In June I finally had the chance to realise one my dreams - to visit Steventon - the birthplace of Jane Austen and an inspiration for her early novels. This is where she was born, grew up, and wrote the first drafts of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey. Steventon always had a special place in her heart, and this is the place that she was so sad to leave that she fainted on hearing the news about the move.
"Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on", she advised her niece, Anna, in 1814, who was also writing a novel. Jane Austen's home in Steventon must have provided her with plenty of inspiration for her novels - it was, as her nephew James-Edward Austen-Leigh wrote, the "cradle of her genius".
Tall hedgerows line up tiny, ancient roads that lead up to Steventon, and tall arches of age-old trees shade the roads. Sheep dot the fields, and the many manor houses and thatched cottages in the area are not a far cry from Jane Austen's era. Indeed, the only thing that seems to have changed is that there are cars and tractors driving along the tiny roads instead of horses and carriages.
As you enter the village road from the motorway, you pass a pub called the Wheatsheaf, which used to be a coaching inn in Jane Austen's times. It was here that she often walked to pick up the post, as mail coaches would stop here on this busy London road to change horses.
As you drive through the village, you pass some quaint cottages along the way. After the village, continue for some time towards St Nicholas Church. As you come to the place where the road from the village meets the lane to the church where Jane Austen's father was Rector, there is an empty field on the right where Steventon Rectory once stood.
The Austen family moved into Steventon Rectory in 1768, and Jane Austen was born there in 1775 and spent the first 25 years of her life in the Rectory. Jane's brother, James, took over the Rectory in 1801, and unfortunately, the house was demolished in ca 1823. There are no visible signs of the Rectory left, but we have a fair idea of where the house was and how large it was after the recent archaeological excavations in the field where the building foundations were discovered. There is a slope at the back of the field, and many have suggested that Jane Austen would roll down the hill as a child, just like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey who "loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house".
The well used by the Austen family is still quite visible from the road and is surrounded by iron railings (now covered by bushes).
The well was in the backyard of the Rectory, which suggests that the house must have been situated quite close to the road. The site for Steventon Rectory is a beautiful, peaceful location and nothing like the busier, more centrally located Chawton Cottage.
There is a tall lime tree near the hedge (on the left), which was planted by Rev. James Austen who remained Rector of Steventon following his father from 1805 until 1819. In 1823, before the old Rectory was demolished, a new rectory was built by Jane Austen's brother, Edward Austen Knight who owned the land here, for his son, Rev. William Knight. You can see the house in a prominent location on the hillside opposite, image below (it is now privately owned).
Turn towards the church. In Jane Austen's day, the road was a rutted cart track, which required Jane and Cassandra to wear pattens under their shoes in muddy weather! About 1/3 mile up the road, you see Steventon Manor on your right. This is newly constructed; Jane knew the original Elizabethan manor well as the Austen's friends, the Digweeds, were tenants at the manor.
On your left is the Church of St Nicholas, where George Austen was Rector. The church is believed to be as old as 12th Century, and I was pleased to find out that it has changed very little since Jane Austen's days.
The Church of St Nicholas
The church looked quite modest and simple from the outside, which added to its charm. The ancient yew tree in front of the church is estimated to be over 900 years old. The original key used to be kept in the hollow trunk of the tree, but it disappeared mysteriously a few years ago.
You know that you've come to the right place when you see this plaque on the signboard!
The church is very pretty inside, with colourful Victorian wall murals adorning the walls. This is where Jane came with her family every Sunday for the first 26 years of her life, to hear her father preach and to meet all the members of her community. The church really is very small, and can't have had a congregation of more than 40 people or so.
There is a plaque dedicated to Jane Austen on the wall, donated by her great grandniece.
There is a monument for James Austen, erected by his widow and children, on the wall. There are monuments for his wives, Anne and Mary, as well. (Apologies for the blurred photos!)
There were also some memorials for members of the Digweed family who had their own Digweed Pew as well, as they lived here for 100 years. This is one of the only remaining pieces of furniture to have survived the Victorian renovations.
Outside, right by the door, there is an old sundial - a scratch on the wall, which marked the time at which people were expected to be at the church for worship.
We had a look at the churchyard as well, to find the grave of James Austen.
There was also the grave of William Knight and his family members.
This beautiful building is Ashe Rectory, where Jane's best friend and mentor, Madame Lefroy, lived. She was the aunt of Jane's love interest, Tom Lefroy, and he stayed at the Rectory for some time until his aunt sent him away, perhaps worried that Jane might get hurt. I have to admit I fell a little in love with this house myself, with the gorgeous roses and vines adorning the glorious Georgian facade.
Jane visited her friends, the Harwoods, at Deane House, a beautiful eighteenth-century mansion with large grounds. Jane and Tom danced together in a ball at Deane House, and she also visited her close friends, Martha and Mary Lloyd, at nearby Deane Rectory.
The three villages are all nearby, but too far to walk by modern standards. It does make you realise just how much walking Jane Austen must have done on a daily basis and perhaps this is why she loved her Hampshire countryside so much?
Having seen Steventon, Ashe and Deane, I now feel a tad closer to the world of Jane Austen and can imagine her walking around the fields and woods in her bonnet and gown, hem 6 inches deep in mud...
References and further reading:
Austen-Leigh, W. /Austen-Leigh, R. (2009) Jane Austen, Her Life and Letters - A Family Record. Echo Library.
Edwards, A-M. (1991). In the Steps of Jane Austen – Walking Tours of Austen’s England. Wisconsin: Jones Books.