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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

www.donnafletchercrow.com

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

 

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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History

A traveling researcher engages people and places from Britain's past and present, drawing comparisons and contrasts between past and present for today's reader.

Sidmouth: Jane Austen Romance and Queen Victoria Shoes

By Donna Fletcher Crow ~ May 22, 2019

A lovely bus journey continues our Jane-Austen-led seashore tour to Sidmouth. Of course, Jane would have been in a carriage, but the views through the pleasant, rolling countryside must have been similar. And when rain splattered the windows I was glad for the comfort of my modern conveyance.

Tree branches bursting with spring buds scraped the windows as well. I never cease to be amazed how English bus drivers maneuver their mammoth buses along such narrow roads. One field is full of sheep, the next hosts gorgeous fat pheasants. Then we break out into a view of the sea with chalk cliffs running right to the water’s edge. Then a field of black and white Holstein cows, taking me back to my farm childhood: the warm, earthy smell of the barn, the soft lowing of the cows, the warm, sweet taste of the milk my uncle would squirt into my mouth… Those days seem as long ago as Jane’s Austen’s.

Then banks of vibrant daffodils lining the road for perhaps a mile bring me back to the present as we roll into the Triangle bus stop. Before I can begin searching out traces of Jane’s time here in the resort some claim she may have used as a model for her Sanditon, I have a slightly more “modern” event to recreate.

In 1819 the Duke and Duchess of Kent, seeking to escape their creditors, came to Sidmouth, bringing their infant Daughter Victoria with them. Their visit was brief because, in spite of Sidmouth’s fabled healthy air, the Duke died. But not before the future queen had her first pair of shoes made for her in Sidmouth.

And I am in need of a pair of shoes. (My adventure that resulted in losing a shoe will be recounted in a later blog.) I am directed to a shoe shop which is carrying on Sidmouth’s tradition of footwear excellence by winning an industry gold medal.

And did I find a pair of shoes? Well, actually, I found two.

Now, properly shod, I can concentrate on tracing Jane Austen’s adventures. And a proper adventure she certainly had. The Austens are thought to have spent the summer of 1801 in Sidmouth and it is an oft-repeated family story that while here Jane met and fell in love with a young clergyman, brother of the local doctor. Unfortunately, the young man was called away and before the young couple could meet again, he died of typhus in Bath.

I have always, entirely fancifully, pictured their meeting having taken place on the Esplanade. I think I got carried away with the vision of sea breezes billowing Regency skirts, blue ribbons and soft brown curls. In truth, the almost half-mile-long Esplanade wasn’t built until 1837. Of course, they could have been strolling along the picturesque shingle beach.

It’s far more likely, however, that they met at the always-popular assemblies held upstairs at the the London Hotel. For more than a century the London was the centre of social life in fashionable Sidmouth. Their exceptional “sprung floor” made dancing there a delight, and concerts were held regularly as well (including one by Franz Liszt in 1840). It is now The Seasalt, a dress shop, just down Fore Street from White & Sons shoes and looking considerably less romantic today, no doubt.

Knowing Jane Austen’s fondness for theatre I was delighted to find the Manor Pavilion Theatre with a full bill of productions, both local and of visiting troupes. The best I could learn, however, is that this all began with the founding of the Sidmouth Amateur Dramatic Society in 1922, so Jane wouldn’t likely have enjoyed a theatrical performance here.

Of course, the devout Austen family would have attended sacred services even whilst on holiday. St. Giles and St. Nicholas has been the parish church since Medieval times. The Norman church, built between 1450 and 1480, was the structure the Austens would have known. The Norman tower is the only original part of the building, however, as the Victorian Gothic church one sees today was built in the 1860s.

One thing that must remain reassuringly the same is the beauty of The Front with its great red cliffs running into the sea at both ends of the curving beach.

historic Sidmouth beach

Sidmouth was a sleepy fishing village until the craze for seaside resorts hit England in the latter part of the 18th century when doctors declared that sea-bathing was as healthful as spa-bathing and Sidmouth’s mild air and healthy water was discovered.

In the 1790s Emanuel Baruch Lousada bought much of the then-vacant western slope of the valley and built Peak House standing alone on the hillside. It can’t help but put one in mind of Mr. Parker’s Trafalgar House in Sanditon. “[O]n the most elevated spot on the Down, was a light, elegant Building, standing in a small Lawn with a very young plantation round it, about a hundred yards from the brow of a steep but not very lofty Cliff…”

Today the award-winning Connaught Gardens, which began as Peak House, would have been unknown to the Austens time.

Connaught Garden, Sidmouth

But the clock tower had been there since the 16th century serving as a kiln where limestone, brought in by sea, then up the hill by donkey, was burnt to produce lime for fertilizer for the surrounding fields.

The Clock Tower, Sidmouth

The Clock Tower, once a ruin, has been carefully restored since 1991 and is now a charming restaurant and cake shop. Perfect to enjoy afternoon tea and the stunning views.

The Front from Clock Tower Sidmouth

One final Austen connection. When the historic Fortfield hotel was extensively damaged by fire in 2011 there was considerable controversy over whether to restore it or to redevelop the site into modern luxury apartments.

The developers won and named their complex Sanditon.

One wonders whether these modern-day Thomas Parkers realized Austen’s unfinished novel is a satire expressing the author’s misgivings about property development and speculation in a seaside resort.

Either way, it seems a good bet that Jane would appreciate the irony.

Next week our Jane Austen’s Seashore Tour will take us to the most iconic of all seaside resorts with Austen connections. We began with an overview, then visited Teignmouth  and Dawlish. Please return each week as we visit: Lyme Regis, Southampton, Portsmouth, Bognor Regis, Worthing, Brighton, Ramsgate, and move inland to Chawton.

These will provide background for my next Elizabeth and Richard literary suspense novel as another in the series that includes A Jane Austen Encounter, and A Most Singular Venture.

Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.

www.donnafletchercrow.com

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