Holiday reading: Explore literary England, from Shakespeare to the Brontës

​From Dickens to Winnie-the-Pooh, Dorset to the Lake District, the book-loving traveller is sure to be inspired

Paul Bloomfield
Friday 05 February 2016 12:59

Books and travel are a perfect match. Just as the greatest tales take the reader on an unforgettable journey, landscapes create immersive narratives, and the multifaceted characters of cities are some of the most memorable in fiction. No wonder, then, that literature offers such rich inspiration for travel, provoking us to explore those locations linked with authors, or which provided the backdrops to our favourite stories. And England encompasses a particularly rich array of bookish destinations to explore.

With a bumper crop of anniversaries and screen adaptations on the horizon, this year is particularly ripe for literary pilgrimage. A host of events commemorate 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare (, centred on Stratford-upon-Avon but echoed around the country, while anniversaries for Charlotte Brontë and Beatrix Potter shine the spotlight on West Yorkshire and the Lake District.

Elsewhere, a year of happenings at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre (01494 892192;; admission £6.60) in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, mark his centenary; for Roald Dahl Day (the weekend of 17-18 September), Great Missenden will be transformed into the Village of the Unexpected. The centrepiece of birthday events at London's Royal Festival Hall is The Wondercrump World of Roald Dahl, an inter-active exhibition (10 February to 3 July; 020 7960 4200;; £10) which follows the author's life story. And Steven Spielberg's big-screen adaptation of The BFG is released on 22 July.

While some places are synonymous with an individual writer – Hull with Philip Larkin, Cornwall with Daphne du Maurier, the Cotswolds with Laurie Lee – others are simply bursting with creative connections. Oxford, for example, has a particularly strong pedigree; Lewis Carroll and Philip Pullman plied their trade – and sometimes set their stories – among its dreaming spires. Sup a pint in the rear Rabbit Room at the Eagle and Child (01865 302925;, where The Inklings – a literary group that included Lewis and J R R Tolkien – met to discuss their work. A 90-minute stroll, led by Oxford Walking Tours (07726 304591;, £12), visits the notable literary spots.

Elsewhere, England has two Unesco Cities of Literature: Nottingham, with its links to Byron, D H Lawrence and Alan Sillitoe; and Norwich, known for Malcolm Bradbury, Anna Sewell and the 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich – the first woman known to have written a book in English. The National Centre for Writing ( will move into a new home next year, but in the meantime runs many workshops and events for aspiring wordsmiths in the medieval Dragon Hall.

“Thought flies and words go on foot,” wrote the author Julien Green, and several English walking trails named for wordsmiths link sites from their lives and works.

A fine example is the Coleridge Way, a spectacular 50-mile trail traversing the Quantocks and Exmoor, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's cottage in Nether Stowey, all the way to Lynmouth, which hosted Percy Bysshe Shelley's first honeymoon in 1812. Encounter Walking Holidays (01208 871066; offers a five-night, four-day itinerary from £382, including B&B, maps, route notes and luggage transfers.

Shorter walking routes explore Ashdown Forest (, near Uckfield in East Sussex, visiting 100 Acre Wood, the Heffalump Trap and other places from A A Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh – timely, on the 90th anniversary of its publication. HF Holidays (0345 470 8558; offers a range of writing-themed walking breaks in Dorset, the Peak District, the Cotswolds and the Lakes.

Fort House, now renamed Bleak House

Charles Dickens

He is most associated with London, but Charles Dickens' life began in Portsmouth. The house in Mile End Terrace, where he was born on 7 February 1812, is now Charles Dickens' Birthplace Museum (023 922 1879;; entry £4.20). It reopens in late March, displaying memorabilia and period furnishings. The website has downloadable directions for a walking tour.

Another town with a Dickens connection is Rochester, in Kent, where the writer lived for five years after his father took work as a clerk in the dockyard at Chatham. Here, the Guildhall Museum (; entry free) has rooms dedicated to the author, and the wooden “Swiss chalet” in which he wrote now stands in the gardens of Eastgate House. You'll also find plaques marking locations that Dickens incorporated into his novels.

In the 1850s, the writer holidayed at Fort House – now renamed Bleak House (01843 865338; – in the Kent seaside resort of Broadstairs; guests in the Charles Dickens Room (£225, B&B) can write postcards in the study where he wrote David Copperfield.

In London, the Charles Dickens Museum fills a townhouse at 48 Doughty Street where the writer once lived (020 7405 2127;; entry £9).

The Brontë sisters

Charlotte Brontë was born on 21 April 1816 in Thornton, West Yorkshire, though bicentenary celebrations are centred on the Brontë Parsonage Museum (01535 642323;; £7.50) in nearby Haworth, where the sisters spent most of their lives. Tracy Chevalier (Girl With a Pearl Earring) has curated its exhibition, Charlotte Great and Small.

The real star of the Brontës' stories is the haunting moorland, evoked in Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights. Guided Brontë walks (01274 532425; helensheritage; from £7.50pp) take in Haworth, Top Withens – possible inspiration for Wuthering Heights – and more.

In London, Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: 1816–1855 is a free exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (020 7306 0055;; 22 February to 14 August).

William Shakespeare

The epicentre of events marking the quadricentenary of Shakespeare's death is, of course, Stratford-upon-Avon (, where the annual parade on the Bard's birthday (23 April), from the Birthplace museum to his final resting place in Holy Trinity Church, will be especially lively. New Place, the house bought by Shakespeare after finding success in London – and where he died – reopens in July after a total overhaul (01789 204016;; Birthplace pass £16.50).

In London, birthday weekend events at Shakespeare's Globe (020 7401 9919; include a display of a rare First Folio rediscovered in 2014, and the Complete Walk – 37 specially made short films playing on screens erected between Westminster and Tower Bridge. At Somerset House, an exhibition features artefacts and documents such as Shakespeare's will and examples of his signature (; until 29 May; £10).

Shakespeare's Way (, a 146-mile walking trail, links Stratford and London. Macs Adventure (0141 530 5465; macsadventure .com) offers self-guided options covering the first 60 miles to Oxford via Blenheim Palace, Woodstock and the Neolithic Rollright Stones; from £485 for five nights, with B&B, route notes and luggage transfers.

Beatrix Potter

The forthcoming publication of a newly discovered Beatrix Potter story, The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots, is conveniently timed for the 150th anniversary this year of the birth of the beloved children's author. Potter was born in London on 28 July 1866, but her heart lay in the Lake District, and in 1905 she used proceeds from The Tale of Peter Rabbit to buy the 17th-century farmhouse at Hill Top near Hawkshead, now managed by the National Trust (01539 436269;; £10). She also bought Yew Tree Farm (01539 432321; in Coniston, where the Renée Zellweger biopic Miss Potter was filmed; it's now a self-catering property sleeping six, from £468 for seven nights.

Potter's literary legacy can also be explored at a three-day writing break at a nearby country-house hotel Linthwaite House (01539 263145;; 29 February to 3 March; from £462pp). Youngsters, meanwhile, can learn more at the Children's Book Festival at Wray Castle on Lake Windermere (; 4-6 March; £5). It will feature readings of Potter's stories, activities and appearances by writers.

Thomas Hardy

Last year's Far from the Madding Crowd, with Carey Mulligan, bolstered interest in Dorset – Hardy's fictional Wessex. The National Trust manages the writer's birthplace, the rustic cob-and-thatch Hardy's Cottage (01305 262366;; £6), and the imposing red-brick Max Gate (01305 262538;; £6), which Hardy built for himself; both are just east of Dorchester.

On Foot Holidays (01722 322 652; offers a self-guided traverse, In the Footsteps of Thomas Hardy, from Salisbury to Lyme Regis via numerous spots from the author's works; from £760pp, including seven nights' B&B, route notes and luggage transfers.

Stay the night at the Acorn Inn in Evershot (01935 83228; – the Sow & Acorn in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, now a boutique gastropub with B&B doubles from £99. Or head to north Cornwall, where a young Hardy honed his architectural skills – and met his future wife – in St Juliot's. Stay in his room at the Old Rectory (01840 250225; from £75, B&B.

Jane Austen

What would Jane Austen have made of the genre-bending film, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, released next week? Well, she wasn't averse to revamping her own work, as revealed at Jane Austen's House Museum (01420 83262;; £8), her cottage in Chawton, Hampshire, currently celebrating the bicentenary of Emma.

In Bath, where she spent five years, the Jane Austen Centre (01225 443000;; entry £11) explores the writer's life and love-hate relationship with the city, and leads guided group walks; alternatively, download a free audio tour featuring extracts from Austen's writing about the Bath (

From 9-18 September, bonneted ladies and breeches-clad gentlemen will descend on Bath for the annual Jane Austen Festival (; 10 days of talks, tours and performances of various kinds.

One her former homes, on Sydney Place, has been converted into Jane Austen's Apartments (; double rooms from £179), near Great Pulteney Street, where part of Northanger Abbey was set.

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