Literary destinations to visit in the UK

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Imagine standing in the very room where Samuel Coleridge, as he furiously tried to write down Kubla Khan before it slipped from his opium-expanded mind, was interrupted by the now-infamous "person from Porlock". Or lying on the cigarette-burned "day bed" where Rudyard Kipling took his naps. What if you could visit the exact house on the remote Scottish isle where George Orwell rushed out 1984, or visit the actual bookies where Renton dives into "the worst toilet in Scotland" in Trainspotting

Well, actually, you can do all those things. In fact, the United Kingdom is littered with famous literary sites that book lovers can visit. From dramatic landscapes and buildings that have inspired some of literature's best-loved stories to the homes where writers wrote, here is our tour of the nation's most important literary locations. 

South West England

Hardy’s Cottage (Higher Bockhampton, Dorset)

This old-world cob and thatch cottage is where Thomas Hardy was born and spent the first 34 years of his life. Surrounded by dense woodland and gargling brooks, it was here that he wrote several works, including the novels Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd.

Staying there now, as visitors can, it's easy to see why the surrounding meadows never left Hardy's heart – to him a place of quiet, untamed beauty, uncorrupted by human hands. Behind it stretches a heath, which is even thought to have inspired his fictitious Egdon Heath, of which Hardy wrote in The Return of the Native: “Civilization was its enemy ... The great inviolate place had an ancient permanence which the sea cannot claim."

Literary destinations to visit in the South West of England

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Bateman’s (Etchingham, East Sussex)

Built in 1634, Rudyard Kipling spent the last 34 years of his life here. It's where he and wife Carrie brought up their children, Elsie and John, and where he wrote some of his best-loved works, including If— and Puck of Pook's Hill.

Kipling was said to be seduced by the legend that this area of Sussex was the last place in England inhabited by fairies before they upped and left forever. You can now visit the house, that feels almost as if Kipling might stride in any moment. His study is especially evocative, complete with his ink-stained desk and day bed, that still bears his mark, in the form of cigarette burns that dot the cushioned sofa.

Bath Assembly Rooms (Bath, Somerset)

Jane Austen used Bath's glorious Assembly Rooms in two of her novels – Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. In both novels, these ornate ballrooms are where our respective heroines, Anne Elliot and Catherine Morland, attend dances in the hope of snaring eligible men of means. They are also where Jane Austen attended a number of society balls herself, occasions that, no doubt, inspired some of her most memorable will-they-won't-they scenes.

Located on Terrace Walk, just off the banks of the Avon River, they are now a place to take tea, drink soul-cleansing spring water and admire the awesome beauty of the largest eighteenth-century room in Bath, resplendant with its spectacular Whitefriars crystal chandeliers.

Greenway (near Galmpton, Devon)

Agatha Christie famously described her forest-nestled holiday home as “the loveliest place in the world”. Many of her works, including Towards Zero, Dead Man’s Folly and Five Little Pigs were inspired by the house and its sumptuous gardens.

Of first seeing the house, Christie wrote in her autobiography: “[How] very beautiful the house and grounds were … with woods sweeping down to the Dart below, and a lot of fine shrubs and trees – the ideal house, a dream house.”

Coleridge Cottage (Nether Stowey, Somerset)

Recently restored to look just like it did when Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel, among other immortal works, this cottage in the Somerset wilds oozes literary history. It's where he described the "thin blue flame" on "my low-burnt fire" in the poem Frost at Midnight, and where he and old pal William Wordsworth drank by candlelight and founded the Romantic Movement.

It was here too that, in an opium-induced slumber, Coleridge scribbled down the first lines of Kubla Khan, before being so mysteriously interrupted by that “person from Porlock” - the most infamous vibe-killer in literary history.

Jamaica Inn (Launceston, Cornwall)

Not far from the picturesque fishing town of Fowey, it was along this wind-worn stretch of Cornish coast that Daphne du Maurier set many of her most famous novels, from The Birds to Rebecca and, of course, Jamaica Inn. “Jamaica Inn stands today, hospitable and kindly,” she wrote. “In the following story of adventure I have pictured it as it might have been over a hundred and twenty years ago.”

By that she meant a smuggler's den of vice where the clock ticks “like a dying man who cannot catch his breath”, the wooden sign creaks “like an animal in pain”, and the wind outside howls like ‘a chorus from the dead’. She was said to have been inspired to write Jamaica Inn in 1930 after she and a friend got lost in fog while riding on the surrounding moors, before the local rector regaled the pair with tales of local ghosts and smugglers' yarns that night.

South East England

Ashdown Forest (Sussex)

A. A. Milne bought Crotchford Farm, in Ashdown Forest, in 1925 as a family holiday home. It was amid the ancient wood's distinctive heathlands, gorse and bracken, and clumps of pine trees that he watched the imaginary adventures of his son Christopher Robin, who later said it was “identical” to Winnie the Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood.

You can still visit the footbridge across a tributary of the River Medway in Posingford Wood where the father and son invented Poohsticks, as well as all the other sites where Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet and gang lived, loved and ate honey.

Oxford University (Oxford)

Oxford is a city dripping with literary associations, from C. S. Lewis to Evelyn Waugh. But few have featured the university's iconic grounds with such fondness as Phillip Pullman in His Dark Materials. The Bodleian Library, the Botanic Gardens, even Blackwell's iconic bookshop appear in the trilogy.

And while the fictional Jordan College doesn't exist, it is said to be based on Exeter College, Pullman's alma mater: “Tunnels, shafts, vaults, cellars, staircases had so hollowed out the earth below Jordan and for some yards around it that there was almost as much air below ground as above; Jordan College stood on a sort of froth of stone.”

Knole house and garden (Sevenoaks, Kent)

This was the labyrinthine ancestral home of Vita Sackville-West, best friend, muse and lover of Virginia Woolf. And it was here that Woolf wrote Orlando, her ode to gender fluidity and love-letter to Sackville-West. Orlando's original manuscript is still there today, inscribed with the words, 'Vita from Virginia'.

And it was within these oak-panelled walls (it is said to have 365 rooms and 52 staircases), that Woolf and Sackville-West began their ten-year affair under the watchful eyes of the pile's vast collection of priceless portraits of the great and good of English history. “You made me cry with your passages about Knole, you wretch,” Sackville-West later wrote to Woolf after reading Orlando, which is partly set at Knole.

Literary destinations to visit in South East England

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Chawton (Hampshire)

This, according to its website, is the “most treasured Austen site in the world”. Jane Austen's brother, Edward, inherited Chawton House from distant relatives. He immediately offered the bailiff’s residence, five minutes’ walk from Chawton House, to his mother and sisters, Jane and Cassandra.

It was there that Jane spent the last eight years of her life and published all her novels: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Now a museum, it holds a cornucopia of Austen-related artefacts, including letters, jewellery, furniture and the table at which she wrote most of her books.

North East England

Whitby (North Yorkshire)

“An immense dog sprang up on deck from below … Making straight for the steep cliff, where the churchyard hangs over the laneway to the East Pier so steeply that some of the flat tombstones – 'thruff-steens' or 'through-stones,' as they call them in the Whitby vernacular – actually project over where the sustaining cliff has fallen away, it disappeared in the darkness.”

Looking across the harbour toward East Cliff, you can see the 199 steps up which Dracula, in dog form, tore to St Mary's church. Bram Stoker knew it well, having stayed in the Royal Hotel while writing his famous novel. The book bleeds with references to the ancient seaport and fishing village where much of the the 1897 classic Gothic novel is set.

Whiteley Bay (Tyne and Wear)

Whitely Bay, in the words of Ann Cleeves, is “a faded seaside town on the coast east of Newcastle. Once a “place of wild partying,” now, she said last year, “there are still a few deco houses on the road that leads to St Mary’s Island and perhaps they triggered my imagination.”

Now Cleeves' hometown, it was here that she set many of her Vera books (now a TV series). In other words, it's the perfect place for a hard-boiled female detective to ply her hard-learned trade. The lighthouse on St Mary's no longer guides ships in, but its towering silhouette remains an eerie symbol of the seaside town, and a major character in Cleeves' latest novel, The Seagull.

Bradford (West Yorkshire)

Bradford's magnificent old Wool Exchange is now a Waterstones bookshop. But it's also where A. A. Dhand places a murdered corpse at the start of his 2018 thriller City of Sinners (the victim was hanged over a ledge below the hammer-beam roof, suspended between two towering granite pillars).

Harry Virdee, the “heavy-handed” detective caught between his duty as a copper and his identity as a British Sikh, is Dhand's greatest creation, and the gritty streets of Bradford are his patch. As bodies pile up, he must catch the killers in a city torn apart by violence, exploitation and racial tension. His books, in a way though, are love letters to a once-great city left to fade.

North West England

Hill Top (near Hawkshead, Cumbria)

In 1905, Beatrix Potter bought Hill Top, a quaint little cottage near Hawkshead in Cumbria, with the proceeds from her first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It became the inspiration for all her other “little white books" and her spiritual home. And it's pretty much exactly as she left it when she died in 1943.

Visitors can wander the rooms, each filled with curios from the author's life. That includes her dolls house, the furnishing's of which will seem more than a little familiar to anyone who has read her classic story, The Tale Of Two Bad Mice.

Lyme Park (Disley, Cheshire)

It's been 25 years since Colin Firth emerged from the lake in front of Lyme Park in Cheshire in his soggy, nipple-clamping shirt, sending hearts aflutter up and down the country. And Lyme Park is where that smouldering scene was filmed. While that particular scene is not in Jane Austen's classic, the lavish country house on the edge of the Peak District was the setting for all the garden scenes of Pemberley, Mr. Darcy's plush estate in Pride and Prejudice.

“She had never seen a place where nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste," writes Austen when Elizabeth first lays eyes on Pemberley. "They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”

Haworth (near Bradford, West Yorkshire)

The Brontë sisters lived most of their short but fruitful lives in Howarth, the Pennine village where they grew up. It was where, in 1847, Charlotte published Jane Eyre, Anne published Agnes Grey and Emily published Wuthering Heights. They loved a walk, and visitors now can still stroll the pathways and moorlands that inspired their writing.

That includes Top Withens, a ruined, wind-swept farmhouse and supposed setting for Wuthering Heights. Describing it, Emily wrote: "One may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun."

Wordsworth House and Garden (Cockermouth, Cumbria)

This is the house where the poet William Wordsworth spent his free-range childhood, and cultivated his love of nature. Now under the care of the National Trust, it's pretty much as the Wordsworths left it when William moved out in 1778 following the death of his mother.

The playroom is full of toys and clothes from the period, the Wordsworth Room is stuffed with curios, books and games while the garden is something close to an 18th-century time machine of veg, fruit, herbs and flowers, just as it would have been when a young William played there.

Central England

Stratford-upon-Avon (Warwickshire)

No town in all of England is more synonymous with English literature than Stratford-upon-Avon. It's where William Shakespeare was born, and where he is buried. First, there's the half-timbered Tudor family home on Henley Street where The Bard entered the world in 1564. Then there's New Place, where he spent the last years of his life. There's also, a mile or so up the road, Ann Hathaway's cottage, the beautiful thatched farmhouse where Shakespeare's wife lived before her marriage. You can even visit the school where the playwrite took his first steps towards literary immortality. 

London

The National Theatre (Southbank)

Bernadine Evaristo's Booker-winning novel Girl, Woman, Other opens with Amma making her way to the National Theatre for the opening night of her play The Last Amazon of Dahomey. “A few early morning barges cruise slowly by” as she walks towards the “Brutalist grey arts complex”.

“At least they try to enliven the bunker-like concrete with neon”, she thinks. It's an evocative scene in which she sees the Thames snake into the grey distance, framed by Waterloo Bridge and St. Paul's Cathedral. Also it's dawn – the best time of any day to see London from the river while air is “still breezy before the city clogs up with heat and fumes”. The build up and the aftermath of Amma's play in the National are what bookend this wonderful novel. Opened in 1976, The National Theatre is itself a work of art, inside and out, and well worth a visit for the theatre, or just the views.

Waterloo Station (central London)

“One grim winter evening”, Moses Aloetta, in Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners jumps on “a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.” Selvon's iconic 1953 chronicle of post-war Caribbean migration to Britain spends a lot of time in Waterloo. The station especially.

Far more than just a place of “arrivals” and “departures”, it is, for Selvon and his characters, a symbolic migrant gateway into the capital. And, despite having lived for years in London, it is also a place – for homesick “fellers” like Moses at least – that you “can’t get away from the habit of going to.”

Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey (central London)

This, as A. A. Gill put it, is “the marbled hall of fame of Britishness” where you can stand on the bones of the nation's most revered figures of English letters. Chaucer, Dickens, Tennyson, Hardy, and Kipling are all buried there, alongside more than 50 other men and women packed beneath the great flagstones of Westminster Abbey.

Dozens of others, from Shakespeare to Austen, Wordsworth to Phillip Larkin are all commemorated there, too, in statue or commemorative stone. It is, in short, a place to rub shoulders with the ghosts of the greatest minds in British literature – a place so imprinted into British literary tradition that its very name conjures near mythic implication.

Baker Street (central London)

No trip to Britain is complete without stalking the gas-lit streets of Victorian London, and turning your magnifying glass to Baker Street, the home of Sherlock Holmes. Of course, there is no 221B Baker Street. There never was, not even in Arthur Conan-Doyle's day.

Though, there is now a museum dedicated to the famous sleuth at 239 (the closest address to 221B used to be occupied by the Abbey National bank, which was forced to employ a full-time secretary in the 1930s to answer the hundreds of letters sent by fans to the address every year). As for the fictional flat itself, it's been painstakingly recreated by the museum, which was granted special permission by the City of Westminster to bear the address 221B.

St Mary’s Church (Willesden, north west London)

Few novels have such a profound sense of place than Zadie Smith's 2012 novel NW. The place in question is Willesden, north-west London. And nowhere in the book is more beautifully described than the ancient St. Mary's Church, by the A107 roundabout.

“Out of time, out of place,” writes Smith when Leah and Nat visit early in the story with their children. “A force field of serenity surrounds it. A cherry tree at the east window. A low encircling brick wall marks the ancient boundary, no more a defence than a ring of daisies. The family vaults have their doors kicked in. Many brightly tagged gravestones.”

The 700-year-old church is home to the famous ‘Black Madonna’ of Willesden, which once attracted large numbers of pilgrims. Since the original was destroyed in the Reformation, it was replaced by a limewood statue - mentioned by Zadie Smith – that's both beautiful and imposing and well worth a visit.

Brick Lane (London's East End)

“You can spread your soul over a paddy field, you can whisper to a mango tree, you can feel the earth between your toes and know that this is the place, the place where it begins and ends. But what can you tell to a pile of bricks? The bricks will not be moved.”

Brick Lane, by Monica Ali, is about a young Bangladeshi woman who exchanges her village home for a flat in the East End of London after being forced into an arranged marriage. A story of love, fate and cultural conflict, the story unfolds mostly in the streets and buildings around Brick Lane, the heart of London's Bangladeshi community. Brick Lane is known also for its many curry houses and vintage clothes shops, as well as its a bustling weekend market.

Scotland

Leith, Edinburgh

Irvine Welsh's Leith was the stomping ground of junkies, prostitutes, psychos, bigots and social security scam artists living on what's left of their wits in the 1993 cult classic Trainspotting. And while the 'worst toilet in Scotland' – into which protagonist Renton dives to retrieve the heroin suppository he's just evacuated from his guts – may have involved a little artistic license, the bookies in which it rotted was very real.

And many of the other locations described by Welsh are still visitable too, if a little less watch-your-back bleak nowadays. Leith is no longer the den of vice depicted by Welsh. In fact, it now boasts two Michelin-starred restaurants, while Leith Walk is the most diverse districts in the country, as well as one of the most populated. As Renton never quite said, “Choose life. Choose Leith.”

Loch Katrine, Glasgow

One of Scotland's most beguiling lochs (in a very crowded field), the eight-mile-long freshwater loch is most famous as the beloved setting of Sir Walter Scott’s 1810 poem The Lady of the Lake.

Here's how Scott describes “the silver strand”, through the eyes of a mysterious knight, struck by the beauty of a young woman rowing towards him: “A little skiff shot to the bay, / That round the promontory steep / Led its deep line in graceful sweep, / Eddying, in almost viewless wave, / The weeping willow twig to rave, / And kiss, with whispering sound and slow, / The beach of pebbles bright as snow".

Wigtown (Dumfries and Galloway)

Otherwise known as "Scotland's National Book Town", Wigtown, in the southern uplands, has one of the highest concentration of second-hand bookshops in the country (one for every 50 people) and is home to the second largest book festival in Scotland. It is also home to The Open Book bookshop, where visitors can go on the “first ever bookshop holiday”, renting the apartments upstairs while running the shop below (with the help of local volunteers, of course).

Inverness (North East Scotland)

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander books have fuelled a visitor boom for the Highlands since the first was published in 1991, rooted in the very real history and culture of northern Scotland. The towering Castle Leod at Strathpeffer is thought to be the inspiration for Castle Leoch, the fictional seat of Clan MacKenzie in the time-travelling saga.

Then there's the ancient Clava Cairns burial ground, thought to have inspired Craigh Na Dun that spirits Claire back in time to 1743 war-torn Scotland. There's Culloden Battlefield, and, of course, Loch Ness, where Claire first spots the mysterious “water horse”.

Jura island (Inner Hebrides)

When George Orwell squirrelled himself away in a remote Scottish farmhouse, called Barnhill, to rush out what would become the definitive novel of the 20th century (also known as 1984), he needed silence and space. It had to be, as he described it, “in an extremely un-get-atable place”.

And it still is today, requiring two ferries, a 20-mile drive and then a four-mile walk along a dirt track. But by Big Brother's roving eye it is worth the trek if you've the shoes for it. Red deer roam freely about the island (outnumbering people by 25 to one), and golden eagles patrol the sky.

With its untamed natural beauty, soaring mountains, moss-blanketed corries, crags and knobbly fields of peat, it is one of the very few spots on the British Isles that feels untouched by the hands of man.

Wales

Laugharne (Carmarthenshire)

“The strangest town in Wales” was how the poet Dylan Thomas described the estuary town of Laugharne, south Wales. Which makes sense, given its people were what inspired his most-famous radio drama, Under Milk Wood, about a day in the life of the small fishing village, Llareggub (read it backwards).

It is a place where, in his words, “the sea lolls, laps and idles in, with fishes sleeping in its lap”, and where on a moonless night the sky is “starless, Bible-black”. Thomas lived there, on and off, for 20 years. He may now be gone, but his memory lives on happily every after.

Hay-on-Wye (on the border of England and Wales)

Home to some 20 specialist bookshops (mostly second-hand), Hay-on-Wye has long been known as the UK's “town of books". It is both the National Book Town of Wales and the site of the annual Hay Festival of literature (or, as former US president Bill Clinton once dubbed it, "The Woodstock of the mind"). As such, it has become a place of pilgrimage for book lovers from all over the world.

The Black Mountains (Mid-Wales)

J. R. R. Tolkien once described Welsh as “the senior language of the men of Britain.” He so loved the language that it inspired many of his place names and characters in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. And in the imposing Black Mountains, in Wales' Brecon Beacons, his imagination saw Mordor.

He is believed to have stayed in the village of Talybont-on-Usk in the 1940s, while working on parts of The Lord of The Rings, and is thought to have named the fictional hobbit village of Crickhollow after nearby Crickhowell.

Northern Ireland

Homeplace (Bellaghy, County Derry)

Opened in 2016, this arts and literary centre in the village of Bellaghy celebrates the life, literature and inspirations of Seamus Heaney, the Nobel prize-winning poet who died in 2013 and is buried in the nearby church graveyard.

Heaney grew up in Bellaghy, and the centre – a former RUC police station – showcases all sorts of artefacts from his life, from his his childhood leather satchel to dozens of family photographs to the desk he wrote at in his attic study (which he called his “hutch”). There are video recordings, too, from neighbours, world leaders and cultural figures, and a viewing platform from which visitors can look out across the Derry countryside that inspired so much of his work.

Literary destinations to visit in Northern Ireland

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Mourne Mountains (County Down)

“I yearn to see County Down in the snow,” C. S. Lewis once said of his homeland. “One almost expects to see a march of dwarfs dashing past. How I long to break into a world where such things were true.” So he created Narnia, a world of umbrella-carrying fawns, ice queens and talking lions, accessible only through the wardrobe of an old house.

Having spent all his childhood there, he returned to the area every year, and the dominating Mourne Mountains, with its dramatic peaks and sweeping valleys, became the setting for his finest creation.

Cave Hill (Belfast)

If you tilt your head enough and squint, Cave Hill, in north Belfast, looks a bit like a sleeping giant. You can almost imagine him – or her – rumbling to life, tearing up the moss and soil to wreak whatever havoc awoken giants make in 2020.

At least, locals believe that's what Jonathan Swift imagined when he saw the imposing rock on one of his visits. They say it so peaked his imagination that it inspired him to write Gulliver's Travels, about a sailor who awakes after a shipwreck to find he's been captured by an island of tiny people.

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