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WANDERING THE TRAIL OF WORDS IN THE BRITISH ISLES
 
(2018 - Winter/Spring Issue)

Writer: SEAN ARTHUR JOYCE



It’s easy to forget just how entwined writing is with culture, how its riches are sprinkled throughout our cities so liberally we often fail to notice.

Travelling to England and Ireland, this was repeatedly driven home to me. Certainly as a writer I had worked into my itinerary as many literary landmarks as possible. Yet I was continually stumbling over monuments to the profound influence great writers have had on our culture—the Shakespeare’s Head pub off Carnaby Street in London, for example, with its carved head damaged by WWII bombing. The brass statue of Oscar Wilde in Galway’s delightful William Street shopping area, a few blocks from the city’s technicolour harbour. The gorgeous Yeats memorial by Jackie McKenna outside the Drumcliff cemetery in Sligo, with the poet’s plea to “tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.” The fabulous British Museum, with Tennyson’s words inlaid in the marble floor of the rotunda: “And let thy feet millenniums hence be set in midst of knowledge.” Because after all, it’s not the accounting ledgers that we remember of a culture, it’s the art.

IN AND AROUND LONDON

It was a thrill to visit the British Museum’s Mesopotamian wing and see the very genesis of writing—cuneiform tablets 5,000 years old. Not a bad place to start on a literary pilgrimage. Once again a debt of gratitude is owed to writers—Leonard Cottrell’s 1965 book, The Land of Shinar, was a landmark in popularizing archaeology. Even London’s gritty East End has a grid of streets each named after the nation’s famous poets: Shelley, Byron, Coleridge and Goldsmith, though clearly their haunts were in a rather more posh part of town. Tragically, Westminster Abbey was closed on the day I was in London, so I had to miss the greatest writers’ memorial of all—Poet’s Corner. If you’re planning a literary pilgrimage to the British Isles, don’t miss it.

My trip had also been a pilgrimage to trace the path of my ancestors and, as part of that, I discovered I had living relatives in Wheathampstead, north of London. While I stayed with them, I got a special treat—a visit to Shaw’s Corner—the last home of George Bernard Shaw. Also known as Ayot St. Lawrence, the house and grounds were ceded to the National Trust by Shaw’s estate in 1952—two years after his death at age 94. The Shaws kept a flat in London—first at Adelphi Terrace and later at Whitehall Court—but Ayot St. Lawrence was their main home. Shaw’s writing hut at the bottom of his garden was built on a pivot, so the entire building could be turned to follow the sun. The house was ideally arranged to cater to the needs of a busy and productive writer.

ISLE OF WIGHT

Having recovered from missing Poet’s Corner, my next stop was the Isle of Wight, where 19th-century poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson maintained a cottage residence at Farringford. I was initially drawn by Carisbrooke Castle, a strategically essential site in British history since the Norman invasion. But for literary pilgrims the real treasure is in its museum, which contains Tennyson’s felt hat, cloak, tobacco jar, clay pipes and rack, a sheet of his music and a quill pen. While on the Isle I hiked to see the giant Celtic cross erected in Tennyson’s honour on the crest of Tennyson Down in the village of Freshwater. From there you can see the chalk-white cliffs below, the surf breaking on the strand, and the villages and harbour on the Solent.

DORSET’S TREASURES

Tracking the path of my ancestors took me to Dorset, rightly considered to be Thomas Hardy country. His novels and poems are richly interlaced with the lush, rolling countryside, ancient water mills, and iconic 19th-century peasant characters he knew so well. Hardy is memorialized by an imposing bronze statue at the top of Dorchester’s High Street. Given the importance of Hardy today in Dorset culture, I was surprised to learn he was not well liked by locals during his lifetime. Writers tend to live and work on their own terms, often leading to misunderstandings. Those wanting to bask in his ghostly echoes are advised to visit the Dorset County Museum, an imposing Victorian Gothic building that contains the reading room where he wrote The Mayor of Casterbridge. Literary pilgrims can also visit Hardy’s birthplace, a classic English thatched cottage in Lower Bockhampton, or the house he designed and built, Max Gate, both near Dorchester and managed by the National Trust.

But another worthy—though far less famous—author was also rooted in the Dorset downs, streams and hedges—Henry Stanley Joyce. For over 400 years the Joyce family were tenant millers and farmers at White Mill, a historic water mill on the River Stour also managed by the National Trust. In this age of environmental concern, it’s worth visiting the mill to see just how much was accomplished by clean, water-driven technology. Until researching my genealogy I had no idea I was related to this author. Joyce was a self-taught naturalist and artist who wrote and illustrated six books on fishing in the English and Irish countryside during the 1930s and ’40s. His closely observant eye created precious time capsules of a way of life that has long since vanished.

Before you leave Dorset, take time to visit the magnificent Christchurch Priory, a thousand-year-old palimpsest of architectural grandeur. It’s also an important stop on any literary pilgrimage. Visitors are greeted at the entrance by a marble statue of a dying Percy Bysshe Shelley in the arms of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Some poems have a way of burning themselves into your consciousness—for me it was Shelley’s Ozymandias.

My literary pilgrimage was intensely rewarding, but far from comprehensive. An entire guidebook could be written on the subject. (I’d need a separate article just to deal with Ireland’s literary tradition.) But if—like me—you prefer to chart your own course and avoid the well-trodden, overcrowded tourism hot spots, there are links to explore in the accompanying sidebar. As Robert Frost wrote, often it’s the “road not taken” that reveals the most.

LITERARY PILGRIMAGES

Interested in mapping out a literary trail through Britain? Here are a few links to get you started:

12 Literary Spots In London That Every Book Lover Needs To Visit: buzzfeed.com/ariannarebolini/literary-london-spots?utm_term=.kg3vdaPxZ#.ill5xgomM

12 Essential Places in Britain for Book Lovers: mashable.com/2015/03/05/Britain-book-lovers-places/#jh8RyXzO0qqA

On the Trail of Charles Dickens: telegraph.co.uk/travel/arts-and-culture/On-the-trail-of-Charles-Dickens and telegraph.co.uk/travel/arts-and-culture/In-the-footsteps-of-Charles-Dickens

Shakespeare:

On the (cycle) trail of the Bard: telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/William-shakespeare/10777934/Shakespeare-on-the-cycle-trail-of-the-Bard.html

Looking for Shakespeare:

A heritage trail in search of the Bard: Culture24.org.uk/history-and-heritage/literary-history/art552279-Looking-for-Shakespeare-A-Heritage-trail-in-search-of-the-Bard

Should your travels take you to Ireland, check out:

Dublin City: 9 Literary Attractions:ireland.com/what-is-available/literary-ireland/destinations/republic-of-ireland/dublin/dublin-city/articles/dublin-city-nine-literary-attractions

Frommer’s Best Literary Spots in Ireland: frommers.com/destinations/ireland/the-best-literary-spots

Travel Planner

For more information on Britain and locations covered here, visit:

British Museum: britishmuseum.org

Christchurch Priory: christchurchpriory.org

Dorset County Museum: dorsetcountymuseum.org

Visit Britain: visitbritain.com/ca/en

Visit Dorset: visit-dorset.com

Visit Isle of Wight: visitisleofwight.co.uk

Visit London: visitlondon.com

Wheathampstead Heritage: wheathampsteadheritage.org.uk

 
 
 
 
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