Jessica Hope goes in search of acclaimed novelist Jane Austen in Winchester ahead of this summer’s bicentenary commemorations of her death

One would think that a grand cathedral would be a fitting place for the body of one of Britain’s most celebrated authors to be buried. However, when Jane Austen died nearly 200 years ago, it wasn’t that she was so famous that people thought that she should be buried in Winchester Cathedral – it was because of it being conveniently close to where she died just a few streets away. It was only in the decades after her death that she became well-known for her novels and was transformed into a household name.

To mark the bicentenary, we went to explore the city where she was laid to rest and discover just some of the Austen-related events that are happening over the coming months. Plus, we uncovered spots where you can rest, eat and refresh along the way . . .

Jane Austen’s House Museum

First stop before reaching Winchester is Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire – less than 30 minutes’ drive from the centre of Winchester. This is where Austen lived from 1809 – 1817, and where she wrote and edited her much-loved novels. The museum has retained much of its early 19th century character, so you can wander around the house just as Austen would have once known it. In each room you will find artefacts that were owned by Jane, her sister and mother, who continued to live in the cottage after Austen’s death.

Explore the Jane Austen in 41 Objects exhibition, which reflects on Austen’s life and legacy through 41 items – one for every year of her life – and see a writing table that she may have once used to write her renowned novels. The exhibition is on until December 2017.

Visit: jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk.

Winchester Cathedral

In 1817 Austen travelled to Winchester with her sister Cassandra in the hope of seeing a local doctor who could cure her of a mystery illness that continues to puzzle people to this day. The sisters moved to a house on College Street where Austen lived for the last six weeks of her life, before dying on 18 July 1817.

She was then buried under the floor of Winchester Cathedral six days later at a funeral attended by just four people. Austen’s gravestone inscription is simple and makes no mention of her novels. However, as the popularity around her books grew after her death, in order to reflect her status Austen’s nephew published a memoir of his late aunt in 1870 and used the proceeds to erect a brass plaque near to her gravestone to highlight her impact on the literary world. Nowadays people travel from across the world to see the writer’s resting place.

Over the coming months the cathedral will be hosting a variety of events to mark the anniversary of Austen’s death. On the first Saturday of each month from June to November there will be tours followed by refreshments, exploring Austen’s life and her connections with Winchester and the cathedral. The tour will also include a short walk to the house where she died.

Illyria Open Air Theatre will be entertaining audiences with its take on Pride and Prejudice from Wednesday 28 – Friday 30 June, 7.30pm, in the Cloisters Garth. Pack a picnic, camp chairs and a bottle of fizz, and then sit back and enjoy this witty, fast-paced performance of Austen’s most popular novel.

There will be a lunchtime concert held to mark the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death on Tuesday 18 July. The performance will include music from her lifetime, including a recital by The Austen Trio, featuring a soprano, harp and piano.

Pay your respects and join the procession on the anniversary of Austen’s funeral on the morning of Monday 24 July. Members of the public can follow guides from the place of her death to her grave in the cathedral. The walk will include readings from Austen’s novels, excerpts from letters and moments of reflection. At 9am – the time of Austen’s funeral – the cathedral bell will ring 41 times, one for each year of her life. This is a ticketed event, numbers are limited.

Visit: winchester-cathedral.org.uk to book tickets to all the events mentioned, plus more.

The Mysterious Miss Austen

This exhibition will look closely at Jane Austen’s work, life and relationship with Hampshire, and includes items linked with the acclaimed writer, including her silk pelisse coat, a purse and a sewing materials case. For the first time, five portraits of Austen will be on show together, including one from a private collection that hasn’t been on show to the public in more than four decades. Plus, there will be a manuscript of an alternative ending to Persuasion on show – maybe Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth were never meant to have their happy ever after after all . . .

Mysterious Miss Austen is on from 13 May – 24 July at The Gallery at Winchester Discovery Centre.
Visit: janeausten200.co.uk.

Mercure Winchester Wessex Hotel

A great place to rest your head after a long day of sightseeing is the Mercure Winchester Wessex Hotel. This contemporary four star hotel is just a stone’s throw from the high street and attractions, making it the perfect base for your stay. We were treated to a stay in one of the newly refurbished rooms which have been decorated with Austen in mind. The rooms have been furnished in a neutral style with Scandi inspired furniture, while an enlarged motif of Austen’s handwriting and quill adorn the wall over the bed. Our room also included a spectacular view overlooking Winchester Cathedral.

Mercure Winchester Wessex Hotel, Paternoster Row, Winchester. Visit: mercure.com or call: 01962 312800.

The Chesil Rectory

In need of sustenance with a dash of history during your trip? With its wooden beamed ceilings, cosy fireplaces and creaky floorboards, The Chesil Rectory is the oldest restaurant in Winchester, having been built in the early 15th century. Serving delicious British dishes using local, high quality produce, this independent eatery continues to bring in locals and tourists time and time again – unsurprising as it has two AA Rosettes and was named the third most romantic restaurant in the UK by The Times. It also serves Hattingley Valley sparkling wine made just down the road in Hampshire. The Chesil Rectory, 1 Chesil Street, Winchester.

Visit: chesilrectory.co.uk or call: 01962 851555.

Cabinet Rooms

All of this exploring can leave you parched, so if you need to quench your thirst with something a little stronger than H2O then the newly opened Cabinet Rooms can certainly cater to your drinking needs. Serving up a variety of local gins (try the Twisted Nose – it’s made with local watercress and served with a twist of pink grapefruit), artisan coffee and delicious cocktails, owners Gary and Marcus champion using local produce and high quality products. In keeping with the bicentenary of Austen’s death, they have created a Lost In Austen cocktail for their menu, using cherry liqueur, egg white, amaretto and lemon juice, topped with glossy drunken cherries. This cocktail is based on a recipe from Austen’s lifetime called cherries en chemise – a dish which was believed to be able to heal a broken heart.

If you visit Winchester in June, Cabinet Rooms will be hosting the Ginchester Fête on Saturday 10 June in the historic location of the Great Hall. To celebrate World Gin Day there will be 20 exhibitors with plenty of local gins to try, plus gin jam, cakes and chocolate, among other produce on sale. Tickets are £10, available via: eventbrite.co.uk.

Cabinet Rooms, 2 De Lunn Buildings, Jewry Street, Winchester. Visit: cabinetrooms.com.

Visit: visitwinchester.co.uk for further information about what to see and do in Winchester.

Main image: a woodcut of the novelist © Jane Austen’s House Museum