A Walk up to Beechen Cliff in Bath
My latest novel, Searching for Captain Wentworth, is set in Bath and Lyme. I’m very lucky to spend a lot of time in Bath and it is one of my favourite places to be. So much of the novel was inspired by Bath – places like the Assembly Rooms, the Pump Rooms and the Holburne Museum, to name but a few, are all mentioned. Perhaps less well known as some of these famous landmarks is Beechen Cliff. Jane mentions Beechen Cliff in Northanger Abbey when she takes Catherine Morland up there for a walk with Henry Tilney and his sister. We know how much Jane Austen enjoyed walking and I’m sure she knew this area well so I wanted to take Jane, her sister Cassandra, their brother Charles and my heroine Sophie up to Beechen Cliff for a picnic in my own novel. It’s still possible to walk to Beechen Cliff today, but be warned – it’s quite an energetic climb and is steep in places, though the views are well worth the effort when you reach the top! Here’s an excerpt from the book where Sophie has travelled back through time. She’s living the life of her ancestor Sophia and finds herself irresistibly drawn to Jane Austen’s brother, Charles:
I saw Charles before he saw me. Dressed in a dark green coat and buff breeches he towered over Cassandra. I felt so pleased to see him and experienced a sense of excitement that I hardly dared acknowledge. Beechen Cliff above us rose steeply ahead. I was soon out of breath, but Jane and Cassy seemed to find it no effort at all striking out at a march, their parasols shading them from the warm sun. Charles, ever the gentleman, sauntered along beside me.
‘Will you take my arm, Miss Elliot? The path is precipitous and if you are not used to it, I fear it will be very hard work.’
A fleeting recollection of Charles’s future fate flashed before me. I wanted to protest, to say that I could easily manage but, even as I willed myself to do so, Sophia had other ideas. She, I knew, wanted to take his arm. My body disobeyed my mind, my arm found his and we fell comfortably into step. Jane and Cassandra did not seem to want to wait for us and they soon disappeared from view, screened by trees and hanging coppice.
‘It is wonderful to be in England again and to see the beauty of the landscape all around us,’ said Lieutenant Austen looking about him. ‘You know, Miss Elliot, it is a funny thing but when I am away at sea, all my memories and reminiscences are of home and of being outdoors in scenes like these. I love my life as a sailor and would not wish to be doing anything else. Yet, I often think of those I’ve left behind. I dream constantly and am often astonished when I wake to find I am in my cabin afloat, so real and vivid are the pictures I see.’
‘I do not find that surprising. You are evidently very attached to your family and I’m sure it is only natural to think of them, to miss them so much that they appear in your dreams.’
‘Yes, my dreams are always of happy times with family and friends. Never in Bath, I must admit. I am always at home in the rectory at Steventon running through the garden on a summer’s day.’
‘Jane talked of your old home in just the same way. Tell me, do you also miss it?’
‘Very much so and though my brother James lives there with his wife and daughter now, it is not the same. My sister Jane does not like to visit at all. It broke her heart to have to leave Hampshire. Just imagine, Miss Elliot, if you had to leave the home where you had always lived and see someone else take possession of it.’
For a single moment, I could picture our house in Camden, my father standing at the gate waving me off, as I’d set out for Bath. But the image evaporated like the wispy clouds overhead and I couldn’t remember any more. A picture of Monkford Hall, like the print we had at home, replaced the vision of the townhouse. Only this time I could imagine it all in colour, see the mellow stone of the Jacobean manor house, smell the lavender bushes lining the paths of soft red brick in the formal gardens and catch the call of a peacock as it displayed its iridescent blue tail. I felt a connection with the place that I’d only ever dreamed of before and experienced a longing to go, to see my ancestral home.
‘I should think it the hardest thing in the world to have to leave one’s home, the place where you were born and where everyone knows you. And to leave friends behind must have been especially difficult for the Miss Austens.’
‘I have not experienced such hardship as my sisters. I went to Naval College when I was a small boy and soon got used to being absent from family life. I’ve spent more of my time away than at home, but for my sisters who only went away to school for a relatively short time, it has been much more difficult. They have borne it all with such cheerfulness knowing that it was our parents’ wish to retire here. Jane, in particular, has not enjoyed the transition from the country to the town. She pretends to be happy, yet she does not know how much I can tell her spirits to be affected.’
‘It must be a great comfort for her to have such a thoughtful brother who is so sensitive to her feelings.’
‘I hope so, Miss Elliot, I do what I can when I’m here. Jane and Cassy are both such dutiful daughters and carry out their obligations to my parents with true affection, but I do worry about Jane. She has such an independence of spirit, with a lively and intelligent mind. A character like hers is not meant to be so suppressed, or confined to the restrictions of a society where she cannot find time enough to be on her own or follow her pursuits. She may have told you that she loves to write, which is an occupation that many would not consider suitable for a genteel young woman. I know her writing has suffered here in Bath and that she finds it difficult to maintain the daily pursuit she was so used to in Steventon. She is at the beck and call of my mother and her circle of friends. It is no wonder she is subdued in our quiet moments.’
‘Perhaps you will be able to take on some of the duties Jane is expected to do whilst you are here. Anyone would appreciate the gift of time that will be hers if you are able to shoulder some of the responsibility. I may speak out of turn, but it seems to me a poor lot for young women to be so completely beholden to their parents. Yes, we must care for them, but surely, your sisters deserve to have some freedoms. It seems to me that men are free to do as they wish. They may go out into the world and make their fortunes without considering anyone else. I am certain your sister has a talent which must be nurtured and it is in your power to help her make the most of her time, at least for a while.’
In a second came the vivid memory that I knew Jane’s time was short, that her life was going to end far too soon. It was difficult to equate this thought with the young Jane I knew, the sparkling girl who burned with energy and radiance. I didn’t want to believe it. And while I told myself I couldn’t really do anything to help, I clung to a new idea. Perhaps I could help to alter this one small part of history. If Jane’s years in Bath were productive and happy, could that be enough to change the past. I wanted to urge Charles to do all he could.
‘I do understand you. Forgive me, Miss Elliot, for talking so confidentially to you in this manner, but you make me feel that I might open my heart to you. I do not know how to help her or my sister Cassandra, although I will try very much to do all that you suggest. I know they certainly value your friendship. Indeed, having your acquaintance is the very tonic we all require.’
We’d reached the bottom of a flight of stone steps. They seemed to stretch above us heavenwards and it was impossible to see the top.
‘Are you ready for Jacob’s Ladder, Miss Elliot?’ Charles stood with one foot upon the step striking an attitude. His dark green coat was cut away to reveal nankin breeches tucked into gleaming chestnut boots, which delineated every muscle. He held his hand towards me. ‘Now, if you please, I will lead you to paradise!’
I took his hand and felt his fingers link mine for a second, before he joined my arm with his. I caught the scent of his skin, a clean fragrance sharp with the aroma of lime and musk and found myself inclining my head towards him to savour it. Not for the first time did I think about how much I liked him, but with those thoughts came the memory that I knew he would one day be married to someone he did not yet know. The details were fuzzy and I began to wonder if I’d dreamt it all. I couldn’t imagine any other time but the one in which I stood now and could no more imagine Charles married than I could myself.
The stone staircase laddered above us, turning into steps of banked earth twisted with tree roots. No sooner did I think we must have reached the top than the staircase curved once again climbing higher and ever more steeply. In such restrictive clothing, I found myself having to stop for breath. Charles turned to me with an anxious look. He was so close; I could see the flecks of gold in his eyes like hot embers amongst nuggets of coal and felt his warm breath on my cheek. I was drawn to his eyes, which seemed to swim with mine in that moment, just for a second before we both turned our eyes to the summit almost in view. The surrounding hills spread out like a patchwork quilt of viridian, burnt umber and sienna, hazy under the sun. Wild garlic blooming with white flowers lined the pathway, its sweet perfume rising in the heat against the scent of dark earth and green grass crushed underfoot.
I hope you enjoyed your walk and the excerpt from Searching for Captain Wentworth. The book is on special offer all through December on Amazon!