Literary Travel: a Bookworm's Trail of Britain
‘To be or not to be...’
No, don’t hit the back button...Just because we were subjected to some awful books at school (they made me read The Cay when I could have been reading The Outsiders) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all be into our books now. Indeed, as my dear mum once told me (OK, shouted at me when I hadn’t tidied my room because I was reading), I would read the back of an effing cornflake packet if nothing else was available.
This, combined with my love of hitching a rucksack and sleeping bag onto my bike and taking off around the country imagining I’m with the Joads on their way to California, means I have a special interest in the literary trail around Britain, and everywhere else. I’m also possibly a bit weird. So here are a few literary spots you can see on your travels (and don't forget our camping in literature blog a few months back...).
First up is Tolkien Country, celebrating The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings. Tolkien Country is first because it is. It just is. You can start off with Tolkien’s grave in Oxford, where he and his wife Edith’s headstone is also carved with the names Beren and Lúthien (sniff), but if you want to take your shoes off and properly pretend you’re in Middle Earth, you can follow in Tolkien’s footsteps with the book There and Back Again. Or you could just decide to hike across the Pennines in furry slippers with nothing in your pack but bits of broken cream crackers. I wouldn’t judge you for it for a second. Others might.
Next up, I remember as a child being utterly traumatised by the TV adaptation of Salem’s Lot, which is why I’ll assert right here right now that while hobbits are of course real, vampires are of course not. With that out of the way and my sleep guaranteed tonight, it’s time to move on to Whitby, home to Mina and Lucy and where the evil Count Dracula first bared his fangs in Britain. Go to Whitby pier for the Dracula landing spot, visit the Whitby Museum for all the history, or lurch around Whitby Abbey imagining you’ve dragged the evil count there to be dragged into dust. Remember to bring a crucifix, garlic and a backup crucifix.
Moving south to winsome Mr Darcy-ness, Jane Austen fans can wander around Bath to try one of the guided walks around the areas of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, or swoon inside the Jane Austen Centre. Darcy fans will know that Austen lived in Bath for five years and it was where the Eliot family relocated to in Persuasion as well as where ITV1 set its adaptation of the book. You can also continue your hopeful Darcy hunting in Hampshire, where Austen spent the last seven years of her life and where the Jane Austen’s House Museum is, or in Derbyshire, which Mr Darcy apparently owned the middle half of and where his pad Pemberley was set. Just please don’t read Bridget Jones’ Diary along the way.
Southern England also has Hardy Country, where novelist and poet Thomas Hardy set his work in the fictional county of Wessex, which is of course Dorchester and Dorset (you fooler, Thomas). And, if you watched the BBC adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles a few years back, your Hardy wanderings can also take you to Salisbury and Stonehenge, where you can dance around a bit yelling about cads and liars.
You can wander all over the country pretending to hunt orcs or chase down vampires, at least if you’re a geek like me, but if you want to just do day trips or your long-suffering other half has put a firm foot down, there are museums and writers’ houses all over the country. I promised I wasn’t going to mention Shakespeare but I suppose it can’t be helped (bah), so if you really really feel you must, take a trip to Warwickshire to see Shakespeare's Birthplace Museum at Stratford-upon-Avon, probably the most popular Shakespeare attraction after the Globe.
For another dad of British literature – just think of him as a forefather of Irvine Welsh – Charles Dickens Country takes in Kent and Rochester (Mr Rochester!) as well as London. There’s the Rochester Dickens Festival, the Dickens Christmas Market at Rochester Castle and guided walks in Dickens land all over the city. Kent also has the Dickens House Museum, and you can go to London for the Charles Dickens Museum in Camden. (Make a London literary day of it by going to Dr Johnson's House to make up a word you wouldn’t find in the dictionary, and the Sherlock Holmes Museum to peer intelligently with one eye under your deerstalker hat.)
Then zigzag about again to head to the Pepys Library in Cambridge, (George Bernard) Shaw's Corner in Hertfordshire, or for a drink and a bit of a swear at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse in Carmarthenshire. For picking up tomes of your own, Hay-on-Wye is the most famously bookish town in the UK and holds its world-famous Hay Festival each spring; north of the border there's the Scottish book centre of Wigtown in Dumfries and Galloway, with over a quarter of a million books for sale and also home to an acclaimed literary festival each year, and for Lake District literaries, the town of Sedbergh is known as England's booktown in Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales.
If all these visits and book shopping are making you feel a bit too intelligent and worldly, and if, like me, you like children’s books as they represent a level of intellect you’re more comfortable with, you can easily take things down a level. Sadly the BFG strode so far from England that night with Sophie that his cave is too far away to include in a Literary Britain trail, but you can go to the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Buckinghamshire instead, to visit Café Twit or listen to a storytelling session in Miss Honey’s classroom. You could also try The World of Beatrix Potter or see original illustrations and manuscripts for the Swallows and Amazons series at the Museum of Lakeland Life, both in Kendal, or follow the Tarka Trail in Devon, although you might cry when you remember the end of the book.
There are plenty of literary festivals around the country as well (see our sites near festivals finder on the homepage), but I’m running out of space, showing once again my waffly tendencies and why I’m not yet a bestselling author to be included on any literary trail. Yet.