In the spring of 2001 my husband, Nick, and I headed to England for our 27th Elderhostel adventure, this one entitled Literary Landscapes. How could any book lover resist the catalogue description inviting participants to “explore the uniquely evocative landscape of the legendary Wessex..Hardy’s novels, and the windswept moorlands and steep-sided valleys of the Yorkshire Ridings and dales associated with the Brontës and James Herriot”?
The tour’s first venue was Dillington House, Somerset County in Southwest England. All of Thomas Hardy’s and Jane Austen’s novels were set in this area. There we would have the opportunity to explore the countryside that inspired them. We were scheduled to spend a full week at Dillington House then journey to York, in Northern England, for another literature-centered week with the Brontë sisters and James Herriot.
Dillington House, Somerset.
Dillington House has a long history as an English manor house. Today, with careful updating, it retains its original charm and beauty. Every morning we were delighted to be greeted by a cacophony of bird-song as its parklands and gardens offered an attractive scene of rural tranquility and beauty for both humans and feathered friends.
We were surprised and delighted with the elegant environment in which we lived for the next week. It was a far cry from the dingy dormitories, with the bathrooms ‘somewhere down the hall,’ we had encountered in London ten years previously when we began our Elderhostel adventures. “The food must be terrible to compensate for the elegance surrounding us,” I speculated to Nick. How wrong could I have been? I mean totally! We were offered a hot and cold full English breakfast every morning; an excellent lunch served buffet-style or a boxed lunch when out on field excursions and a three-course gourmet dinner every evening. The vegetarians among us were served delicious, beautifully presented main dishes. I know, because I tasted Nick’s dinner every night and fervently wished I could eat dinner twice.
Every morning we gathered for discussions of celebrated novelists given by noted authorities followed by tours of the areas under discussion. Thomas Hardy was born, raised and lived all of his life in Dorset county. He loved the area deeply and all of his novels and many of his poems reflect the rural landscape of mid 19th Century Dorset. Hardy’s literary landscapes were principally agricultural where sheep and milch cows grazed between fields of grain and wheat. The countryside that he described swarmed with agricultural workers at planting and harvesting time. He wrote of a time just prior to the mechanization of farming. The lands in Dorset are still used in the same fashion but without the large numbers of farm workers who have now been displaced by technology.
An architect by training, Hardy designed his own home, Max Gate, in Dorchester. Several rooms in this delightful house are open to the public. Here, the Hardys entertained many famous people of his day. Our Elderhostel discussion and visit so impressed us that Nick immediately devoted himself with great enjoyment to reading Hardy’s novels. I reserved my outside reading for the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen.
Max Gate, Thomas Hardy’s home.
On several occasions, Jane Austen lived for brief periods in the small channel port of Lyme Regis. The town is featured in her novel Persuasion. We walked on the breakwater, which is a pivotal landmark in that story and is also featured in The French Lieutenant’s Woman by contemporary writer, John Fowles.
I stood at the end of the breakwater, buffeted by the chill wind, and tried to imagine watching and waiting for the Lieutenant who never came. It was haunting.
The Cobb at Lyme Regis. Hank Lifson
Jane Austen began her writing career in Bath after her clergyman father retired there. It was in this gracious Georgian town and tourism watering hole that she set some important scenes in Pride and Prejudice. Most of her novel, Northanger Abbey, also takes place in Bath. The social center of the city was the Pump Room where everyone of note gathered to sip the beneficial spa waters, to gossip and, of course, to see and be seen. Clearly, Jane Austen’s landscape influenced her greatly for she left us a remarkably clear picture of the family and social life and of her era and social strata.
What did they write?
Jane Austen (1775 – 1817)
Sense and Sensibility
Pride and Prejudice
Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928)
Far From the Madding Crowd
Mayor of Casterbridge
Tess of the D’Ubervilles
Charlotte Brontë (1816 – 1848)
Emily Brontë (1818 – 1848)
James Herriot (Alf Wight) (1916 – 1995)
All Things Great and Small
All Things Bright and Beautiful
All Things Wise and Wonderful
The walled city of York in Northern England was our second headquarters. Our quite ordinary room was in a typical English hotel. Meals were uniformly good, served buffet style but were repetitive. After Dillington House, we were spoiled! However, the hotel situated on the Ouse River and festooned with an amazing assortment of waterfowl drew Nick to its banks every morning for exercise and peaceful enjoyment of the quiet lovely bankside.
The Abbey at York.
Haworth, the Brontë parsonage.
The Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, were raised in a parsonage in Haworth hard by the bleak and barren Yorkshire moors. Both Charlotte and Emily were profoundly influenced by their landscape while Anne’s work does not appear to have been as deeply colored by it.
From the parsonage, our group climbed a steep hill that led to the nearby moor. The moor is a treeless hilltop covered with heather and a course kind of grass. On the summer day when we visited the top, there was a stiff, chilly wind blowing. We well imagined that in the winter, especially after sunset, such a moor could be both forbidding and very uncomfortable. Emily Brontë makes extensive use of the bleak moors to set the tone for her novel, Wuthering Heights.
The windy moors in mid-summer.
Charlotte’s novel, Shirley, is set entirely in Yorkshire where she invokes the landscape, both the lovely and unlovely. She speaks of an April day as one in which “a sunbeam kissed the hilltops”. And when describing a storm, “I have seen such storms in hilly districts in Yorkshire; and at their riotous climax, while the sky was all cataract, the earth all flood, I have remembered the Deluge.”
James Herriot home and museum.
Our last stop in search of literary landscape inspiration brought us to the village of Thirsk, also in Yorkshire, where Alf Wight, better known by his pseudonym, James Herriot, practiced as a veterinarian. After Wight died in 1995, his surgery was expanded and turned into a not-to-be-missed museum. It also preserves his home, dispensary, a typical Yorkshire foldyard (barn), laboratory and tools, and many other animal-related exhibits. All of the James Herriot books are set in the author’s beloved Yorkshire where the countryside and the daily lives of farmers are celebrated with love, wit, concern and understanding.
Interspersed between visits to the literary landscapes were many enlightening, inspiring and entertaining activities. I wandered the ruins of the medieval abbeys at Glastonbury and York. Walking with me were the ghosts of thousands of bewildered displaced monks whose homes and vocations were destroyed during earlier turbulent times. In the town of York, the beauty and majesty of the 800-year-old cathedral, York Minster was nothing short of overwhelming. Later, on a visit to Castle Howard, the imposing manor house used in the filming of Brideshead Revisited, I was first startled then delighted to see a colorful, outdoor presentation of Alice in Wonderland.
Every aspect of Elderhostel’s educational journey is indelibly fixed in my memory. Long after my exploration of the landscapes and townscapes that inspired the evocative writings of Hardy, Austen, the Brontës and Wight/Herriot has ended, their works -carefully stacked on my bookshelf — will allow me a reunion at a moment’s notice.
Alice in Wonderland parade at Castle Howard.
Follow Up Facts
Elderhostel is a nonprofit organization providing high quality, affordable, educational adventures for adults 55 and over. Started in 1975 in the U.S. with 200 pioneer participants and five programs, Elderhostel today offers 11,000 programs in over 100 countries. It just doesn’t get any more successful than that!
Programs often include extracurricular activities, field trips, and cultural events. There are also designated intergenerational programs to share with grandchildren, and service programs that combine education with rewarding volunteer service. Website: www.elderhostel.org; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Over the past 25 years, Mona and Nick Magnis have traveled to more than 30 countries on five continents taking notes and photos. With 27 Elderhostel trips under their belts thus far, it is hardly surprising to learn that they are both life-long students: Mona earning her Master’s degree in Liberal Studies at age 64, and Nick earning his in his early 70’s. Mona’s adventurous travel stories have also been published by www.travellady.com.