Jane Austen’s heroines followed the paths of false and true love between its picturesque villages, elegant towns and stately houses. In the wilderness at its heart, Sherlock Holmes solved one of his most famous mysteries. Agatha Christie found solace and inspiration in its varied landscapes. Thomas Hardy included it in the world he called Wessex (once an Anglo-Saxon kingdom). The adjacent counties of Devon and Somerset in south-west of England have been the settings for some classic English novels and no destination better rewards the traveller seeking to explore the connections between books and places.
Our tour begins at Agatha Christie’s holiday home of Greenway, beside the River Dart in Devon. The journey there can be made by ferry, steam train or vintage bus. Our ferry takes half an hour from Dartmouth, gliding past Greenway Boathouse, the crime scene in Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly.
In keeping with current trends in the display of historic houses, at Greenway there are no roped-off areas or “do not touch” signs. Visitors are invited to try out the furniture and look inside drawers. It’s a priceless insight into the personal and professional life of the Queen of Crime as the house is filled with her possessions and memorabilia.
Christie called Greenway “the loveliest place in the world”. Lying in one of the deck chairs on the lawn by the river, you see what she meant. On our spring visit, the flower-filled garden is a confection of pink and white. Autumn, brings its own rich colour scheme, and during this year’s Agatha Christie Festival in September, Greenway events will include a vintage-themed ball.
Christie set her 1931 novel The Sittaford Mystery in Dartmoor, Devon’s wildest landscape. The moor inspired another legendary detective novelist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who used it as the atmospheric setting for The Hound of the Baskervilles. To Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick, Dr John Watson, Dartmoor appears “an uncanny place… like some fantastic landscape in a dream”. The massive granite outcrops that pierce this wild landscape look like building blocks in a giant’s playground. Walking around Hound Tor, the geological enigma associated with local legends of a hell hound haunting the moor, it’s not hard to see how this extraordinary terrain evoked the apparently supernatural forces which taxed Holmes’ reasoning powers to the limit.
The moors of Dartmoor in Devon and Exmoor in Somerset are among some of England’s most beautiful wild places, the mix of moorland, woodland and farmland epitomising the rural landscape immortalised in the books of Thomas Hardy.
Bovey Castle / National Trust Images / Andrew Butler
Although neighbouring Dorset is considered the hub of Hardy’s life and work, his characters often drift into Devon or Somerset, where large parts of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Woodlanders are set. The great thing for the literary traveller is to get a sense of “Hardy country”. Whether watching wild ponies graze the golden-brown moors under a big blue sky, or admiring the trim fields and hedgerows of dairy farms, you’ll see that the rural world Hardy feared was disappearing actually lives on in the 21st century.
Like Hardy, Jane Austen is associated with both Devon and Somerset. The elegant Georgian city of Bath played an important part in her life and novels, and even a short walk around its historic centre gives a good flavor of the Regency society depicted in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Bath commemorates its Austen connection year-round at the Jane Austen Centre (janeausten.co.uk) and annually at its Jane Austen Festival, running this year in September. The overlap with the Agatha Christie Festival in Devon lets aficionados combine the two, and perhaps take in some Holmes and Hardy sightseeing on the way.
While the Jane Austen tourism industry is concentrated in Bath, the nearby countryside invites more self-reliant literary pilgrimages. Two stately homes in Somerset, Barrington Court and Montacute House, are the probable inspiration for Kellynch Hall, Anne Eliot’s family home in Persuasion. Montacute House has the added cachet of being a filming location for the television series Wolf Hall, standing in for Greenwich Palace. Our visit graphically illustrates the social gulf between Anne Eliot and the young, untested, Captain Frederick Wentworth. Walking around the extensive grounds, admiring the grand architecture, you comprehend how a romantic pairing that seems so emotionally right to modern readers could have looked so socially wrong to the characters of the era.
There’s more literary detective work to be undertaken around the village of Upton Pyne in Devon, believed to be the template for Barton in Sense and Sensibility. Here is the village church where Austen set the marriage of Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars, and where, this summer, a Jane Austen tearoom will open on Sunday afternoons. There will also be guided walks of local sites featured in Sense and Sensibility, including Woodrow Barton (Barton Cottage, where the Dashwood family comes to live) and Pynes House (Barton Hall, where many of the novel’s social interactions take place).
Now operated as a wedding venue, Pynes House is not normally open to the public. However, you can email them (firstname.lastname@example.org) requesting permission to see the house and grounds. An elegant country house, Pynes commands fine views over rich pastoral land. It exactly fits the sense Austen gives of Sir John Middleton’s social position, and you understand how glad the well-born but impoverished Dashwood girls would have been to be invited there – and how easily they would have fitted into its social world. As may you – there are plans for a Regency Ball to be held here in October 2016.
Just as important as the landmarks of our literary tour are the spaces in between. Cruising up the river Dart, walking across the moor, the journey from small village to great house all bring to life the worlds of these great English writers. Go to a festival, book an event and visit stately homes, but don’t forget to simply soak up the atmosphere of this beautiful, book-haunted corner of Britain.