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”.