Homes of British Writers and Artists
THE DYLAN THOMAS BOATHOUSE, WALES
“This tumbling house,” wrote the poet Dylan Thomas in 1952, “whose every pane and wind-whipped-off slate, childscrawled wall, rain-stain, mouse-hole, knobble and ricket, man-booby and rat-trap I know in my sleep.” He was talking about the Boathouse in Laugharne, where he lived with fiery wife Caitlin from 1949 (it was bought for them by his patron Margaret Taylor, wife of the historian A J P Taylor). They’d always longed to own the beautifully located house, but it was damp and impractical, and Caitlin quickly tired of village life.
Thomas, a former hack on the South Wales Evening Post, wrote Under Milk Wood here while sitting in a “wordsplashed” garage on the cliff edge with views of the Taf estuary. Caitlin and the children would listen to Thomas’s broadcasts from the US on the living room radio, which is still here.
Drink took Thomas in the end—he died in New York’s Chelsea Hotel in 1953, “after 18 straight whiskies” (his words), but is buried in St Martin’s Church in the village, with Caitlin alongside him.
Open 10am–5.30pm, with shorter hours in winter. Entrance: £4.20 for adults, £2 for children (dylanthomasboathouse.com)
JANE AUSTEN’S HOUSE MUSEUM, HAMPSHIRE
Jane Austen finally put her pen down on Pride and Prejudice just over 200 years ago, and since then an entire industry has sprung up around the writer, her novels and the TV and film adaptations. So it’s easy to forget, with all the anniversary hoopla last year, that Austen was a brilliant writer.
For those who want to find the home of the brouhaha, this red-brick, six-bedroom Georgian “cottage” is the house she lived in for the last eight years of her life—and her most famous works were either written or revised here. There aren’t a vast amount of personal belongings, but one highlight is the modest writing table where Emma and Persuasion were written, and a patchwork quilt she worked on. It doesn’t take long to tour the house and take “a turn about the gardens”—as she might have said.
Open 10am–5pm (June-August). Entrance: £7.50 for adults, £2.50 for children (jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk)
The shenanigans of the Bloomsbury Set in the early 20th century never fail to fascinate, which is why people flock to a smallish country house with a walled garden a few miles outside Brighton. This idyllic cottage was the family home of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and later became their summer retreat, where they held legendary bohemian house parties—guests included everyone from E M Forster to John Maynard Keynes (who had his own room and would spend weekends unwinding here after advising the government on fiscal policy), and, of course, the writer and intellectual Virginia Woolf, Vanessa’s sister.
Rooms are dark and poky, and the colours have faded, but the house still summons up avant-garde artiness, with interiors individually—some might say garishly—decorated by Bell and Grant. Guided tours are long and over-structured, giving the sense of a shrine rather than an interesting house—it’s best to visit on a Sunday, when visitors are free to wander. There’s also an excellent shop and tea-room, and the guidebook has a helpful chart of who slept with whom.
Open Wednesday to Friday. Entrance: £11 for adults, £6 for children (charleston.org.uk)
DOVE COTTAGE, CUMBRIA
The romantic poet William Wordsworth moved around in Cumbria, but this small former pub in Grasmere (in his words, the “little unsuspected paradise”) is the place most associated with him and his sister Dorothy. They lived a simple existence here for nine years, and today it has a museum next door.
Dove Cottage is where Dorothy wrote the Grasmere Journals —a vivid picture of their domestic life—and Wordsworth his most famous works, including “The Prelude” and “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (visitors can see the journal entry that records the day in nearby Ullswater where they saw the daffodils that inspired the latter poem). There’s such a scrum of visitors to Dove Cottage, especially in summer, that it’s a leap of imagination to summon up a sense of tranquillity, although there are free poetry readings on Monday afternoons.
Open 9.30am–5.30pm, with shorter hours in winter. Entrance: £7.75 for adults, £4.50 for children (wordsworth.org.uk/visit/dove-cottage)
BARBARA HEPWORTH MUSEUM AND SCULPTURE GARDEN, CORNWALL
Barbara Hepworth, one of our most prominent 20th-century sculptors, first came to St Ives with her artist husband Ben Nicholson and their triplets in 1939, to escape wartime London. She was drawn by “the quality of light and colour, which reminds me of the Mediterranean”. A decade later, she bought a home with studio space, a garden and views of Porthminster beach, which is now a museum dedicated to her life and work.
Visitors can peek through the windows of her studio and wander the lush, subtropical gardens (designed by Hepworth) containing her sculptures—still exactly where she placed them. She lived and worked here from 1949 until 1975 when, smoking a cigarette in bed, she accidentally caused the fire that killed her.
Open from 10am–5.20pm, with shorter hours from November–February (closed Mondays). Entrance: £6.60 for adults, free for children (tate.org.uk/visit/tate-st-ives/barbara-hepworth-museum)
GEORGE ORWELL’S NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR HOUSE, SCOTLAND
Jura, off the west coast of Scotland, is the island to which George Orwell, on the recommendation of his Observer editor David Astor, retreated to write Nineteen Eighty-Four and to get away from the demands on his time in London after the success of Animal Farm. Orwell stayed in a remote farmhouse, Barnhill, seven miles outside Ardlussa at the northern tip of the island and five miles from the nearest road.
Recently widowed (his wife Eileen died during a routine gynaecological operation) and a single parent to his three-year-old adopted son, Orwell, who wasn’t in good health, spent a “quite unendurable winter” (in his words) without electricity on Jura in 1946, during which he worked feverishly. He was famously impractical, but his sister Avril eventually arrived to take care of him. An incident at the nearby infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool almost killed him (after his boat capsized, Orwell and his party were rescued by passing lobstermen).
A shrine for Orwell fans, the area has changed little since 1946 and there’s nothing to indicate Orwell lived here. He interspersed his trips to Jura with time in his “bleak” Islington flat in 27b Canonbury Square (which is not at all bleak these days). By the end of 1948 he had finished Nineteen Eighty-Four and went straight from Jura to a TB sanatorium.
Barnhill can be rented out as a holiday let—prices start at £600 a week (escapetojura.com)
THE BRONTË PARSONAGE MUSEUM, WEST YORKSHIRE
Haworth, a cobbled village in Yorkshire was an unlikely hub of Victorian creativity. During their short lives here, the Brontë sisters wrote several classics of English literature (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre) while fighting for space at just one table in the dining room at the village parsonage.
Haworth was on the literary map even when the Brontë sisters were alive—all three had published novels by 1847. The museum gives a sense of family life and contains many artefacts, including the portrait of the three sisters by brother Branwell and the blue sofa where Charlotte allegedly lay down and died. Adjacent to the house is the village graveyard, which means that even on the sunniest day the parsonage can seem a tad gloomy.
Open 10am–5.30pm in summer (11am–5pm in winter). Entrance: £7.50 for adults, £3.75 for children (bronte.org.uk)
THE CHARLES DICKENS MUSEUM, LONDON
Down a side street in Bloomsbury, close to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, is the house Dickens lived in from 1837 for two years—not long, but he did write Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby here. Reopened last year after a £3.2 million revamp, it recreates the family living space as it would have been, including bedrooms, living room and kitchen. Dickens took a keen interest in interior design, chose the precise shades for decoration and rearranged the furniture wherever he stayed, even if it was just for one night.
It’s immediately apparent that Doughty Street would have been a squeeze for his growing family (two daughters were born here), which included sister-in-law Mary, who died in Dickens’s arms just six weeks after they moved in. Dickens was traumatised by her death, took her as the model for Little Nell and wore the ring he took from her finger for the rest of his life.
Open 10am–5pm every day. Entrance: £8 for adults, £4 for children (dickensmuseum.com)