Wednesday, December 16, 2015

We Found Steventon!

Jane Austen's home in Steventon

In honor of Jane Austen's 240th birthday, here is a post about the quiet corner of the county of Hampshire where she was born, and how you can find it.

I have long dreamed of visiting the place responsible for the formation of Jane Austen's genius, the home where her talents and deepest loves were nurtured and her intellect began to grow - that elusive, long-demolished home in Steventon. I must repress a sigh every time I think of Jane's beloved home being demolished by her own nephew a mere five years after she died. In 1823 William Knight became rector of Steventon and moved into a newly-built rectory, having the old one pulled down. (Are you trying not to sigh now, too?)

But the rest of the neighborhood hasn't changed! The lanes, hedgerows and meadows still look untouched, and the Steventon church where Mr. Austen preached looks nearly as it must have to Jane and her family. It still feels like you're stepping back in time when you walk down the lanes shaded by old oaks and fluttering birch trees in between peaceful meadows. I've never felt more a part of Jane Austen's world! I almost really expected to see a young Jane and Cassandra walking toward us down the lane. As a Jane Austen fan, I've never been more excited!

Okay, so how does one get there? It is no simple feat without a car. And we almost gave up after arriving in Overton on a bus from Basingstoke, because there are no taxis in Overton. (Overton is the nearest town to Steventon.) However, the #76 or the #86 buses to and from Basingstoke stop at Deane Gate Inn, and from there it is a 1 1/4 mile walk to where the rectory house used to be.

A photo from the Deane's Gate Inn bus stop on the road from Basingstoke to Overton. The side road leads to Steventon.

The town center of Steventon.
 We walked straight down that side road across from Deane's Gate Inn bus stop, then when we reached this sign post, we followed the sign pointing left, labelled "Steventon Church".
If you follow the sign in the town center, this is the road you walk down. The rectory sight is on the right over the hedgerow, and that little white sign marks the road to Steventon Church.

Here is the sign up close. We turned right to find a nice view of where the former Rectory stood and to get to the church.

 Off we go!

The road to the church, and many of the beautiful trees you'll find there.

Along the road to the church we found this bank on the right. We scrambled to the top, and found some excellent views of where the Rectory would have been.

The small grassy clump on the left is where the well is, the only original part of the Rectory that remains.

The Austens' Rectory would have faced the road to Steventon Church, with the well in the back of the house. The hedgerow that now lines this road seems to have originally been the Long Shrubbery, a part of the landscaping surrounding the house. The meadows all along the roads leading from the town and to the church belonged to the Rectory, and some of them contained small plantations, gardens and plant nurseries.

Here is the Lime Tree planted by Jane's oldest brother James in 1813 in the corner of the meadow.

We continued up the road to the church, which basically stops at a dead end with the church on the left and a house or two on the right. There is no bright sign for tourists to know they have found Jane Austen's church, so we were a bit confused as to whether we'd actually found it. But from the fact that a sign in front of the church read "St. Nicholas' Church" and had as it's emblem a lady in Regency dress writing on a table with a quill pen (and the fact that there was no other church around...) we realized we were in the right place.

The steeple is an addition from the late Victorian period, and at an earlier time the door was moved to its current position from this wall, here.

It was a windy, peaceful afternoon, so we decided to seat ourselves on a bench outside to eat our lunch before venturing in. It was indeed a pleasant spot, and we enjoyed sitting there, soaking in the fact that we had at last made it to Steventon. Experiencing the peace and pleasantness for ourselves made it very apparent why Jane Austen loved her home so much.

 In the shade on the right is our bench.

 The east end of the building. The tree to the right is a Yew tree, estimated to be nearly 900 years old.

Lunch over, it was time to peek inside! But we had a problem. We could not open the door. The round door handle/knocker would do nothing but flip up and down, no matter how hard we pushed or pulled on it! It was an intolerable thought to come all this way and then be defeated by a door handle, so my Mother went back to the door, determined to think of something while I waited on the bench. She seemed to have been positively inspired! For, as I was uttering a mental prayer that she could think of something...vóila! It was done, and I was running to the door. She had simply lifted the handle and turned it.

We entered the place where Jane herself had worshiped nearly every week for the first twenty-five years of her life. She had walked up that very lane with Cassandra, her mother and brothers to sit in these very pews to hear her father preach.

It is a simple building inside and out but pleasant, especially on this sunny July day.

 The pulpit on the left, where the Reverend George Austen, Jane's father, would have preached.
The bright paintwork on the walls and the stained glass window were added in the late Victorian period.

St Nicholas Church is still used today. It's been around for long while - it is mentioned in a document from the twelfth century - and it hasn't changed too drastically over all of those centuries.

 This is looking toward the door from the front.

I imagined the Austen family sitting in these first few pews, dressed in their Sunday bonnets and coats, singing and listening to Mr. Austen. The most memorable part of our day in Steventon was imagining Jane living her life here – looking in every direction, and knowing that she had walked in the lanes, sat in the church, enjoyed her family and her home in these places. Then, on top of that, it was almost unreal that we were actually in those places!

It is an unforgettable experience, and I hope this post will help and inspire you to seek it out for yourself!

Have you ever visited Steventon? What did you think?

Happy 240th Birthday to Jane Austen!

One of my favorite quotes to celebrate Jane Austen is from Rudyard Kipling's short story The Janeites:

Jane lies at Winchester – blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made!

The world would indeed be a poorer place without the existence of Jane Austen. She has changed the course of literature and even the world with her gifts and talents – this unknown young woman from a tiny village in the English countryside who loved her work and had faith enough to send it out into the world 200 years ago!

The winter of 1775 was frosty and gloomy, but on the 16th of December the naturalist Gilbert White, who lived in the nearby village of Selbourne, recorded, "Fog, sun, sweet day." Could there have been more perfect perfect weather for the birth of the girl who would grow into one of the most clear-sighted and affectionate people, bringing sunshine into the lives of those who knew her and those millions of people who would fall in love with her stories?

Her father, the Reverend George Austen, wrote in a letter that, "everything was soon happily over" and that she was to be "a present plaything for her sister Cassy and a future companion. She is to be Jenny."

Jane Austen wrote the most brilliant novels in the world, but she did so much more than that. As her father had predicted, she was a companion to her sister, and grew to be a wise and loving woman – which may be why her writing is still so beautifully deep and clear today.

To Jane!