm corner of Sussex in 1916, amid the turbulence of World War I. Friends, cousins and intimates from London gravitated to Charleston, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster among them. Vanessa’s amicably estranged husband Clive and her younger sister, Virginia Woolf, practically lived there.
Virginia and her husband Leonard fell in love with Sussex so completely that within three years they acquired their own little pocket of green, The Monk’s House, four miles to the west across the fields. It was in this pretty, weatherboarded cottage that Virginia wrote Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse and Orlando. The downstairs rooms, which are open to the public, lovingly recreate the writer’s presence.
Charleston Farmhouse is at Firle, East Sussex (www.charleston.org.uk)
Hay’s challenger: Wigtown
Wigtown in Dumfries and Galloway is Scotland’s answer to Hay and is every bit as quaint and bookish.
Officially designated Scotland’s book town in 1998 after a Scotland-wide search for the perfect place to convert into a literary centre, the town boasts over twenty book-related businesses from The Book Shop, Scotland’s largest for secondhand titles, with over a mile of shelving, to ReadingLasses – possibly the last bookshop specializing in women’s studies left in the country – with a café serving delicious, mostly fair-trade and organic food. There are also smaller, specialist outfits like Byre Books, who focus on folklore and mythology, theatre, film and TV and Scottish interest.
A town of books wouldn’t be complete without an annual literary festival and Wigtown’s takes place over ten days in late September and early October. Speakers in previous years have included Roddy Doyle, Christopher Brookmyre, Iain Banks, David Aaronovitch, Irma Kurtz, Diana Athill, William Dalrymple and Louis de Bernières. There’s music too, such as Burns’ words sung chorally with harp accompaniment, and poetry, film screenings, creative writing workshops, late-night storytelling, cookery demonstrations by Scottish luminaries such as Nick Nairn and a fair amount of history, inspiration, celebration and tasting of the local whisky.
Wigtown Book Festival (www.wigtownbookfestival.com) takes place in late September/early October.
Agatha Christie’s holiday home
Whether or not you’re a fan of the Queen of Crime’s oeuvre, there’s something irresistible about the country-house settings, the sepia-tinted period and the aristocratic ambience of her numerous whodunnit yarns. All of these can be found in abundance at Greenway, a creamy Georgian mansion perched above the River Dart in South Devon, now run by the National Trust. This was her holiday home, which beautifully evokes the spirit of her sinister tales – it was in fact the setting of three of them: Dead Man’s Folly, Five Little Pigs and Ordeal by Innocence.
The present building dates from around 1800 while its interior has the feel of a mid-twentieth-century rustic retreat, filled with baubles and knick-knacks from around the world. You’ll see piles of gardening hats, bound copies of the Ladies’ Magazine from the turn of the eighteenth century, a wardrobe full of party clothes and a generously proportioned wooden WC. Traces of Agatha include dozens of the ornate wooden boxes that she collected, ranks of first editions of her books and tapes of the author discussing her method. And if you’re lucky you’ll come across one of the staff tinkling the ivories in the drawing room.
Outside is a gorgeous succession of walled gardens, old-fashioned greenhouses, fig and apple trees and hidden ponds, with the River Dart sparkling below. When you’ve had your fill, unwind with a leisurely round of croquet followed by tea and scones in the courtyard café.
Head to www.nationaltrust.org.uk for more info.
A walk down Henley Street, where Shakespeare grew up, reveals half-timbered buildings bedecked with lanterns, flags and striped canopies. Halfway up the street is the town’s most famous building, Shakespeare’s old house, complete with ornate leaded windows and splintered wooden flowerboxes that overflow with dazzling purple and red petunias.
Down by the River Avon, you can kick back with a book or explore the magnificent Bancroft Gardens. This part of town is also home to Stratford’s crowning glory, the recently rebuilt Royal Shakespeare Theatre and adjacent Swan Theatre, and it’d be a tragedy not to attend at least one show. The Swan Theatre is almost in the round and the new main stage thrusts out into the auditorium, so in true Shakespearean style, every seat is within spitting distance of the performers, giving you the chance to enjoy plays like Macbeth in all their ghostly detail.
If that puts you in the mood for something spooky, you can amble up to Shrieve’s House – supposedly Stratford’s most haunted building – for a lantern-lit ghost tour. This is where the tortured soul of William Shrieve, an archer in King Henry VIII’s army, is thought to roam restlessly. It’s also where William Rogers, the inspiration for Shakespeare’s comic character Falstaff, ran a popular tavern. Some visitors have reported feeling icy premonitions here, but it’s known as one of Shakespeare’s favourite places.