Things to do in Chawton and facts you might not know
- Credit: Archant
Home to possibly the most famous female writer of all time, this quaint Hampshire village is full of interest and intrigue
It’s a truth, universally acknowledged, that Chawton really did exist before a certain best-selling writer came to live there. Jane Austen only spent eight years in the village but Chawton’s recorded history starts in the Domesday Book in 1086. In the 13th century the royal manor house was visited by Henry III on more than 40 occasions and the descendants of John Knight, who built Chawton House, eventually adopted Jane Austen’s brother, Edward, thus sealing the family’s connection to the village.
The charmingly-named Clinkers, next to the Museum, was the village blacksmiths and wheelwrights for 400 years. It was said that the family who lived there were protected from evil – by a mummified cat in their roof! And Baigens, in Winchester Road, was alleged to be one of the oldest homes in Hampshire with Elizabethan murals found behind the plaster walls. Both properties are now Grade II listed.
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Chawton House Library
Worth a visit in its own right and also because some believe it was the inspiration for Mr Knightley’s Donwell Abbey in Emma. This grand property was the home of Jane’s brother, Edward and is now an internationally acclaimed research centre housing a collection of work by early women writers. The centre was made possible by the visionary American philanthropist and co-founder of Cisco systems, Sandy Lerner. Don’t forget to visit the reading alcove in the Oak Room where, according to Knight family legend, Jane often liked to sit.
Jane arrived in 1809 at the relatively modest property on Winchester Road that is now a museum. In this time – before she became ill and sadly died in Winchester - Austen wrote, revised and produced the novels Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Emma, at the solemn little desk which can still be seen in the museum today. Not that her home was always a place of pilgrimage and reverence – it was said to have been built originally as a coaching inn, for pilgrims on the route to Winchester. And, before it was bought and opened as a museum in 1949, it was reportedly a public house and, in the early part of the 20th century, a workmen’s club!
Final Resting Place
Ten years ago, according to The Guardian newspaper, the members of the Jane Austen Society were told they had to stop scattering the ashes of deceased Austen fans in the museum’s garden. “While we understand many admirers of Austen would love to have ashes laid here, it is something we do not allow,” said collections manager Louise West. “It’s distressing for visitors to see mounds of human ash, particularly so for our gardener. Also, it is of no benefit to the garden!”
Enveloped by the stunning South Downs National Park, 17 miles east of Winchester and handily off the A32, Chawton is easily accessible by car or by bus – the 64 and X64 buses leave from Winchester bus station and take about 30 minutes. Trains stop at nearby Alton station although, during the holiday season, you can also arrive in style in around 40 minutes on the Watercress steam railway from Alresford. The village is also on the National Cycling Route 224 for those on two wheels.
Food & Drink
If you want to feel connected to Jane Austen while you eat, The Greyfriar on Winchester Road is the perfect place – it’s named after the crest of the Knight family which adopted Jane’s brother, which in turn lead to her coming to the village. The pub offers traditional fare with a twist – check out their pumpkin and sage ravioli with apple veloute and wilted spinach. For breakfast, afternoon tea or a light lunch, try Cassandra’s Cup, also on Winchester Road which is named after Jane’s sister.
Community life revolves around the village hall, which caters for wildly varying interests; from a Country and Western Music Club, to hula-hoop fitness classes, dog training, the WI, and yoga. The hall also hosts the annual Flower Show and Fete every August and the biannual Chawton Open Gardens every other June. At Christmas there are village parties for both children and senior citizens. Culture vultures should check out Chawton House for talks, events and performances connected to women’s literature.
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