It’s been about thirteen years since I visited England, though I may have reason to go again soon since both my brother and my niece are engaged to Brits. (I’m hoping for something straight out of Four Weddings and a Funeral without the funeral part.) My purpose in going those several years ago, my husband and twelve-year-old son in tow, could easily be guessed: It was to see the places where Jane Austen lived and visited, and where my favorite characters from her books did as well. I only had ten days though, so I couldn’t go everywhere and see everything, and also, I had to take into consideration things that my two guys might want to see and do as well. So we spent a couple of days in London, then rented a car and headed southwest towards Hampshire – or Jane Austen country as I called it. Our destination on our second day out of London was Lyme Regis. This was a big one for me because Persuasion is my favorite of Austen’s books. We stopped at Stonehenge, of course (which is actually in Wiltshire), and at a few country churches in Hampshire as I admired the countryside, seeing everything through Jane’s eyes. Back in 2004, the guidebook I was referencing didn’t have anything to say about Steventon, Jane’s home for the first half of her life, and this was before I had all the research that I do now under my belt – a good three years before I began writing my Regency time-travel book, and so I missed that stop. We also didn’t stop to visit her burial place, Winchester Cathedral, because my higher goal was getting to Lyme Regis on the southern coast of Dorset.
Once there, we had the luck of finding a cute little B&B with a nice cottage just right for the three of us. The first thing we did, of course, was head down to the Cobb. You will remember, from Persuasion, that the Cobb is the place from which Louisa Musgrove jumped, while Captain Wentworth failed to catch her, and thus she hit her head and was knocked out, a turning point in the book’s plot. Fortunately, or perhaps not, there was no touristy sign pointing out that spot, so I had to decide for myself where I thought it might have taken place.
For those of you who don’t know, the Cobb is a kind of curved jetty that juts out into the ocean, providing a safe harbor for the boats on the inner side. It is made of stone and has no railings or hand holds. On the right side, from land, the high portion of the jetty is often battered by waves and can be slippery. If you fall in, it will not be good. We were there in April, on a fairly calm day, and, as the Cobb is quite wide, it was safe for us to wander upon, all the way to the end point. There are a few different sets of steps down to a lower portion, but to access the main part of the Cobb you have to get it from shore, just past the lifeboat station/shop.
Being in Lyme Regis was bliss for me. Not only was I able to imagine the scene from Persuasion, but I knew Jane had visited this place so I was able to picture her there, strolling along the very same places where I placed my feet, though portions of the Cobb were rebuilt in 1824. However, from drawings done in the 16th century, historians have determined that the Cobb is essentially the same now as it was then.
To me, the Cobb is one of the most gothicly romantic spots I have ever been. I pictured it in the fog with the waves crashing – it’s also the setting for a scene in The French Lieutenant’s Woman: Meryl Streep, wild red hair escaping from under her hooded cloak as she hovers moodily at the end of the jetty. How I longed for such a cloak! However, that would have mortified my husband and son a bit too much.
After Lyme Regis, we went on to Bath, but again, I missed opportunities for Jane Austen tours and that kind of thing that the men just wouldn’t have appreciated. But I soaked it in as best I could before we continued on to Wales (because I’m part Welsh) to take in Tinturn Abbey; a cool Welsh castle the name of which I can’t remember; a quaint B&B on a vast sheep farm – all the stuff an imaginative twelve year old would, and did, like; and then took a pass through the Cotswolds and another cool castle, and back to London. Little did I know at the time that trip would serve me so well for inspiration for my future writing, but I think it must have somehow planted the seed – that I didn’t want to just see Jane Austen’s world, I wanted to live in it through my writing.
Yet of all the places we visited, Lyme Regis sticks with me most. And whenever I read Persuasion, I’m there all over again, in that ancient place that hasn’t seemed to have changed much at all since Jane wrote about it. If you haven’t gone, I urge you to visit – though not in the summer when it becomes a popular bathing destination, rather on a quiet day when you can wander with just your thoughts about Jane, Persuasion, Captain Wentworth…and imagine Louisa Musgrove jumping off those steps.