The world-wide cultural impact of British writers is undeniable, from the literature curricula in schools and universities, to Hollywood films and international stage adaptations. The beloved minds behind our favorite stories remain immortalized in our societies and lucky for us, many of their original inspirations stand preserved (or reconstructed) as attractions and commemorative sites all over England. From Tolkien’s two towers, the Bronte’s moors, and Christie’s crime-filled Riviera, visitors can discover the landscapes and buildings that spurred some of the most acclaimed literature the world has ever known. Here are the top 12 English cities, towns and villages worth visiting to experience the lives and inspirations of your favorite British authors.
12. Canterbury, Kent
Located about 100 km south-east of London, the city of Canterbury is a must see for fans of Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens. It is here that you will find the famed Canterbury Cathedral, containing the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, the final destination of the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The official “The Canterbury Tales” attraction is also a mandatory experience, offering visitors a chance to dress up in medieval garb (for kids only, sorry parents!) and join Chaucer and his characters on an interactive tour of 14th Century England. Canterbury also offers a number of sites associated with Dickens’ David Copperfield, since much of the novel is set in the city. It is speculated that Dr. Strong’s Academy is based on King’s School (denied by Dickens), Mr. Wickfield’s home on the House of Agnes, and the market frequented by David and his aunt on Buttermarket.
11. Broadstairs, Kent
For more concrete Dickens’ sights, head 30 km east of Canterbury to the quintessential English town of Broadstairs and check out Dickens House Museum, located in the cottage that inspired Betsey’s home in David Copperfield. As an added bonus, if you happen to be travelling in the 3rd week of June, you’ll get to experience seven days of Dickens-related events at Broadstairs’ annual Charles Dickens Festival. Another worthwhile stop on route back to London is Restoration House in Rochester, the inspiration for Satis House in Great Expectations, as well as Gad’s Hill Place, the Dickens family home from 1857-1870.
10. Nuneaton, Warwickshire
Much of this town near Birmingham is dedicated to their famous “daughter” George Eliot, who was born in a house on the Arbury Estate as Mary Ann Evans. You can visit her birthplace, known as South Farm (official guided tours only) and then head to nearby Griff House, the Evans family home for 21 years (now a hotel and restaurant). It is said that Dorlcote Mill in The Mill on the Floss was inspired by this house, and Eliot’s favourite retreat, the attic, is very similar to the one described by Maggie in the novel. Also to be seen in the area are Chilvers Coton Church, the location of Eliot’s baptism, the Evans’ family grave, and Arbury Hall, the inspiration for Cheverel Manor in Scenes of a Clerical Life. A walk through the town center reveals a statue, obelisk and garden in the author’s honor, and the nearby Nuneaton Library holds one of the most extensive collections of Eliot works in the UK.
9. The Lake District, Cumbria
The Lake District is a National Park in northwestern England that is popular in itself as a family getaway destination. However, among literature lovers, it is also famous as the place where Wordsworth first saw his “host of golden daffodils”, the inspiration behind his most famous poetic work. Visitors can explore the historic Rydal House, the Wordsworth family home from 1813-1850, which now displays portraits, personal items and first edition poems. The estate also boasts exceptional grounds (Wordsworth was quite the gardener) with the gardens remaining largely as he designed them. This district is also home to Beatrix Potter’s 17th Century farmhouse, Hill Top, which she bought after the success of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The house is now maintained by the National Trust and gives visitors a unique perspective into the world that produced some of the most beloved children’s classics.
8. Dorchester, Dorset
In the heart of Thomas Hardy’s England, the villages and landscapes of Dorset provide the setting and inspiration for the author’s most acclaimed works. Visitors can explore Hardy’s Cottage, the cob and thatch cottage just outside of Dorchester where the author was born and completed some of his earlier work, as well as take a walking tour of the surrounding landscape, taking in the atmosphere that inspired the 19th Century writer. In Dorchester itself, you will find Max Gate, designed by Hardy in 1885, and where he wrote Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Max Gate remained his home until his death in 1928, at which time his heart was interred in his first wife’s grave (St. Michael’s Church, Stinsford) and his ashes in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.
7. Chawton, Hampshire
Aside from a few years in Bath, this area of southern England is where Jane Austen spent the majority of her life. Take a stroll through the Jane Austen House Museum, the building in which she spent the last eight years of her life, completing older works including Emma and Persuasion and revising earlier drafts such as Pride and Prejudice. The house now showcases various family memorabilia and portraits, as well as original manuscripts and first editions of her work. Also worth visiting nearby are the Winchester Cathedral, where Jane is buried, the village of Steventon where she was born and drafted Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, Ashe House where she attended dances at the Lefroy’s, and The Wheatsheaf on the Old London Road (now a restaurant), the old coaching inn where she went to send and receive letters.
6. Bath, Somerset
Another significant Austen destination, Bath provides remarkable insight into the two Austen novels set here—Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. The city, which has long been known as a spa destination, and in Austen’s time, a hub of fashionable society, is now also home to The Jane Austen Centre, an exhibition of how the time spent living here (1801-1806) influenced the author’s writing. If possible, time your arrival in the city in mid-September and take part in the annual Jane Austen Festival—10 days of costumed events, walking tours and themed talks and performances, as well as various organised out-of-city excursions. The city also offers a heap of non-literary history to explore, as well as spectacular restaurants and shopping.
5. Haworth, Yorkshire
This small village on the moors of West Yorkshire, England (known alternatively as “Bronte Country”) is the premier destination for fans of the Bronte sisters. Journey 350 km north of London and discover Haworth Parsonage, the family home from 1820 until their deaths, and the place where the sisters wrote their most notable works, including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Visitors should also take the five km stroll to see Top Withens, an abandoned farm partially in ruins that is said to be the inspiration of the farmhouse in Wuthering Heights. Driving options are available but the footpath also brings you past Bronte Waterfall, a popular walking destination of the Bronte family. If time permits, drive the approximate 10 km to Wycoller, and check out the ruins of Wycoller Hall, said to be the inspiration for Ferndean Manor in Jane Eyre.
4. Birmingham, West Midlands
For Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fans, Birmingham is the place to visit to explore Tolkien history and the inspiration behind many of his settings and characters. The family moved to the village of Sarehole in 1896, and Tolkien and his brother frequently played at Sarehole Mill where their days were spent being chased by the miller’s son, whom as a result, they nicknamed “the white ogre”. Visitors can now see the Mill Museum, which Tolkien has confirmed as the inspiration for Ted Sandyman’s Mill in Hobbiton, take a walk in nearby Country Shire Park and grab some food at The Hungry Hobbit. Also near the mill is Moseley Bog, another frequent play place of the Tolkien brothers, and eventual inspiration for the “Old Forest”. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, rising above the area are two towers, Perrot’s Folly and Edgbason Waterworks Tower, which are said to have been recreated by Tolkien’s imagination as the two towers of Gondor. For added fun, time your visit for early May and experience Middle-Earth Weekend, the annual festival in honor of the author and his childhood haunts.
3. Torquay, Devon
The English Riviera is home to the Queen of Crime, Dame Agatha Christie, who is one of the most successful and widely published novelists of all time. Born in the seaside city of Torquay in 1890, the area now boasts an astounding number of Christie sites. Of particular interest to visitors is the seafront walk known as “The Agatha Christie Mile”, which starts at the Grand Hotel, the location of Agatha’s honeymoon on Christmas Eve 1914 and ends at the Imperial Hotel, the site of many social functions attended by Christie, as well as the setting for the final scenes of Sleeping Murder. Sights along the mile include the Torquay Railway Station, Princess Pier, the commemorative Agatha Christie Bust, Beacon Cove bathing area and the Torquay Museum, home to the Agatha Christie Gallery. Also in the area is Kents Cavern, on which Christie based Hemsley Cavern in The Man in the Brown Suit and Churchston Station and Elberry Cove, both featured as themselves in The ABC Murders.
2. Stratford-Upon-Avon, Warwickshire
Located 160 km north-west of London, the place that produced the bard himself is understandably not lacking in Shakespeare sights. It seems everywhere you look in this town, you see something of cultural or historical significance to the poet and playwright. While visitors can be kept occupied for days on end, there are a few sights that can’t be missed, starting with Shakespeare’s birthplace. The Tudor-style cottage has been restored as an exhibition of his life, showcasing the furnishings of his time. Next up is the romantic locale of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage (Shakespeare’s wife) located just over a kilometer outside of town. It is also a Tudor-style farmhouse and still contains furniture and memorabilia that belonged to the family. The final must see is the Church of the Holy Trinity, both the place of Shakespeare’s baptism and burial. The coolest thing to see here, is the inscription on the writer’s tomb, rumored to have been written by his own hand: “Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones”.
1. City of London
This city undeniably holds that largest selection of literary sights in the UK, all cluttered into one, convenient location. To list all of them would be impossible, since nearly all of the previously mentioned writers either lived in or visited London at one point or another. Most interesting sights include the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, which holds the remains and memorials of a vast number of literary figures including Chaucer and Dickens; the bankside Globe Theatre, which offers unique performances of Shakespeare’s works; and, the very many extravagant haunts of Irish-born Oscar Wilde, including Kettner’s Champagne Bar, the Savoy Grill, the Royal Arcade and the Cadogan Hotel, which still retains the Oscar Wilde Suite 118, the site of the writer’s 1895 arrest.