From Wordsworth to Roald Dahl — we look at the best writers’ house museums to visit in the UK
Wordsworth — Dove Cottage
About the house: Though the Wordsworths only lived in this house for eight years, William composed almost a hundred poems here, drawing inspiration from the romantic backdrop of Britain’s magnificent Lake District. The Lakes became a firm favourite of the Romantic poets during the 19th Century, the rolling hills and glittering lakes attracting the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, who collaborated with Wordsworth to create some of the most important works of the Romantic era. The garden of Dove Cottage was a particularly favoured spot for Wordsworth, and he spent much of his time here gardening, and reading and writing poetry. Today the house stands as a tribute to this influential poet, and is the only place in the world where you can view his personal belongings. A museum, situated in a converted coach house adjacent to the cottage, houses the collection, which includes hand written manuscripts, books and watercolours.
What he wrote here: Nearly one hundred poems were written during his time at Dove Cottage, including I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, Poems on the Naming of Places and most of his masterpiece autobiographical work The Prelude.
Charles Dickens Museum
About the house: This four-storey Georgian terraced house is Dickens’ only remaining home in London. Remarkably, though he only spent two years of his life in the house on Doughty Street, this is where he penned some of his best-loved novels – his father’s poverty and spell in debtors’ prison driving his passion to become successful and provide for his family. The house contains the world’s most comprehensive collection of Dickens’ belongings, and includes a writing desk at which he imagined and developed many of his characters, possibly his greatest skill. A must-see piece in the museum is a portrait by Robert William Buss, the artist who illustrated The Pickwick Papers; it shows Dickens at his writing desk, surrounded by the beloved characters he gave life to. Perhaps the most poignant is Little Nell, who sits on his knee, gazing into the author’s eyes. The character’s tragic death in The Old Curiosity Shop was inspired by the real life death of Dickens’ cherished sister-in-law Mary, who died in his arms while living with the family, aged seventeen – an event that caused Dickens much grief.
What he wrote here: Part of The Pitwick Papers and Barnaby Rudge, and all of Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.
Jane Austen’s House Museum
About the house: When Jane Austen, her mother and her sister Cassandra fell on hard times, her brother Edward offered they move permanently to a cottage in the grounds of his manor house, Chawton. The cottage was a modest dwelling, but offered the Austen women better security as Jane’s writing, though fairly popular in her time, did not gain the notoriety it has today until after her death. After Cassandra’s passing, the house went through a series of uses until being purchased by Thomas Edward Carpenter, with the view of turning it into a museum dedicated to Jane and her family’s life. The museum currently displays Austen family furniture and belongings, Jane Austen’s only jewellery and sheet music belonging to, and hand transposed by, the author herself.
What she wrote here: As well as revising and publishing Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice while in residence, she also composed Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion and started work on her final, unfinished, novel here.
Shakespeare’s Birthplace and Shakespeare’s New Place
About the houses: Of course no list would be complete without mention of The Bard. This large house on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon is believed to be the birthplace of the most famous writer to walk the earth. The house fell into disrepair after the death of Shakespeare’s granddaughter and was eventually saved when a group of writers, including Dickens and Sir Walter Scott, took an interest in the building’s historical importance. Many 19th century writers took a pilgrimage to the house, and some of the signatures they left on the window panes can still be seen today.
Little more than a five minute walk away lies the site of Shakespeare’s home in later life. The foundation of Shakespeare’s New Place, where he is thought to have written some of his later plays, now hosts a new visitor centre and memorial garden, where you can soak up more of the bard’s wise words.
What he wrote here: It is believed that Shakespeare did not begin to write until his move to London, and it is unlikely that he wrote any of his known works in his birthplace. It is understood that he wrote The Tempest when he moved to New Place.
The Brontë Sisters — Brontë Parsonage Museum
About the house: The youngest daughters of what remains quite possibly the most famous literary family in history, Brontë sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne spent most of their tragically short lives here, in the small Pennine village of Haworth. In the mid-19th Century, when the family inhabited the parsonage, the town was heavily polluted and death rates were high; indeed, all members of the Brontë family, except for Reverend Patrick Brontë – the illustrious trio’s father – died before reaching the age of 40. Despite their unfortunate fates, these three sisters produced some of the finest, and best-loved, English novels of all time. The sisters undertook most of their writing in the dining room, and would pace around the table sharing their ideas.
What they wrote here: Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Dylan Thomas’ Boathouse
About the house: Though he only lived here for four years until his death in 1952, it was at the Boathouse in Laugharne overlooking the Tâf Estuary that Thomas gained inspiration for some of his most acclaimed works. The house was purchased for him by the wife of one of his benefactors, and Thomas moved in with his wife Caitlin and their three children. The couple’s relationship was infamously tumultuous, the peaceful views seemingly doing little to pacify their drinking and infidelity. While at The Boathouse, Dylan Thomas would seek solitude in a small writing shed up the road. A reproduction of this shed, laid out as it would have been before his death, sits on the cliff edge, offering a peek into the mind of one of Wales’ most important poets of the 20th Century.
What he wrote here: Lament, Poem on His Birthday, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Prologue and part of his famous play for voices, Under Milk Wood.
Virginia Woolf — Monk’s House
About the house: Monk’s House was Virginia and Leonard’s idyllic Sussex holiday home, nestled at the foot of the picturesque South Downs. The couple bought the cottage for its wild and beautiful garden, and it was here, in a small wooden lodge built by Leonard, that Virginia Woolf wrote the majority of her works. The interior of the house is filled to the brim with art by the infamous Bloomsbury Group, of which the Woolfs were members and photos in the writing lodge show many influential thinkers, writers and artists of the time, relaxing in the beautiful garden of Monk’s House.
What she wrote here: Most of her major works, including To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts.
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Thomas Hardy — Hardy’s Cottage and Max Gate
About the houses: The most famous writer to come out of Dorset, Thomas Hardy lived most of his life in the town of Dorchester. Next to an ancient woodland sits the house in which he was born, spent the first 34 years of his life, and composed some of his early writings, and the rooms are decorated in the same style that they would have been when the Hardys occupied the cottage. A new visitor centre nearby gives visitors an opportunity to learn more about the author, and the Dorset landscape that he found so inspiring.
Just three miles down the road is the house that he lived in in later life. Hardy trained as an architect before he turned his hand to writing and designed the imposing Max Gate (named for local gatekeeper Mack) in the Queen Anne style. The house was built by Hardy himself, with help from his father.
What he wrote here:
Hardy’s Cottage – Several of his early short stories, poetry and novels including Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd.
Max Gate – Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure and The Mayor of Casterbridge, as well as much of his poetry.
Agatha Christie — Greenway
About the house: Holiday home to crime novelist Agatha Christie and her family from 1938 and remaining in the family until the death of her Daughter Rosalind in 2004, Greenway is a grand Georgian house set in a large parkland on the edge of the Dart estuary. It is obvious that the house was inhabited by avid collectors – the rooms are filled with archaeology amassed by Christie’s second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, as well as ceramics, silverware and books. The house was a tranquil retreat for Christie, who would spend time here with family and friends, relaxing by the river and playing lawn games. Christie, who is recognised as the best-selling novelist of all time, briefly gave the house over to the war effort, to house evacuee children and later as a base for the US Coastguard. The family returned after the war and a frieze in the library, painted by the Coastguard, remains as a unique memorial to the war.
What she wrote here: Nothing. A true holiday home for Christie, she would bring her family here to relax between writing. Despite this, several of her books are set in the estate and surroundings, including Five Little Pigs and Dead Man’s Folly.
Beatrix Potter – Hill Top
On this day in 1866, writer and illustrator Beatrix Potter was born. Following the success of her little book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix bought this 17th-century farmhouse Hill Top. Her garden is home to cottage garden favourites such as geraniums and foxgloves, rambling roses and honeysuckle. Visiting at this time of year, you will see why Beatrix Potter loved it so much. #nationaltrust #lakedistrict
About the house: Walking through Hill Top is like stepping in to a Beatrix Potter story book. Potter often used real-word objects and settings as direct inspiration for the nostalgic illustrations in her charming children’s stories, and many objects from the house can be seen within her books. Having bought the farm in 1905, aided by the success of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter developed a love of farming, and won prizes for her Herdwick sheep. She was also an active campaigner and supporter of the National Trust, leaving her home, 4,000 acres of land and several farms to the Trust when she died in 1943.
What she wrote here: The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. Many real-world details from the house, farm and surrounding area appear in her drawings, including The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, and The Tale of Tom Kitten, which she wrote nearby while alterations were being made to the farm.
Rudyard Kipling — Bateman’s
About the house: Rudyard Kipling and his wife fell in love with this impressive 17th Century mansion during a visit, proclaiming ‘That’s She! The Only She!’ on viewing. The interiors, left very much as they were when the Kiplings were living here, reflect the Nobel Prize-winning author’s eastern roots, with oriental rugs and Indian art adorning the house. Kipling’s study is of course a must-see, and be sure not to miss the chance to take in his prestigious Nobel medal, original paintings for The Jungle Book, and the Rolls Royce Phantom I which he purchased in 1928.
What he wrote here: Kim, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Traffics and Discoveries and Rewards and Fairies.
The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre
About the house: While the museum itself is not housed in Dahl’s former residence, one crucial part of his home is on display here. Painstakingly removed from his garden and conserved within the museum is Roald Dahl’s writing hut, the room in which he wrote each and every one of his much-loved children’s books. The hut contains Dahl’s belongings and furniture, including the armchair-desk he created, and visitors can experience the environment in which he imagined some of the best loved children’s tales of all time. The museum, which was set up by Dahl’s widow, is located in Great Missenden, where Dahl lived for more than three decades until his death, and houses a variety of his eclectic belongings. The family-friendly galleries tell the story of his life and include a creative hub where you can read and listen to Dahl’s tales, and take part in creative activities.
What he wrote here: All of his famous children’s books.
John Milton — Milton’s Cottage
About the house: This Grade I listed 16th Century cottage was home to poet, polemicist and civil servant John Milton who fled London in 1665 after the outbreak of the Bubonic plague. Milton and his family lived here for just two years, but despite the brief stay the cottage had an important impact on Milton’s life, and he composed his greatest works here. After Shakespeare’s Birthplace Milton’s Cottage it is the second oldest writers’ house museum in the world, and gas been open as a museum since 1887. Displays include a first edition of Paradise Lost, the Milton chair, a lock of Milton’s hair and an original proclamation, issued by Charles II, banning Milton’s books.
What he wrote here: Milton completed his best known work, the epic poem Paradise Lost, and was inspired to write its sequel Paradise Regained during his time at the cottage.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Coleridge Cottage
About the house: This 17th century cottage in the village of Nether Stowey at the foot of the Quantocks was home to Coleridge between 1797 and 1799. Despite the poet living here for just a few years, the house and its surroundings played a huge role in British history, giving birth to a new age in literature. On visiting, the poet, and close friend of Coleridge, William Wordsworth found the surroundings so idyllic that he rented a house just three miles away from 1977-1978. During this annus mirabilis the pair produced the collaborative poetry collection Lyrical Ballads – often considered to have marked the birth of English literature’s Romantic age. The cottage has remained in the care of the National Trust for over 100 years, and its rooms are recreated as they would have been when Coleridge lived here.
What he wrote here: Some of his finest works, including ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘, ‘Kubla Khan‘, ‘Frost at Midnight‘, ‘Christabel‘ and ‘This Lime Tree Bower my Prison’.
John Clare – John Clare Cottage
About the house: The birthplace and family home of the ‘Northamptonshire Peasant Poet’, this cottage, in the village of Helpston, was home to John Clare from 1793 to 1832. A chronicler of rural life, Clare’s popular first poems captured a vivid snapshot of English nature, despite his lack of formal learning. Now owned by the John Clare Trust, the house has been restored using traditional building methods to tell the story of Clare and his work. Particular attention has been paid to the garden, where visitors can experience the flora of an early 19th century cottage garden and imagine the rural landscape as Clare would have experienced it in his day.
What he wrote here: While in Helpston Clare produced his earliest and most loved poems, including the collections Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery and The Village Minstrel, and Other Poems. His last poem written here, The Midsummer Cushion inspired a local tradition where, each year, the students of Helpston’s primary school lay traditional flower cushions on the poet’s grave to honour their most famous resident.
Samuel Johnson – Dr Johnson’s House
About the house: Essayist, critic, poet and lexicographer, Samuel Johnson lived at number 17 Gough Square in the City of London, a five storey 17th century home, between 1748 and 1759. Born in Staffordshire, Johnson spent most of his adult life in London, of which he proclaimed ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’. Of the 18 different properties he lived in in London, Dr Johnson’s House is the only one to survive to today. During his tumultuous life and influential career, Johnson made a lasting impact on English literature as a great critic and acclaimed lexicographer. Today the house tells the story of Samuel Johnson’s life; the museum collection includes 40 manuscripts, mostly in his hand, some personal items, and a collection of prints, drawing and oil paintings of his contemporaries. Johnson was a lover of cats and his favourite cat, Hodge, is immortalised in a statue outside the house, depicting a cat sat atop a dictionary.
What he wrote here: In the garret of the house Johnson composed A Dictionary of the English Language which he remarkably wrote single-handedly in just 7 years. Johnson’s feat was the most popular and influential dictionary until the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary nearly 200 years later.