Jane and her sister, Cassandra, adored their trips to the New Forest, where she is said to have been particularly drawn to the ruins of the 13th-century Cistercian Abbey, once part of the crown’s Beaulieu Estate until King Henry VDTs Dissolution of the Monasteries ensured that the building was damaged beyond repair. Perhaps influenced by their sea-faring brother, Jane and her sister took numerous boat rides up the Beaulieu River to watch the ships being built at Buckler’s Hard, where, most famously, Nelson’s warships were constructed, three of which took part in the Battle of Trafalgar.
After the death of her father, Jane, her mother and her sister moved to Southampton to live with Jane’s brother Frank Austen and his wife, Mary, at their navy lodgings. Jane did not take too well to city life, preferring the peace of the country but she made the most of her years here, taking walks along the River Itchen and dancing at the Dolphin Hotel. Two world wars have significantly changed the face of the place, though the last of the crumbled city walls remain, along which Jane used to walk, as do the ruins of nearby Netley Abbey, another of the family’s favourite haunts.
The cathedral employs knowledgeable and passionate volunteer guides, who offer group and private tours with a focus on Jane Austen’s final years. Begin on College Street, where Austen died in the arms of her dear sister, Cassandra, and take a poignant walk following the route of her funeral procession to end at her gravestone in the cathedral, which sits below a mounted brass plaque commissioned by her favourite brother, Henry. Cassandra’s letter to her niece Fanny Knight after Jane’s death sums up the loss her sister felt with the words, “never was a human being more sincerely mourned by those who attended her remains than was this dear creature.”
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
No other monument can sum up Britain’s ancient maritime history quite like the Mary Rose, Henry flagship, which sank in 1545. Now protected under an excellent museum, visitors can see every nook and cranny of this venerable warship and it is astounding to think that she was only raised from the bed of the Solent 34 years ago. HMS Victory is also moored alongside a fantastic museum providing a startlingly detailed account of daily life aboard Nelson’s most famous ship, on which he died during the epic Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
The New Forest
For thousands of years these ancient woodlands have enticed many a literary and historical figure. The area was first officially enclosed by William the Conqueror, who declared the land a private hunting forest in 1079. Since then, the reserve has remained a protected haven of dense forests, open heathland and coastal wetlands where wild ponies roam freely and an abundance of wildlife thrives. The only exception was during the Second World War when the British Army used the condensed tree cover to its full effect to conceal a network of military bases and airfields.
Straddling the border with Berkshire, Highclere is one of Britain’s finest stately homes. The estate, owned by the Carnaivon family, rose to global fame when it was used as the setting for the ITV period drama Downton Abbey. Today special Downton tours are, of course, available as well as a fascinating selection of permanent and seasonal exhibitions. Take the scenic route along the A343 via Hurstbourne Tarrant (Jane used to visit the church in this pretty village as well as nearby Ibthorpe House, which is now a private home) and enjoy spectacular views of the North Wessex Downs, the setting for the novel Watership Down by Richard Adams.