JANE AUSTEN’S ENGLAND (E)


This is the fifth, in a series of twelve essays about some of the places in England associated with the life of Jane Austen. It is about a collection of places visited personally, with Jane Austen clearly in mind, but it is not a comprehensive gazeteer.

E. THE BRISTOL AVON

Jane Austen was quite familiar with the River Avon, from her time spent in Bath, where the river forms an attractive feature of the city. (Essay C) It is called the “Bristol Avon” to distinguish it from the “Warwickshire Avon”, and the “Wiltshire Avon” which are not far away, in adjoining counties. There are several other “Avons” in England, because the name is derived from the Welsh word, “afon”, pronounced “avvon” which simply means “river”.

As the map (2) shows, the Bristol Avon is a rather short river, rising in the southern Cotswold Hills, and flowing westwards to enter the sea at Avonmouth, on the Bristol Channel. At the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago, the Bristol Avon, swollen by glacial meltwater, cut a 250 foot (76 m) deep channel, down into the softer rocks. This is the Avon Gorge.


The sudden decision, by Rev. George Austen, to retire from his position of Rector of Steventon, in Hampshire, and take his family to live in Bath, came as such a shock to his daughter, Jane, that she fainted away at the news. They left Steventon in December, 1800, and lived in Bath until the death of George Austen in January 1805. His widow and daughters were left in a precarious financial condition, and depended on allowances made to them by George’s far more affluent sons.

(i) Bristol and Clifton

Maggie Lane explains Jane Austen’s reactions to the situation in which she found herself,

“When Mrs Austen and her daughters left Bath for ever in July 1806, they had an entirely new home in view; but before settling down, they planned to spend the summer travelling and visiting relations. Their first stop was Clifton. For five years Jane had lived obediently but reluctantly in Bath, trying not to be discontented, but unable to write: the sense of release was immense, and Clifton came in for some of its afterglow.

Now part of the city of Bristol, Clifton (2) then lay just outside the ancient city boundary, a Gloucestershire village rapidly growing into a salubrious suburb and a fashionable resort to rival Bath. Why then should Jane have preferred it so decidedly?” (Ref B)


As explained, the Bristol Avon flows past Clifton in a deep gorge, and at the time of Jane’s visit, the river could only be crossed by boat (3), but by 1864 a suspension bridge (4) was completed to cross it. It was made to an 1831 design by the renowned engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who died before the work was completed. The span is 702 feet (214 m) between the piers, and it is 245 feet (75 m) above high tide. (Ref A).


Earlier, Maggie Lane poses the question as to why Jane Austen much preferred Clifton to Bath, and says, “Its attraction had a great deal to do with its airy clifftop situation, its elevation several hundred feet above the smelly, workaday centre of the city, and its proximity to the open green plateau of the Downs.” (Ref B) She points out the association of Clifton with health in her novels, from the juvenile production, “Lesley Castle”, to both “Persuasion” and “Emma”.

(ii) Kingsweston

Maggie Lane goes on to explain how the social changes seen among the affluent classes of Bristol, Clifton and the surrounding countryside, reflected those in Britain at large, in the early nineteenth century.

“Jane Austen must have observed, in 1806, the tendency of successful Bristol businessmen, to find that a town house in Clifton, elegant and elevated though it was, no longer satisfied their ambitions. To put an even greater distance between themselves and the city, to fulfil the desire for greater privacy, domesticity, and communion with nature, they were flocking to build villas in the Gloucestershire countryside (5) beyond the Downs.

It was merely a local expression of the nationwide movement, gathering momentum throughout Jane’s lifetime, whereby a gregarious town-orientated society dissolved into a series of socially exclusive families, finding their own level, occupying their own plot of ground.” (Ref B)


It was not only the mercantile classes who sought privacy, because in their explorations of the hinterland of Bristol, they came across Kingsweston, discovering that the aristocracy had beaten them in the race,

“Built by Vanbrugh in the intervals when the Duchess of Marlborough’s quarrelling had driven him from work at Blenheim, Kingsweston was the oldest, the grandest and the most remote of all the houses in this region, the one which all the others tried to imitate.

‘Lord de Clifford has a fine seat at Kingsweston, enriched with plantations, and beautiful lawns and pasture grounds,’ wrote a Gloucestershire historian in 1779. ‘It lies at a distance of about two miles from the Severn, which appears from thence like a large arm of the ocean with ships lying at anchor in Kingroad, either bound to or from the port of Bristol. From a little hill, not far from the house, the prospect is exquisitely beautiful, and uncommonly extensive. Turning southward, the view is less extensive, but not less agreeable, over a rich cultivated country, interspersed with villas, on the Gloucestershire side of the Avon.’ (Ref B)


There seems to be a continuing discrepancy as to whether the spelling should be “Kingsweston”, or “Kings Weston”, so I have used either, indiscriminately. It is not recorded that Jane Austen visited Kingsweston House, but it seems unlikely as they were not related to the Southwell family, who owned the House and estate at the time. However, the views from the grounds were so fine, that carriage excursions from Bristol to Kingsweston were widely advertised in the centre of the city. (Ref C) It seems very probable that Jane and her family would have seen these views too, even if they were unable to visit the house. Jane’s characters in Persuasion and Emma are described as taking a keen interest in the grounds at Kingsweston. (Ref B)

The history of Kingsweston House is a complicated and chequered one, but it is now protected by a Grade 1 listed status, and is currently a conference/wedding centre with access for local communities. The “Kings Weston Action Group” is a band of volunteers committed to preserving not only the House, but also a collection of small historic buildings on the estate, like the five Lodges, the Brewhouse, the Dairy, the Stables, and the Loggia (7). (Full details are given in Ref C and also the KWAG website.


(iii) Blaise

Jane Austen enthusiasts are more likely to be interested in a nearby house, because it is mentioned in Northanger Abbey. “The grounds of Kingsweston adjoined those of the estate of Blaise, where we encounter the first of several Gothic associations which the county of Gloucestershire held for Jane Austen.

John Thorpe, willing to tell any lie to tempt Catherine to Bristol, assures her that Blaise Castle is ‘the oldest in the kingdom’. In fact it had been built a mere thirty years before, in 1776, and was a typical Georgian Gothic garden folly, unusual only in being semi-habitable.


Decorated on the exterior with all the paraphernalia of battlements, traceried windows and cruciform arrow slits, inside it was plastered, glazed and furnished like a miniature mansion. With a vestibule and dining-room below, and a sleeping chamber above, the castle was intended by its owner, Thomas Farr, to provide a retreat for meditation, as well as an object of picturesque beauty when viewed from the windows of his house below.


Three narrow towers, one of them containing a spiral staircase, surrounded the central drum (9), whose flat roof serves as a belvedere from which to enjoy views almost identical with those from Kingsweston. The architect was Robert Mylne, who was more accustomed to building elegant mansions, such as Goodnestone in Kent, (see Part B of this series) well known to Jane Austen as the home of her sister-in-law Elizabeth Bridges. Compact, cosy and comfortable, Blaise is a far cry from the castle of Catherine Morland’s imagination, which abounds in ‘long galleries’, broken arches’, ‘false hangings’, `trap-doors’ and ‘narrow, winding vaults’ as described in Northanger Abbey. (Ref B)


The whole frontage, (10) is a far more prosaic eighteenth century mansion than a Gothic folly. The House is now a museum, owned by the City of Bristol, and open to the public, along with the grounds. The Gothic part, being more fragile, is also open to the public, but on a more limited basis, as outlined in Ref D.

It is likely that Jane Austen’s enthusiasm for the Clifton area may also have been influenced by beautiful houses like Kingsweston and Blaise, with their magnificent interiors (11).


SERIES TO BE CONTINUED

REFERENCES

A. “Britain from the Air”, by Michael Swift and George Grant, PRC, 2000

B. “Jane Austen’s England”, by Maggie Lane, Robert Hale Ltd, 1986

C. “Kingsweston House”, Wikipedia article

D. “Blaise Castle”, Wikipedia article

ILLUSTRATIONS

1. The Bristol Avon Gorge, spanned by the Clifton Suspension Bridge (Ref A)

2. The Bristol Avon and places associated with Jane Austen (Author)

3. Clifton in 1829. Jane Austen visited it in 1806 and approved of its airy, open situation (Ref B)

4. The Clifton Suspension Bridge, a marvel of mid Victorian engineering, by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (SWNS.com)

5. A large meander of the River Avon, from Shirehampton Park on the Kings Weston Estate, Gloucestershire (Ref C)

6. Kingsweston House, Gloucestershire (Ref C)

7. The Loggia, in the grounds of Kingsweston House, Gloucestershire (Ref C)

8. Blaise Castle as it was in 1796, thirty years after it was built (Ref B)

9. The gatehouse of Blaise Castle, in Gloucestershire, as it is today (Ref D)

10. Blaise Castle House Museum, Bristol (Ref D)

11. Southwell family portraits at Kingsweston House (Ref C)

SERIES SUMMARY

CODE

MAIN SUBJECT

OTHER THEMES

A Hampshire Childhood Introduction-Reminders of the Past
B Kent Country Houses “Improvements”, and Garden Design
C City Elegance History of Bath, Neo-Classical Architecture
D Coastal Scenes Sea Drinking and Sea Bathing
E The Bristol Avon
F The Warwickshire Avon and the Cotswolds Adlestrop
G Return to Hampshire Portsmouth Point
H Winchester Days Medicine in the Early Nineteenth Century
I Locations “Sense and Sensibility” The Regency Period
J Locations –”Pride and Prejudice” The Picturesque
K Locations – “Mansfield Park” and “Emma” The Ha-Ha Boundary, “Lovers’ Vows” play
L Locations-“Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” The Gothic Novel, Irish History
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