Beyond London – Story time
Once upon a time, a young lady called Jane Austen began writing a book called Sense and Sensibility. About 110 years later, another young writer used a two-week holiday in Dartmoor to finish her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The year was 1916 and the novelist’s name was Agatha Christie. During that same year, a baby named Roald Dahl was born, who picked up a pen at the age of 45 to write a story called James and the Giant Peach. The tales told by Austen, Christie and Dahl became world-famous, and they all lived happily ever after.
If that short story intrigued you, then you’ll be pleased to discover these three writers are each celebrated with a festival this month, at locations around England. This only covers the first three chapters of the story however, because there are more tales to be told at other literary festivals taking place soon. Read on for a page-turning tour of the highlights.
Jane Austen, Bath
The brains behind six novels including Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion, Jane Austen lived in and around Hampshire and Somerset in the south of England, moving with her family to the spa city of Bath in 1801. This picturesque, fashionable location was a popular resort for moneyed members of 19th-century British society, providing the setting for much of Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey, for example. The annual Jane Austen Festival (14th – 23rd September) celebrates all things Austen in honour of Bath’s most famous writer, at a range of venues. The jam-packed programme includes guided walks and minibus tours, dance workshops, readings in bookshops and even a live, musical adaptation of Austen’s last completed novel, Persuasion (which celebrates its 200th birthday this year). The musical is being performed at Bath’s Mission Theatre. ‘Regency’ generally refers to the fashions of England and the British Empire during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which reflects the style you’ll recognise if you have ever watched a live-action adaptation of a Jane Austen story. The festival takes full advantage of the Regency look with plenty of opportunities for dressing up over the 10 days. You could join a 1700s-style ‘public breakfast’ in the dining room of a Regency-style house, or perhaps take part in the popular Grand Regency Costumed Promenade (15th September), the official start to the festival which sees hundreds of fans parade through the city in costume. If you’re a Mr Darcy fan, don’t miss Darcy’s Ball (22nd September), a one-hour show which imagines what happened next in Pride and Prejudice.
Roald Dahl, Great Missenden
A quiet little village set in the lush rural landscapes of the Chilterns, this is where Roald Dahl spent the second half of his life. Born in Llandaff, Wales, Dahl settled in Great Missenden in 1954 and there’s no doubt that he put this Buckinghamshire village on the map. That’s because, in a quiet little writing shed in his cottage’s garden, the writer created some of the world’s most celebrated children’s books. His impressive run began with James and the Giant Peach in 1961, while in the 1980’s he really hit his stride, writing The Twits, The BFG and Matilda. The author’s grave is here, as well as the library that inspired Matilda’s, and many more key locations: this is where you can live and breathe Roald Dahl.
Just 40 minutes by train from Marylebone, Great Missenden makes for an easy day trip from London and once you’ve arrived, there’s plenty on offer in honour of the author. The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre is a great place to start – it is predominantly designed to appeal to children aged six to 12. Here, you will find three galleries: Boy explores Dahl’s younger days as a schoolboy; the Solo gallery is where you’ll find his actual writing shed (you can even sit in his writing chair); and finally, the Story Centre encourages budding writers to put their creativity to good use with workshops and events. Those workshops and events reach fever pitch on 13th September, which is Great Missenden’s biggest annual festival; this year’s Roald Dahl Day would have been his 102nd birthday. If you’d like to turn your visit into a day of cycling, contact OTEC Bikes to arrange cycle hire from Princes Risborough train station, ride to Great Missenden and discover the surrounding Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Agatha Christie, Torbay
Only JK Rowling can boast of having a bigger global readership than the queen of the whodunnit, Agatha Christie. From conjuring up both Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, to penning The Mousetrap (the longest-running play in London’s West End), her legacy is astonishing: after Christie wrote about the death of Poirot in 1975, The New York Times published an obituary. Think you don’t know an Agatha Christie story? These five words will prove that you do: Murder on the Orient Express. The crime writer was born in Torquay, a coastal town in South Devon. Thanks to its picturesque setting, the surrounding area of Torbay is nicknamed the English Riviera, and while Christie was growing up, it attracted the likes of Oscar Wilde, Henry James and Rudyard Kipling. The South Devon area offers plenty to fill at least a weekend, such as Dartmouth by the River Dart, or Brixham and its oysters. The Agatha Christie Birthday Celebration Weekend (14th – 16th September) centres around her birthday on Saturday 15th September, taking over Torbay with many events. Torquay Museum will host a Christie Mystery Day of films, tours and talks (16th September), while the National Trust property Greenway near Brixham is planning a 1950s-style fête, in tribute to her novel Dead Man’s Folly.
The Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival (19th – 23rd September) takes place in this coastal town, to the east of Torquay. With Dame Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) as its president, the festival includes open-mic poetry and bookmaking workshops. Devon native and War Horse author Sir Michael Morpurgo is set to make an appearance, too.
Coming up in October is the Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature, Film & Music (11th – 14th October). This Baroque palace is the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill and is set in 2,100 acres of parkland and gardens. Enjoy interviews and theatrical performances on topics including fashion, fiction and politics. Located just beyond Oxford, you can reach the palace from London Marylebone train station in two hours.
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was born on 27th October, a good date to keep in mind if you’re considering a trip to Wales. Thomas grew up in Swansea, before settling further west in Laugharne. You can enter his Swansea childhood home, 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, which has been restored to how it would have looked when Thomas entered the world in 1914.