Walking with Jane
Jane Austen was nothing if not a great walker—much like Lizzie Bennet in her perennially best-selling Pride & Prejudice. I’m afraid I have less claim to the title. Following Austen, I found myself alone and nearly lost in the middle of a Hampshire wheat field on a sunny day in mid-July.
My friend Jane dropped me off at St. Nicholas church in Steventon at 11:00, leaving me four hours of solitude in the middle of Austen country. I wanted to go inside the church, find the site of the rectory, and walk through the fields to her friend Anne Lefroy’s house. But for ten minutes, I just sat on a bench in the churchyard, contemplating my good fortune. Bugs and birds were active, but everything else was wonderfully quiet.
Austen spent the first 25 years of her life in this little village. Houses, thatched cottages—some of which were here in Jane’s day—and a town meeting hall line the main street. Fields and farms fill the surrounding hills.
The community still speaks directly to the quiet country life Austen captured in her books. The land—largely free of development—must look at least something like it did when she was growing up. Here she threw rousing family theatricals in the barn with her brothers. She rolled down the hill at the back of the rectory, like Catherine in Northanger Abbey. She picked up the books her father used to teach the boys at the school run out of the family home. And, of course, she started writing.
Jane’s father was rector at St. Nicholas, a simple Norman structure from the 1200’s, still occasionally in use today. We found it by following signs, turning left on the one significant cross-street in town. The yew tree where they used to hide the church key still stands guard, towering over an assembly of mostly kept-up graves. Jane’s brother James and his two wives are buried here, along with some of the Digweed family who lived in the manor house when Jane was a girl.
I was unable to get into the church despite pushing and turning the heavy door handles, so I set off through the fields. I had a mobile phone, a power bar and a guidebook with detailed directions. “Walk over the field towards the copse,” it said. What is a copse? I thought. I knew then that I could be in trouble.
I’ve done a good bit of backpacking in the States, but I have never been the one responsible for reading the map. Little good that would have done me either, as these trusty instructions left out distances altogether.
“Cross the railway,” it said, neglecting to mention the 50 yards of weeds and brambles. “Keep the pines close on your right”—this in a veritable forest. I discovered that in England the pathmarkers are relatively small (sometimes no more than a 3”x3” sign on a fence post) and if there are bigger signs, they are made of wood, making them incredibly difficult to see.
Stiles—for clambering over fences—are often a few pieces of board stuck at funny angles with just enough support to enable a foothold. Paths run through private property, occasionally through fields of livestock. Lazy cows followed me with their glassy eyes. At one point, a pony with a red leather fringe tied around his head (to keep the flies off?) tramped after me along his fence. The whole time he was goofily eyeing my banana.
After two hours of fumbling to find the right stiles and pine trees, an incredibly-pleased-with-myself me walked up a quiet road to the Lefroy home. Ashe House is a simple Georgian structure, brick with a classical row of windows along the front and a fanlight above the door. Anne Lefroy was one of Jane’s closest friends, like a mentor to her. It’s here that Jane met Anne’s nephew Tom, her first love. They danced and Jane flirted. Tom was quickly called back to Ireland by his family to marry someone of appropriately large fortune, leaving poor Jane behind.
Just down the lane is Ashe church. It was rebuilt in 1877, but the yard holds the Lefroy graves. I couldn’t tell which of the moss-covered structures belonged to Anne, who was killed in a riding accident on Jane’s 29th birthday. Jane wrote a poem in her memory, speaking of her “solid Worth” and “captivating Grace.” Persuasion’s Lady Russell may have been based partly on Anne Lefroy, but after reading the poem, it’s clear this fictional character could never have rivaled the “genuine warmth of heart without pretence” of Jane’s dear friend.
I set off again, this time for the village of Deane, where the Harwoods threw dances in the manor house. Jane’s father and brother James were both rector here at one point. The guide says, “Walk ahead over a large field aiming for the left-hand corner of a strip of woodland.” Had the guidebook author been present I could have strangled her. Aim left?? Aim left through a large field?, I thought. But when I crossed a stile under the trees, I found a field full of high summer wheat, with a green walkingpath cut through the middle, aiming for the left corner.
I walked into the field and stopped in the sun. I don’t think these are the paths Jane walked, of course. But I imagine this may be how she felt walking them—gloriously alone, surrounded by the heat and health of nature, independent for a few precious moments, with friends waiting at the other end. I’m glad I ventured out. I’m glad I didn’t have a tour guide. And somehow, I feel closer to Jane.