Through the keyhole: inside the homes of 10 great writers

From Disraeli's manor to the cottage where D H Lawrence was born, Claudia Pritchard gives chapter and verse on literary trails
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The Independent Travel

1 Dr Johnson in Lichfield and London

Samuel Johnson was born on 18 September 1709 and raised in the new three-storey house built by his bookseller father. Rooms include a bookshop and tableaux depicting 18th-century domestic life. Visitors can consult the Dictionary on CD-rom and try the author's favourite dish, Staffordshire oatmeal. From 29 September to 3 October the Celeb18th festival salutes Lichfield's famous son in a salute to 18th-century life.

After the failure of the school that Johnson opened with his wife, Elizabeth, he moved to London, and lived at 17 Gough Square, off Fleet Street, from 1748 to 1759. It was here that he compiled his dictionary. The four-storey brick house, built in 1700, is a model 18th-century gentleman's residence (Elizabeth, who was 20 years his senior, died in 1752). Complete the Johnson trail with a visit to Westminster Abbey, where he is buried.

Getting there: Dr Johnson's Birthplace, Breadmarket Street, Lichfield (01543 264972). Open daily 10.30am-4.30pm, April to September; 12 noon to 4.30pm, March to October. Admission: adults £2.20, children in full-time education £1.30, families (two adults and up to four children) £5.80. Dr Johnson's House, 17 Gough Square, London EC4 (020-7353 3745; Open Monday to Saturday, except bank holidays, 11 am-5.30pm, May to September; 11am-5pm, October to April. Admission: adults £4.50, children age 10-16 £1.50, family ticket (two adults and two children) £10.

2 Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford

The author of Ivanhoe and Rob Roy could be counted on to create for himself a glowering, heroic mansion, and sure enough, after buying Cartleyhole Farmhouse near Melrose on the Scottish Borders in 1812, the prolific writer demolished it, rebuilt it, and renamed it Abbotsford. Fans of the Scottish baronial style will be rewarded with timbered rooms bristling with armaments, including Rob Roy's gun, as well as walls lined with 9,000 books. Scott died here in 1812, not fighting for king, country or cause but, less heroically, in the dining room.

Getting there: Abbotsford (01896 752043) is two miles from Melrose on the Scottish borders. Open: 9.30am-5pm daily, June to September; Monday to Saturday, March to May and October. Sundays 2pm-5pm, March to May and October. Groups by appointment only November to March. Admission: adults £4.50, children up to 16 £2.25.

3 Jane Austen at Chawton

When Jane Austen's brother was made heir to the local landowner in the gentle village of Chawton near Winchester, he found this 17th-century cottage for his mother and sisters. It is a short walk from the big house, past fashionably landscaped grounds and the church where Jane's mother and sister would be buried - the author was honoured with a tomb in Winchester Cathedral. Jane lived and wrote, in secret, at the former inn from 1809 until her death in 1817. Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were handwritten here on tiny scraps of paper. The few personal effects bear witness to a less materialistic age: an elaborate quilt worked by the women, a few sticks of furniture, facsimiles of letters, her brothers' militaria.

Getting there: Jane Austen's House, Chawton, near Alton, Hampshire (01420 83262; Open daily 11am-4pm, March to November, 27 December to 1 January, and weekends December to February. Closed Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Admission: adults £4, children age 8-18 50p.

4 Disraeli's Hughenden Manor

With his novels Coningsby and Sybil already on the bestsellers' list, Disraeli's credentials as a social reformer were established, albeit the sort who lives in a stonking great house himself. He clambered to high office and led Queen Victoria's government from 1874-1880. With his wife, Mary Anne, he extended and augmented the original house, bought in 1848, emphasising the fashionable Gothic ornamentation of the day, and dying here in 1881. It is stuffed with Victoriana and Disraeliana. Much of it is under low light for conservation, so pick a sunny day.

Getting there: Hughenden Manor, Buckinghamshire (01494 755573; Open: Wednesday to Sunday and bank holiday Mondays, 1pm-5pm, until 31 October. Admission: adults £4.70, children age 5-16 £2.30, family ticket (two adults and up to three children) £12.

5 Dickens's birthplace and London house

At the age of three Charles Dickens was uprooted from his native Portsmouth and transplanted to London. He returned to his home town three times - once to research theatre life for Nicholas Nickleby and twice for public readings. Tucked away behind a main road into the city, the birthplace is hard to locate - the adult Dickens couldn't find it - but has been completely restored to recreate the look that the young married couple John and Elizabeth Dickens would have aspired to when they took the house in 1809. Charles was born in 1812, and in 1815 his father, who worked in the Navy Pay Office, was relocated to London. Restlessness was to be a hallmark of the writer's life. He moved frequently, decamped for the summer with his own family to Broadstairs, and, on the proceeds of Pickwick Papers, settled briefly in gated Doughty Street, where there is extensive memorabilia, writing Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby here before flitting off to Regent's Park.

Getting there: Charles Dickens's Birthplace, 393 Commercial Road, Portsmouth, Hampshire (023-9282 7261; Open daily, 10am-5.30pm, April to October, and 10am-5pm on Dickens's birthday, 7 February. Admission: adults £2.50, up to two children under 12 free with an adult, otherwise £1.50, families (two adults, two children) £6.50. The Charles Dickens Museum, 46 Doughty Street, London WC1N (020 7405 2127; Open Monday to Saturday, 10am-5pm, Tuesday 10am-7pm, Sunday 11am-5pm. Admission: adults £5, children £3, family ticket (two adults and up to four children) £14.

6 The Lamb House

Three writers in turn were won over by this strategically placed, red-brick, early 18th-century corner house at the top of one of Rye's most photogenic streets. Henry James bought it for £2,000 and lived in it from 1898 until 1916, dictating The Ambassadors, Wings of a Dove and The Golden Bowl in the garden. His guests included H G Wells, Ford Madox Ford, and Rudyard Kipling. Also captivated by the house were Rumer Godden, and town mayor E F Benson, whose Mapp and Lucia novels were based on the comings and goings visible from this eyrie. The house, diplomatically, has memorabilia relevant to both principle literary residents.

Getting there: The Lamb House, West Street, Rye (01372 453401; Open: Wednesday and Saturday, 2pm-6pm, until 30 October. Admission: adults £2.75, children up to 16 £1.30, families (two adults and up to two children) £6.90.

7 Shaw's Corner

On first leasing it, Shaw disliked this 1902 Buckinghamshire rectory, but it was handy for London and he was impressed by the longevity of the locals. In 1920 he bought it for £6,220. From his pretty Arts and Crafts house the prolific playwright conducted his huge personal correspondence with, among others, Mrs Patrick Campbell, who, as the only actress prepared to utter the word "bloody" on stage, became the first Eliza Doolittle. Pygmalion, her tour de force, Heartbreak House and St Joan were among the plays written during Shaw's 45 years in this house, where T E Lawrence had a permanent room. The house is exactly as it was left by Shaw, who with his wife, Charlotte, decided that it should go to the National Trust. His birthplace in Synge Street, Dublin (00 353 147 508) can also be visited.

Getting there: Shaw's Corner, Ayot St Lawrence (01438 820307; Open:Wednesday to Sunday and bank holiday Mondays, garden at noon, house at 1pm, until 5pm to 31 October. Admission: adults £3.80, children up to 16, £1.90, family ticket (two adults and three children) £9.50.

8 Kipling's Bateman's

Rudyard Kipling's love affair with this house lasted from 1902 until his death in 1936. The family home saw jubilation - innumerable accolades, including the Nobel Prize for Literature, on show - and heartbreak. His son John was killed in the First World War. Family life at Bateman's was mischievous and merry. The visitors' book bears distinguished names - Stanley Baldwin, Edward Burne-Jones (both were relatives), Henry James, T E Lawrence - but some carry the postscript FIP: Fell In Pond.

Getting there: Bateman's, Burwash, Etchingham, East Sussex (01435 882302; Open Saturday to Wednesday, 11am-5pm, until 31 October. Admission: adults £5.50, children age 5-16 £2.70, family ticket (two adults and three children) £13.70.

9 The Woolfs at Monk's House

Virginia Woolf's visits to the home of her sister, Vanessa Bell, Charleston Farmhouse, gave her a taste for the country life too, and in 1919 she and Leonard bought at auction the decrepit white weather-boarded Monk's House, a few miles away. It was turned into a mini-Charleston , spruced up with mint green paint and hand-painted pottery. Visitors included Vita Sackville-West, Lytton Strachey and other members of the Bloomsbury set, E M Forster and T S Eliot. On 28 March 1941 Virginia drowned herself in the river Ouse which runs near the bottom of the garden. Leonard lived on in the house until his death in 1969.

Getting there: Monk's House, Rodmell, Lewes, East Sussex (01372 453401; Open Wednesday and Saturday, 2pm-5.30pm until 30 October. Admission: adults £2.80, children age 5-16 £1.40, family (two adults and three children) £7.

10 DH Lawrence's birthplace

D H Lawrence's mother was socially ambitious, moving her family from one address to another in the coal-mining town of Eastwood, near Nottingham. Her third son David was born in this tiny terraced house on 11 September 1885, a sickly child who often stayed home from school and read with his mother. As a boy David went to nearby Durban House, the pay office of his father's company, to queue for his father's wages. Durban House is now a heritage centre with displays on Lawrence and on the daily grind of life in a Nottinghamshire mining community. Eastwood's first D H Lawrence Festival has events through to the end of the month and includes an exhibition of his paintings.

Getting there: D H Lawrence's Birthplace, 8a Victoria Street, Eastwood, Nottinghamshire (01773 763312). Open daily 10am-5pm, April to October and 10am-4pm, November to March. Admission: free on weekdays; adults £2, children age 5-16 £1.20 at weekends; combined ticket with Durban House Heritage Centre, adults £3.50, children £1.80.