“The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there” – JA Baker, The Peregrine (1967)
Discover Britain in books. Celebrate 400 years of William Shakespeare’s legacy – and 150 years since the birth of Beatrix Potter – with a literature-themed break away this year.
If Britain were a book…
…it would be the Bible. That’s to say, the natural and urban landscapes of the British Isles have figured – and continue to figure – in countless writers’ artistic processes and works of literature. Literature permeated by landscapes and places, and landscapes and places pervaded by literature – each shaped by, and understood through, the other1.
In this article, we take a brief look at 12 physical landscapes that have – each in their own, inimitable fashion – affected, or appeared in, the works of writers across Great Britain; from Shakespeare’s Way, the route the Bard may have taken from Stratford-upon-Avon to the Globe Theatre, and Ian Fleming’s first love, Kent, to the late W. G. Sebald’s hypnotic prose description of Lake Vyrnwy recounted, and Alice Oswald’s “sound-map” of the river Dart.
Evoking each landscape in turn, we hope to give you a taste of “this rich fermentation between landscape and literature”2 and an insatiable appetite to escape your everyday (‘footstepping’ as biographers aptly call it) and explore these inspired isles.
After all, words are no remedy for wanderlust, and reading is no substitute3 for rambling the lowland English landscapes of Suffolk, or scrambling to the summits of the mighty ranges of Snowdonia, carved out in the last Ice Age.
‘A’ is for Alice…
It’s only right, dear reader, that we start on a curious note… with the inspiration behind the inspiration. The real Alice. And what is, perhaps, the real Wonderland.
Alice Liddell is thought to have inspired Lewis Carroll (the pseudonym of Charles Dodgson) to write his classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). From the inquisitive age of eight, Alice regularly holidayed in Llandudno. Her adventures, recounted to Lewis, are believed by some to have shaped the story he made up to entertain her on a boat trip in 1862. Alice later asked for the story to be written down. The rest, as they say, is history.
The best way to learn about Alice and Llandudno is to download the ‘Alice Origins’ app. The town tours (‘White Rabbit’ and ‘Alice’s Looking Glass’) take you on an augmented reality trail.
Where to stay: Imperial Hotel, perched on the promenade of Llandudno (‘Queen of the Welsh resorts’), near Snowdonia National Park. Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel.
Did you know? If you stay in Wales’ largest resort in late spring, you can take part in its Victorian Extravaganza jam tart eating contest… “Off with his head!”
‘B’ is for Beatrix…
William Wordsworth. Beatrix Potter.
Two of England’s best-loved writers inspired by the Lakes. It is Miss Potter’s Lakeland settings and anthropomorphic woodland animals that we’re interested in here however. Potter fell in love with Cumbria at the age of 16 while on a family holiday and decades later died in the heart of the landscapes she adored.
Potter’s imagination was nourished by the natural world: Squirrel Nutkin and friends sailed on Derwentwater, and Hawkshead was the backdrop for The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse (1918).
The Lake District may conjure up idyllic images – of tarns and fells – in your mind’s eye, but Potter was acutely aware of the dark side of “nature, red in tooth and claw.” Just as Ted Hughes’ vision of the natural world is a beautiful but violent one, so, too, is Potter’s.
Where to stay: Lindeth Howe Country House Hotel, in the heart of the Lake District National Park, by Lake Windermere. (5 minutes from The World of Beatrix Potter Attraction by car.) Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel.
Did you know? Lindeth Howe was once owned by Beatrix Potter. The beloved children’s author illustrated Timmy Tiptoes and Pigling Bland while staying here.
‘C’ is for Chapel…
Wales. A country whose skies are spired by mountains. Wales is famous for its age-old literary tradition; from Celtic folk-tales and Arthurian legends, to Dylan Thomas and Roald Dahl. Yet modernist poet David Jones – celebrated in poetic circles for his long narrative poems In Parenthesis (1937) and The Anathemata (1952) – remains relatively unknown to the public at large. Although born in England, much of Jones’ work evokes his Welsh heritage – his father was a Welshman.
In the mid-1920s, Jones settled in the Black Mountains at Capel-y-ffin (‘Chapel at the end’). Capel may be described as a ‘thin place’ – a place where we’re aware of the closeness of the Other, where the veil thins between the physical and the incorporeal, the seen and unseen.
It is here, surrounded by the ancient mythic landscapes of Wales, that Jones attempted to come to terms with his experiences of the First World War, during which he served on the Western Front. Inevitably, perhaps, Capel infiltrates his work, both painting and poetry.
Where to stay: Gliffaes Country House Hotel, in the heart of the Brecon Beacons National Park, at the gateway to the Black Mountains, Powys. Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel.
Did you know? The National Book Town of Wales, Hay-on-Wye, is just 30 minutes away by car.
NB. The Black Mountains – home to a peak called Black Mountain – is not to be confused with the Black Mountain Range, also found within the Brecon Beacons.
‘D’ is for Dart…
It is Alice Oswald’s multi-voice poem Dart (2002) that has captured the river which runs through the Dartington Estate.
From its burbling beginnings at Cranmere Pool, to its final “Protean transformation into the sea at Dartmouth, shepherding a school of seals”4, Dart immerses the reader in the “river’s mutterings”:
With their grandmother mouths, with their dog-soft
who’s this moving in the dark? Me.
This is me, anonymous, water’s soliloquy,
all names, all voices, Slip-Shape, this is Proteus,
whoever that is, the shepherd of the seals,
driving my many selves from cave to cave …5
The ink that eddied and flowed from Oswald’s practice-tempered pen to weave voices, past and present, into a meandering whole is a remarkable homage to a river and its people.
Where to stay: Dartington Hall Hotel, in the South Devon area of outstanding natural beauty, by the River Dart. Sherlock Holmes’ brooding Dartmoor is nearby, as is Agatha Christie’s Greenway. Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel.
Did you know? Dartington’s annual, 10-day Way With Words literature festival takes place in the summer. What’s more, Bengal’s celebrated poet Rabindranath Tagore is central to Dartington’s story. Intrigued? You’ll have to visit to find out more…
‘E’ is for Erno…
Goldfinger (1959) nearly became Goldprick…
The eponymous Bond villain was based on real-life architect Ernő Goldfinger, whose love of concrete was said to rival the villain’s love of gold. The former (Erno) threaten to sue, so that the latter (Auric) was nearly lumbered with the derisive surname.
In 1951, Ian Fleming purchased White Cliffs, Noël Coward’s home in St Margaret’s Bay, north-east of Dover. Fleming’s weekend and holiday home (1951-57), White Cliffs played a crucial role in the development of the James Bond story. Most of Fleming’s Bond novels have scenes devoted to his favourite county. Notably, in Moonraker (1955), villainous Sir Hugo Drax builds his nuclear rocket just outside of Dover:
they [Bond and Gala Brand] stopped for a moment on the edge of the great chalk cliff and stood gazing over the whole corner of England where Caesar had first landed two thousand years before. To their left the carpet of green turf, bright with small wildflowers, sloped gradually down to the long pebble beaches of Walmer and Deal, which curved off towards Sandwich and the Bay. Beyond, the cliffs of Margate, showing white through the distant haze that hid the North Foreland, guarded the grey scar of Manston aerodrome above which American Thunderjets wrote their white scribbles in the sky. Then came the Isle of Thanet and, out of sight, the mouth of the Thames6.
And so, on to Goldfinger…
Fleming wrote the story of Goldfinger while staying at White Cliffs. The famous golf match between Bond and Auric Goldfinger was inspired by Fleming’s favourite golf club, in Kent. Bond later follows Goldfinger to Lydd Airport on the Romney Marsh.
Asked how he created his heroines, Fleming once remarked: “I go out into Romney Marsh and hope to find one there.”7 Romney Marsh is
a remote and secretive landscape, drained by ancient dykes and walls, often deserted save for the sheep that feed in thousands on fields that were first reclaimed from the sea by the Romans8.
Indeed, it is in Romney Marsh that Bond historian Graham Rye discovered Moneypenny Farm and Honeychild Manor Farm. Rye goes on to suggest that the assassin Francisco Scaramanga’s narrow-gauge railway, in The Man with the Golden Gun (1965), is based on the world’s smallest public railway – Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch.
Where to stay: Hythe Imperial Hotel, Golf & Spa, on the Kent Coast, surrounded by the Kent Downs area of outstanding natural beauty. Hythe is a cute coastal market town between Dover and Romney Marsh. Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel.
Did you know? Fleming may even have come up with the codename ‘007’ because that was the number of the London to Dover, National Express coach. Now, instead of Matthew Arnold’s much-loved poem, Dover will conjure up images of tuxedo-wearing, pistol-toting Sean Connery and Roger Moore.
‘F’ is for Farmer’s Boy…
While Suffolk’s rural scenes are world-famous for inspiring landscape masters John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough, they’re less well known for their influence on Suffolk-born 19th Century poets Robert Bloomfield and George Crabbe.
Described as the “most successful of the self-taught ‘peasant poets’ of the Romantic period,”9 Bloomfield (like Crabbe) eschewed idealised, pastoral visions of rural life and instead depicted the hard reality.
Admired by his contemporaries, John Clare described Bloomfield as “the most original poet of the age” and Wordsworth’s poetics of rural life are thought by scholar Simon J. White to be, in part, a response to Bloomfield’s masterpiece The Farmer’s Boy, originally published in 1800.
Where to stay: Hintlesham Hall Hotel, surrounded by Bloomfield’s Suffolk, near historic Ipswich. Incidentally, Ipswich lies on the estuary of the River Orwell, which inspired English author Eric Blair to take the pen name George Orwell. Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel.
Did you know? Suffolk’s harvest-home feast – a custom now extinct – was captured in Robert Bloomfield’s distinctive poem The Horkey, which drew on Suffolk dialect.
‘G’ is for Golding…
In 2008, The Times ranked novelist William Golding alongside George Orwell as one of the greatest writers of post-war Britain10. And we wholeheartedly agree.
Golding published The Spire 10 years after his best-known work Lord of the Flies (1954) was published. Literally, Golding’s 1964 novel is about the construction of the 404-foot-high spire of Salisbury Cathedral. Allegorically, according to critic Craig Raine, it is about “creative realisation, bringing the impossible into being”11.
Golding wrote The Spire while a teacher at Bishop Wordsworth’s School in the Cathedral Close. You can almost picture him looking across the water meadows to Salisbury Cathedral as the sun crowns its towering spire. Here is Golding’s description of dust as the construction work takes place:
Everywhere, fine dust gave these rods and trunks of light the importance of a dimension. He blinked at them again, seeing, near at hand, how the individual grains of dust turned over each other, or bounced all together, like mayfly in a breath of wind. He saw how further away they drifted cloudily, coiled, or hung in a moment of pause, becoming, in the most distant rods and trunks, nothing but colour, honey-colour slashed across the body of the cathedral12.
Where to stay: Milford Hall Hotel & Spa, in Salisbury city centre, a short walk from Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire. Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel.
Did you know? Salisbury Cathedral inspired Dickens, Trollope and Hardy, too. Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels orbit the fictitious cathedral town of Barchester, based on Salisbury13. Trollope recalled a visit there in spring 1852, when wandering the cathedral he conceived The Warden (1855). What’s more, Philip Sidney began writing his masterwork The Arcadia at nearby Wilton House, where his sister lived after her marriage to the Earl of Pembroke.
‘H’ is for Hobbit…
The Royal Forest of Dean is a fabled forest, or so you may think if you wander into its enchanted heart…
The magic of JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth is everywhere. Tolkien was a frequent visitor to the Forest of Dean and is reputed to have taken his inspiration from the Forest’s Puzzlewood for the intricate landscapes in his ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy (1954-55) and The Hobbit (1937) – The Old Forest, Lothlórien, Fangorn, Ithilien and Mirkwood.
Tolkien’s tangled forests – primordial survivors of immense expanses of forest that once spanned much of Middle-earth in the Elder Days – play a crucial role in his hobbits’ long quests. In The Hobbit, Mirkwood plays a prominent part in Bilbo Baggins’ adventure:
The entrance to the path was like a sort of arch leading into a gloomy tunnel made by two great trees that leant together, too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves. The path itself was narrow and wound in and out among the trunks. Soon the light at the gate was like a little bright hole far behind, and the quiet was so deep that their feet seemed to thump along while all the trees leaned over them and listened14.
The ents, a race of people resembling trees that were created to protect the great forests, are among the oldest living creatures that walk in Middle-earth – perhaps a reaction to the irreplaceable Forest of Dean, one of the UK’s rare, ancient woodlands?
While you wander Puzzlewood’s maze of winding paths, keep your eyes peeled for hobbitses. They’re sneaky little things.
Where to stay: Brooks Country House, in the Wye Valley area of outstanding natural beauty, at the gateway to the Forest of Dean, Herefordshire. Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel.
Did you know? In 1929, Tolkien worked on uncovering a Roman temple, known as Dwarf’s Hill, at Lydney Park. It is during this time that he was writing The Hobbit and it is thought by Sylvia Jones, curator of Lydney Park Estate, that he was “inspired in some way by the folklore attached to the hill”15.
NB. The ‘Dymock Poets’ – including Robert Frost and Edward Thomas – lived around the village of Dymock, not far from the Wye Valley.
‘I’ is for Inspiration…
They must be doing something right at the University of East Anglia16 – in Norwich, England’s first UNESCO City of Literature – because the roster of great writers that have studied the MA in creative writing here is impressive: Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Emma Healey, to name but three.
Perhaps Norwich itself proves a source of inspiration? This is apparent if you wander England’s medieval city in the spirit of Baudelaire’s flâneur, or Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographic sketches of London. There is a glut of beautifully preserved buildings – from Norman Britain, to the modern era – to admire as you tread its cobbled streets.
Get ‘under the skin’ of the city with the Norwich literary trail, on the Discover Norwich app. If Hay is the ‘town of books,’ Norwich is the ‘city of stories.’
Where to stay: Maids Head Hotel, in Norwich city centre, opposite Norwich’s famous Norman cathedral, Norfolk. Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel.
Did you know? The Christian mystic Julian of Norwich (c. 1342-1416) was the first woman to write a book in the English language. Her name is taken from St Julian’s Church, in Norwich, where she lived.
‘J’ is for Journey…
While we hear the emphatic cries to visit the Immortal Bard’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, we’d like to give your break away a more imaginative twist…
Shakespeare’s Way is a long-distance footpath that runs from Shakespeare’s Birthplace, in Stratford-upon-Avon, to the Globe Theatre, in London. This ‘journey of imagination,’ as Peter Titchmarsh titled his accompanying guidebook, was officially opened in 2006.
A distance of 146 miles, Shakespeare’s Way “follows, as closely as possible, a route Shakespeare may have taken on some of his journeys back and forth between his home at Stratford-upon-Avon and the city where he spent most of his productive years.”17
We’re certainly not suggesting that you walk the whole 146 miles, just some of the final 16-mile stretch (a day’s scenic walk) from Kew to the Globe, as you wend your way into the literary heart of London.
Upriver from Kew is Hampton Court Palace, “the scene of King James’s conference, in 1604, which led to the Authorized Version of the Bible”18. The world’s best-selling, and arguably most influential, book.
Where to stay: The Lensbury, on the bank of the River Thames, near the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Hampton Court Palace. Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel.
Did you know? ‘Capability’ Brown, often described as England’s greatest gardener, remodelled Kew’s former baroque gardens and sculpted Richmond Gardens and Syon Park, next door to Kew.
‘K’ is for Kite-log…
Describing Suffolk-born Ronald Blythe as the “doyen of nature writers” may be unfairly pigeonholing him (he is a writer who lives in the country and is a distinguished essayist), but Blythe has inspired a generation of nature writers, including the late Roger Deakin whose cult book Waterlog (1999) launched the craze for ‘wild swimming’ at the end of the old millennium. Last year, Roger Deakin’s friend, the travel writer Robert Macfarlane, explored the language grained into the landscapes of each of England’s counties in his thought-provoking Landmarks (2015), in which Suffolk’s wild-word ‘kite-log’ refers to “coarse grass on marshland, used for making doormats”19.
Educated in the market town of Sudbury, Ronald Blythe is most famous for Akenfield (1969), his stark depiction of agricultural life in a Suffolk village.
Since the 1970s, Blythe has lived in the Stour Valley, on the border between Essex and Suffolk, at Bottengoms Farm. This Elizabethan yeoman’s house is the star of his 2011 book At the Yeoman’s House, which “expands from the consideration of a single dwelling into a wonderful meditation on our place in the landscape, the marks we leave on it and the different ways we relate to it, whether cultivating it, painting it, or merely walking across it”20.
Here is Blythe’s timeless meditation on our place in the landscape, which once hummed with the rhythm of plough horses that would have graced the garden at Bottengoms Farm:
Nothing else in my two acres except the timber of the farmhouse and the timber of this mighty tree is able to express what happened here for century after century as the sun rose and until it set [….] Visitors don’t know what to make of this ash, and are floored by its ivy. Generations have let this ash be, and it shows. The last plough horses drank in its shade about three o’clock every afternoon, hurrying when it came into view. John Constable often walked past it, and probably sketched it. He had a passion for bark21.
Where to stay: Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Golf & Spa, in the Dedham Vale area of outstanding natural beauty, near Sudbury, on the Essex-Suffolk border. The softly rolling landscapes of the Dedham Vale and Stour Valley are famously known as ‘Constable country.’ Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel.
Did you know? Dodie Smith’s 1956 novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians features the fictional Suffolk village of Dympling, near Sudbury. The surrounding Suffolk countryside played the backdrop to Cruella de Vil’s Hell Hall. In Sudbury, a memorial plaque features an excerpt from the book and, nearby, there are Dalmatian-topped posts.
‘L’ is for Lost…
In the 1880s, the Vyrnwy valley and the village of Llanwddyn were submerged to create the Lake Vyrnwy reservoir – a feat of engineering and the result of rapid industrialisation. So we end on the incomparable. Max Sebald. And his mesmerising description of Lake Vyrnwy in Austerlitz (2002):
Elias stopped the pony-trap on the banks of this lake and walked out with me to the middle of the dam, where he told me about his family home lying down there at a depth of about a hundred feet under the dark water, and not just his own family home but at least forty other houses and farms, together with the church of St John of Jerusalem, three chapels and three pubs, all of them drowned when the dam was finished in the autumn of 1888. In the years before its submersion, so Elias told him, said Austerlitz, Llanwddyn had been particularly famous for its games of football on the village green when the full moon shone in summer22.
This glimpse that Austerlitz gets into the life of Elias, and Austerlitz’s subsequent imaginings of the sub-aquatic existence of Llanwddyn’s inhabitants, may be interpreted as the tracing of spectres – the outlines of personal and cultural memories. Perhaps Llanwddyn is a powerful metaphor for the sunken wreckage exiled to memory’s unconscious depths?
Where to stay: Lake Vyrnwy Hotel & Spa, on the banks of Lake Vyrnwy, in a RSPB national nature reserve, Powys. Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel.
Did you know? Lake Vyrnwy’s stone-built dam was the first of its kind in world. Carrying water over its crest, it would serve as a model for the Elan Valley.
Perhaps we are drawn to places that beguile and inspire, to ‘thin-places,’ to enchanted lands? As if such places allow us, if only for a wondrous moment, to understand the world in a different or deeper sense. To look, as a stranger would, upon what is most familiar… ourselves.
Experience the dazzling beauty of the British Isles. See sunlight and shadow dance on its cities, countryside and coasts. Feel the stories breathe and swell beneath your feet. And turn the page to your own life story…
Where will you write your next chapter?
Share this post with your family and friends. Start planning your next Classic British adventure.
1 Further cultivating literature’s relationship with landscape and place, July 2016 saw the launch of a research project to explore digital, location-responsive reading experiences that redefine a reader’s relationship to place.
2 Dunbar, Kay. Ed. Landscape into Literature. (Totnes: Green Books, 2005) 8. Print.
3 While reading is no substitute for exploring Britain on foot, bike, boat or car, the benefits of reading are abundantly clear. Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, reported in studies published in 2006 and 2009 that individuals who often read print fiction “tend to have better abilities of empathy and theory of mind.”
4 Hardyment, Christina. Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands (London: The British Library, 2012) 118. Print.
5 Oswald, Alice. Dart (London: Faber, 2004) 48. Print.
6 Fleming, Ian. Moonraker (London: Vintage, 2012) 187. Print.
7 Rye, Graham. From Kent, With Love. 007 Magazine. Graham Rye, 2008. Web. 15 Jul. 2016.
8 Varlow, Sally. A Reader’s Guide to Writer’s Britain (London: Prion, 1994) 80. Print.
9 Ward, Sam. The Robert Bloomfield Society. The Robert Bloomfield Society. 2011. Web. 15 Jul. 2016.
10 The Times. The 50 greatest British writers since 1945. The Times. 2008. Web. 15 Jul. 2016.
11 Raine, Craig. William Golding’s The Spire. The Guardian. 2011. Web. 15 Jul. 2016.
12 Golding, William. The Spire (London: Faber, 2013) 4. Print.
13 The city of Winchester also played a part in the conception of Trollope’s Barchester.
14 Tolkien, JRR. The Hobbit (London: Harper Collins, 1993) 138. Print.
15 BBC Gloucestershire. Tolkien’s tales from Lydney Park. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). 2014. Web. 15 Jul. 2016.
16 The University of East Anglia (UEA) is noted for its world-class MA in creative writing founded by the novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson.
17 The Shakespeare’s Way Association. Walk Shakespeare’s Way: a journey of imagination. The Shakespeare’s Way Association. 2015. Web. 15 Jul. 2016.
18 Varlow, Sally. A Reader’s Guide to Writer’s Britain (London: Prion, 1994) 125. Print.
19 Macfarlane, Robert. Landmarks (London: Penguin, 2015) 48. Print.
20 Parker, Peter. At the Yeoman’s House and At Helpston by Ronald Blythe: review. The Telegraph. 2011. Web. 15 Jul. 2016.
21 Blythe, Ronald. At the Yeoman’s House (London: Enitharmon, 2011) 26. Print.
22 Sebald, WG. Austerlitz. Anthea Bell. Trans (London: Penguin, 2002) 71. Print.
A: Llandudno Bay, Conwy: © Crown copyright (2016) Conwy County Borough Council. B: Derwentwater, Lake District. C: Black Mountains, Brecon Beacons: © Crown copyright (2016) Visit Wales. D: River Dart/Sharpham Estate, South Devon. E: St Margaret’s Bay, Kent. F: Ipswich harbour, Suffolk. G: Salisbury cathedral, Wiltshire. H: Puzzlewood/Forest of Dean, Herefordshire. I: Norwich, Norfolk. J: London (panoramic view of the Shard, Tower Bridge, Globe Theatre). K: Stoke by Nayland church, Dedham Vale: © Crown copyright (2016) Dedham Vale AONB. L: Lake Vyrnwy, Powys