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British sites haunted by literary giants

By Paul Knowles

In the homes of Rudyard Kipling, Vita Sackville-West, or Sir Walter Scott, you will feel their presence... but it's tough to get an autograph. (Photo: Bateman's, home of Rudyard Kipling; Nancy Knowles photo).

 

Shown is Bateman's, the home of Rudyard Kipling.

Nancy Knowles photo.

"Haunted" can be such an unfair word, conjuring up malevolent ghosts and frightening encounters. Which leaves a writer in a most difficult situation when he wants to describe a very real presence in a place like, for instance, Bateman's, a National Trust home in East Sussex, England.

Bateman's was the home of author Rudyard Kipling from 1902 until his death in January, 1936. But seven decades later, visitors to Bateman's would swear that Kipling has just left his study to stroll in the beautiful and extensive gardens. The study ­- like the rest of the house -­ is replete with Kipling artifacts: his lacquer pen-tray, his pewter inkpot, his day-bed. The room is filled with authentic pieces; it is truly "haunted" by Rudyard Kipling. He is there; throughout his wonderfully furnished house, built in 1634, he is there.

It could be argued that all of the United Kingdom is truly haunted by its unfairly generous supply of significant writers. Nowhere else in the world can one visit as many homes and historic sites related to the great ­- and, perhaps, marginally great ­- authors and poets of our western civilization. A promotional map offered by VisitBritain lists 82 writers and one or more sites associated with each of them. And that list is by no means complete.

Some of these suggestions are geared to the devoted fan, only ­- a garden in memory of Robert Louis Stevenson, on the site of his now-demolished house, for example.

Some carry more interest than actual inspiration. Lamb House, Henry James' former home in Rye, for instance, is occupied by tenants, open only a few hours a week, and conveys little of James' life; it does have a wonderful walled garden accessible only from the house, however. And Rye is always worth a leisurely visit.

Meanwhile, Thomas Hardy's cottage, in Higher Bockhampton, Dorset, leaves you astonished that anyone could find inspiration in such humble and cramped quarters. Hardy fans will love it; visitors looking to combine literature with more tactile entertainment will be somewhat disheartened.
But these examples are the exceptions, not the rule. Great Britain is well-stocked with impressive, evocative, "haunted" literary locales, open to visitors, from north to south and east to west.

My favourites include Sir Walter Scott's home, Abbotsford, beside the River Tweed, near Melrose in the Scottish borders. The entire house speaks of Scott - his interests, his collections, his craft -­ but his small, quaint, two-storey study with an interior balcony to allow access to the books above is one of the most perfect rooms you will ever visit, and his full library will stop a book-lover in one's tracks for hours.

In middle England, despite the obvious tourism hooks and less-than-classy souvenirs, the collection of Shakespeare sites in Stratford-Upon-Avon must be visited. From his wife Anne Hathaway's Cottage just outside the city, to several restored historic houses associated with the Bard, there are plenty of opportunities to soak up the dramatic ambiance. My preferred site is not a home this time, but a church ­- Holy Trinity, where Shakespeare served as a reader, and is now buried near an authentic bust of his likeness.

In the south-west of England, the fabulous village of Fowey was home to Daphne Du Maurier ­- and continues to host an annual Du Maurier festival. In this case, the entire village ­- perched on the steep Cornwall coast -­ offers the connection with the author, and the surrounding countryside, including Bodmin Moor, where one can still have a pint at the Jamaica Inn.

In south-east England, just south of London's M20 Ring Road, is a wonderful property associated with a man whose career defies easy definition. He was a Nobel Prize-winning author, but he was also a painter of repute, a journalist, a brick-layer, a politician, and not incidentally, the man who saved the world in the 1940s. Winston Churchill's beloved Chartwell is worth repeated visits - as I have done ­- and as with the not-too-distant Bateman's, Churchill's study and artist's studio have been preserved with such attention to detail that one can still smell the cigar smoke. Chartwell, too, is undoubtedly "haunted" by the great man.

Churchill's beloved ChartwellChartwell and Churchill, by the way, did not even make the "Literary Britain" brochure, perhaps because Winston was rather better known wearing his other hats; the same applies to Vita Sackville-West, a tireless author and member of the Bloomsbury Group who was better known for her garden, Sissinghurst, in Kent. None the less, visitors to her garden can also visit her essentially unchanged study and her workroom half-way up the central tower. Ironically, Vita's son, the prolific author Nigel Nicholson, passed away quite recently, having spent most of his days writing quietly in the garden house at the back corner of the meadow garden, as hundreds of thousands of visitors passed, oblivious to the literary work proceeding a few feet away.

There are sites in the United Kingdom associated with authors ranging from Chaucer to P.D. James; from Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne to George Bernard Shaw and Charles Dickens.

And more are in the offing; more recently, the Oxford home where J.R.R. Tolkein wrote "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" was declared a historically significant building.

In Oxford, one can find connections to writers as varied as C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, Charles Williams and Colin Dexter.

And throughout the U.K., sites associated with Virginia Woolf, Jane Austin, J.M. Barrie, Robert Burns, and James Herriot are all eager to welcome bibliophiles.

And - a word to the wise -­ near most of them are ... book stores. Book stores stocked with volumes, new and used, by your favourite authors. I have found first editions by C.S. Lewis, and books signed by authors like John Mortimer - in each case, for £1.

And on the jumbled shelves in a used book shop in Royal Tunbridge Wells, just north of Kipling's Bateman's, I found an overlooked first edition of "Rewards and Fairies," by Rudyard Kipling, published in 1910 while the author was living at Bateman's. I grabbed it at a bargain basement price. Then, I could not decide whether to return to Kipling's haunted study at his home, just to see if he might pop back in from the garden and sign my book.

I decided not to do so. But something that felt very present at Bateman's tells me I may have been wrong.

For more information on Literary Britain, go to www.visitbritain.com/ca.