Hampshire has long provided inspiration for creative souls, whether it be landscapes that painters seek to replicate or simply the seclusion of a Hampshire cottage that allows the poetic mind to flourish. The county is also home to countless literary figures whose formidable imaginations were nurtured by their surroundings, leading to the creation of some timeless classics. If you are planning a holiday to Hampshire, whilst becoming immersed in the beauty of your natural surroundings, take a moment to reflect on the writers from Hampshire who have made the county the symbol of rural living that it is today. So, follow us on this walk around the literary heritage trail of Hampshire…
Although his novels frequently reference cities such as London, Charles Dickens’ birthplace, Portsmouth, plays an important role in his literary corpus. Born on Old Commercial Road in 1812, Dickens lived in Hampshire for just five months as a small child before moving away.
According to Historic UK, he did, however, return to Portsmouth to research his 1838 serialised novel, Nicholas Nickleby. Marking the beginning of Dickens’ exploration of romantic themes, the novel was a huge success from the moment it was released and established Dickens’ reputation as a writer which prevails to this day. Long after his death in 1870, the Portsmouth house he lived in was made into the Charles Dickens’ Birthplace Museum, which makes a fantastic day out for literature lovers.
“When I speak of home, I speak of the place where in default of a better - those I love are gathered together; and if that place were a gypsy's tent, or a barn, I should call it by the same good name notwithstanding.”- Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby
Hampshire is often casually referred to as ‘Jane Austen County’ after the famous novelist whose legacy is evident around the county. Born in Steventon in 1775 and later living in Chawton, Hampshire, Austen’s novels Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion were written in the area, all of which were heavily influenced by her rural surroundings. As Jane Austen Tours explain, “Two of Jane Austen’s novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, are partly set in Regency Bath and give a good picture of the social life then, as do the Assembly Rooms and the Museum of Costume.”
The house Austen was born in was demolished soon after Jane’s death in 1828, but you can still see iron railings around an old iron pump that replaced the original wooden one that served the house. Alternatively, venture to her home in Chawton, which was turned into a museum, or the Jane Austen Centre in Bath to be taken through her family history by costumed character guides. You can also visit The Vyne in Basingstoke where she used to attend dances, or see her burial place in Winchester Cathedral.
“It was as easy as breathing to go and have tea near the place where Jane Austen had so wittily scribbled and so painfully died.”
- Christopher Hitchens
Arthur Conan Doyle
Author of the famous Sherlock Holmes books, Arthur Conan Doyle was a doctor by trade, and worked in his practice at Elm Grove, Southsea, for many years. Whilst living in the area, he began his foray into the literary world, writing the first famous detective story, A Study in Scarlet. Doyle also penned a number of historical novels featuring the local area. Copper Beeches mentioned Winchester, and The White Company was set in the New Forest, where he had a second home.
Although he died in 1930, he was reburied in 1955 at Minstead Church in the New Forest, a location that held great affinity in his life. However, as a devoted spiritualist, his presence in the graveyard was a minor embarrassment to the church at the time.
“To the left lay the green Island of Wight, with its long, low, curving hills peeping over each other’s shoulders to the sky-line; to the right the wooded Hampshire coast as far as eye could reach; above a steel-blue heaven, with a wintry sun shimmering down upon them, and enough of frost to set the breath a-smoking. ‘By St. Paul!’ said Sir Nigel gayly, as he stood upon the poop and looked on either side of him, ‘it is a land which is very well worth fighting for’”.
- Arthur Conan Doyle, “The White Company”
Famous for his book The Water Babies, Charles Kingsley was born in 1819 and lived thirty years of his life as a vicar in Eversley. Written during a stay in Alresford and Itchen Abbas in 1862-63, the book was first published as a serial for Macmillan’s Magazine, and was penned partially as a satire in support of Darwin’s The Origin of Species.
Kingsley also founded the village school in the town. As Craig Roberts Photography explains, Eversley School now features a chimney sweep in their design – after Tom, the main character from the book. Kingsley is now buried with his wife in St. Mary’s churchyard.
“Look at the bow in the cloud, in the very rain itself. That is a sign that the sun, though you cannot see it, is shining still - that up above beyond the cloud is still sunlight and warmth and cloudless blue sky.”
Richard Adams made the environment of Kingsclere in Hampshire famous in his adventure novel, Watership Down, which was later adapted into the famous film of the same name. He published the novel in 1972, which led to him winning the Carnegie Medal for the best children’s book in the same year.
The story follows a group of countryside animals living on Watership Down, a real area in Hampshire, which, as British Heritage recommend, makes for pleasant literary walks to be taken in the environments that inspired the book. They say, “A stroll along the escarpment is always rewarding, with good views into the Thames Valley. Rabbits will certainly be seen.”
“Narrow lanes climb both slopes and come together in a great ring of elm trees which encircles the flat summit. Any wind - even the slightest - draws from the height of the elms a rushing sound, multifoliate and powerful.”
- Richard Adams, Watership Down
Hampshire in writing
Gilbert White, 18th century naturalist whose observations were collated into The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne in 1789, based many of his findings on studies of the wildlife and flora in the local area he lived in. According to British Heritage, this book was incredibly popular at the time, and was surpassed in sales only by the Bible, the Oxford English Dictionary and Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Similarly, Flora Thompson’s classic trilogy of observations on local natural history and rural life, Lark Rise to Candleford, was based on her visit to Liphook in 1916.
English treasure John Keats was also inspired by Hampshire in his novels. During the summer of 1819, he stayed in Winchester and produced a series of works now considered masterpieces. He described the area as an “exceeding pleasant town”. Today, visitors can follow the 'Keats Walk' celebrating his famous ode “To Autumn”, which was written after a walk along the River Itchen.
“Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.”
- John Keats, “To Autumn”