Houses to write home about

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Britain's network of poets' cottages is a vital part of 2012's cultural celebrations. Tom Nancollas explores a fascinating literary legacy

Laugharne, in South Wales, seems like exactly the sort of place that would house a poet. It is a town on an estuary with a castle, a river and some fine Georgian buildings. It is self-governing, with the last surviving medieval corporation in the United Kingdom; a fact celebrated with a "Common Walk" on Whit Sunday every three years, which begins in the town pubs at 5am and then roves over 25 miles of surrounding lands.

Along the way, revellers are asked to identify certain historical landmarks; if they fail, they are hung upside down at one of 26 "hoisting places" and, as the town website has it, "smacked on the rump". Yes, a poet would love it here.

Or that's what I thought as I wandered round, searching for Dylan Thomas's boathouse. I'd come in search of the atmosphere of his poems, and walking along his "heron priested shore" the place was thick with it. I found the boathouse behind the castle, with his writing shed (a former garage) adjacent. Arranged as it was when he lived here, it looked as if Thomas himself had just nipped out for a pint. Inside the house, I inspected the famous view while a transistor radio played, and the river wind rattled the window panes.

Sprawling across Britain is a network of such places, writers' houses that are distinct within the tourist trade as a "poets'-cottage industry". These monuments to our rich literary heritage are the engines of literary tourism – visiting houses associated with eminent writers. It is important in two respects: celebrating our literary achievements, and stimulating a flow of tourists to the majestic, wild or quaint corners of Britain. These places inspired the creation of great works; they remain inspiring still.

The year 2012 brings with it a strange spectrum of feelings, from Olympic euphoria to economic sobriety. The latter has shaken our pride, yet the former demands displays of confident bombast, a celebration of much that is great about Britain. This will have an inevitable, and vital, literary quality. The bicentenary of Charles Dickens' birth will be celebrated everywhere, and the British Museum is contributing a Shakespeare exhibition to the Cultural Olympiad. The poets'-cottage industry will have its part to play.

Writers, as opposed to artists or musicians, have long been distinct in our national psyche because literature is Britain's greatest artistic export. We have given the world the English tongue and some of its best craftsmen. In a year when the eyes of the world turn to us, it is natural that we should consider the achievements of our authors, who throughout history have articulated us as a nation. We refer to streets as "Dickensian", conversation as "Shakespearian", and governments as "Orwellian". They all spoke to us then, and they continue to speak to us now.

The urge to see their dwellings has always existed. Even before the opening of Shakespeare's birthplace to the public in 1847, visitors including Keats were shown around by the eccentric custodian Mrs Hornby. John Milton's house in London attracted scores of pilgrims in the 17th century. His retirement cottage, in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, was the second house to open in 1887. These places inspire strong feeling, as the controversy surrounding the funding of Roald Dahl's writing hut has demonstrated.

From castles to sheds, no two are the same. Like dogs, they have a tendency to resemble their owners – and often seem like architectural manifestations of a writer's caprices. Sir Walter Scott's soaring baronial castle, stuffed with strange artefacts, seems to reflect the restless romantic spirit of his works. The beguiling charm of Dahl's shed in Buckinghamshire belies the often menacing tales concocted within, mirroring his best children's stories.

Visitor numbers vary accordingly. Shakespeare's houses in Stratford-upon-Avon attract about 750,000 annually, by far the most. Close to this is Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, home of Vita Sackville-West, where 160,000 visit every year. Dove Cottage, in Grasmere, Cumbria, associated with Wordsworth (and third to open, in 1891), attracts about 55,000. At the more local end of the scale, roughly 20,000 people visit Keats House in Hampstead, London. These smaller houses are more of a pilgrimage, while the larger ones are industries in themselves.

I asked Holly Booth, an employee at Keats House, where John Keats lived from 1818 to 1820, why the poets'-cottage industry existed at all: what is it about the house of a writer, hardly the most visual of the arts, that attracts people?

"It's about a sense of place," she said. "People come here to see what inspiration Keats drew from his surroundings."

Writers' houses are monuments to their creativity as well as to their lives. But we don't visit them wholly because of the writer. The creative impulse is as elusive as a phoenix, and those blessed (or cursed) with it seem otherworldly. Examining the relics of a writer's life can bring this ineffable magic closer, perhaps in the hope that some of it might rub off on us.

But writers are people, too. We're not only interested in the natural surroundings that helped deliver works, but also in the more personal, domestic clutter that they created around themselves. The latter provides a way of getting closer to an author beyond what he or she wrote. Picturing Darwin playing pool at Down House, or looking into Robert Graves's mirror adds the human touch. The thing that grabs most people, though, is the desk. This is the hinge on which the ordinary and the extraordinary turn. Many like to imagine the writer in situ, and enjoy the visceral thrill of seeing where the ideas became words.

There is also a sense of possession. Toby Nottage, an employee of Dylan Thomas's Boathouse, says, "it's always present in the psyche. People like to come back because they see it as being a part of their lives".

The man behind the opening of Dove Cottage, the Rev Stopford Brooke, spoke of "our" poetry, and considered the cottage as important to English poetry as his poems. The poets'-cottage industry, in helping us connect with the activities of the writer, acts as an important bridge towards this part of our national DNA. While we celebrate our athletes, we should consider the literary gymnasts who have helped to make Britain the place it is.

But what is its future? Do we have any writers of the stature required to sustain it? Will we be queuing up to view Andrew Motion's washbasin or Julian Barnes's back-scratcher? Of course we will. While we continue to read books, we will be fascinated by the surroundings that produced them – surroundings that enhance our bond with the works. Already, a café in Edinburgh advertises itself as the place "where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter"; dining at the the Elephant House, you marvel at how her imagination took off.

So it is a curious mix of national pride and awe that sustains the poets'-cottage industry. It is a uniquely British thing, and an idea exported successfully to other countries, like the language on which it is built. Hemingway's house in Key West or Robert Graves's house in Deia are two notable examples. It issues an eccentric challenge to our present and future men of letters to be remembered. And although the world has changed since the first visitor crossed the threshold of Shakespeare's house in 1847, the poets'-cottage industry remains as English as Manchester rain.

 

Now read on: contact details

Dylan Thomas's boathouse: dylanthomasboathouse.com

Laugharne: laugharne.co.uk

Roald Dahl's shed: roalddahlmuseum.org

Shakespeare's birthplace: shakespeare.org.uk

Milton's cottage: miltonscottage.org

Walter Scott's Abbotsford: scottsabbotsford.co.uk

Sissinghurst Castle: nationaltrust.org.uk/sissinghurst-castle

Wordworth's Dove Cottage: wordsworth.org.uk

Keats House: keatshouse.cityoflondon.gov.uk

Down (Darwin's) House: english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/home-of-charles-darwin-down-house

Charles Dickens' bicentenary: Dickens2012.org

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