TAKING ENGLAND LITERALLY
It is a modest little brick cottage by the side of the road—one which I could have easily missed were I not specifically looking for it. Yet, this home in Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire, was where one of England’s greatest poets and writers, John Milton, once lived and worked.
During the outbreak of the great plague of London he took refuge here in 1665, and in the two years that he lived in this cottage he finished his epic Paradise Lost and started on Paradise Regained. The house, now a museum, showcases several first editions of his works, and the tranquil gardens are landscaped with plants and flowers that appear in his writings.
Impressive as that may be, what grabs my attention is that Milton introduced about 630 new words to the English language – ‘lovelorn’, ‘liturgical’, ‘padlock’, ‘terrific’, ‘odiferous’, and ‘fragrance’ – to name just a few. Literary giants, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare, by comparison are credited with coining only 558 and 229 words respectively.
I’m also rather tickled to note that “Milton’s Indian Restaurant” is in business directly across the street from his house. Does the ghost of the great man dine there sometimes?
England’s Lake District has inspired more than one writer and poet, but the most distinguished of these is poet William Wordsworth, and Beatrix Potter, the creator of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and other stories.
Dove Cottage where Wordsworth, his wife, their three children, and his sister, Dorothy lived, is a charming two-storied house. Our enthusiastic tour guide shows us through the rooms and recounts anecdotal tales about the poet and his works. The garden with its bluebells and honeysuckle creepers, is as lyrical as Wordsworth’s poetry and I’m delighted to see a bed of daffodils, gaily “fluttering and dancing in the breeze” along one of the pathways. Next door is the Wordsworth Museum and I spend the better part of ninety minutes fascinated by a display of his handwritten manuscripts, excerpts from Dorothy’s Grasmere diary, photographs and memorabilia.
Beatrix Potter’s home, Hill Top in Cumbria, is now a National Trust property, bequeathed on condition that it be kept intact with her furniture, personal belongings and china. The entrance stone-flagged pathway is bordered by rose bushes and plants in riotous bloom. Walking into the hall, it feels as though I’ve dropped by to visit, and she has just slipped out on an errand. I pick up one of her books and sit at an alcove, where she, too. probably sat, looking out of the window across the garden and rolling countryside. A handwritten note to her former governess’s, little boy Noel, with the very first sketches of Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter, takes me back to childhood and the first time I read this delightful tale.
Unlike the romantic Wordsworth and the genteel Potter, George Bernard Shaw was an acerbic personality with a razor-sharp wit. Indeed it is impossible to capture his complex personality in a few paragraphs. His house at Ayot St. Lawrence isn’t easy to get to, and my niece who is at the wheel, drives cautiously along a narrow, winding country road bordered by hawthorne hedgerows.
The rooms of his house carry the imprint of a man whose Fabian socialist views were frequently controversial – and whose loyalties were often contradictory. The living room mantelpiece has a photograph of Gandhi, as well as framed shots of Lenin, Marx and Wagner. Shaw’s piano has an open music sheet on its stand and it’s as though he has merely stepped away, perhaps to sit at the desk in his cluttered study with its floor-to-ceiling bookcase.
Second only to Shakespeare (whom he whimsically professed to dislike!), Shaw was England’s greatest playwright, penning more than 60 plays, and earning him a Nobel Prize for literature. Several plays were enacted both on stage and film – the most well-known being, my all time favorite, ‘My Fair Lady’. Adapted from Shaw’s Pygmalion, I am thrilled to read an excerpt from original manuscript with Shaw’s corrections in red, squiggled across his typewritten page! Pygmalion also earned Shaw an Oscar, which didn’t impress him greatly – he reportedly used it as a paper-weight!
Walking along the garden pathway, and, at the very end of the lawn, is a small wooden shack much like a tool shed, but with windows. It is sparsely furnished with a desk, chair and a narrow bed. This, apparently was Shaw’s retreat, where he could write in seclusion and perhaps (literally!) dream up his next play.
IF YOU GO:
For more information:
Milton’s Cottage - http://www.miltonscottage.org/
Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage - https://wordsworth.org.uk/visit/dove-cottage.html
& the Museum https://wordsworth.org.uk/visit/the-wordsworth-museum.html
Beatrix Potter’s Hilltop – scroll down the page for further information/links
Shaw’s Corner – scroll down the page for links to further information about the house at Ayot St. Lawrence https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/shaws-corner
PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts
1. Milton’s Cottage in Chalfont St. Giles
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