Saturday 30 March 2024

Beaconsfield, Berkshire - the most impressive literary town in England?

If you had asked me last week what was the most impressive literary town (not city) in England; I would probably have said Keswick, in the Lake District - despite that the major figure among Lakeland writers - William Wordsworth - was born and resided nearby, rather than in Keswick itself. 

But I now realize that the prize must go to Beaconsfield (pronounced "Beckonsfield") in Berkshire. 

I should have noticed the fact years ago, but had not made the connection until I began listening to the audiobook of Terry Pratchett's authorized biography "A Life with Footnotes". 

I had not clocked that Pratchett was born and raised in Beaconsfield; but I knew that GK Chesterton had been a long-term resident, and that Robert Frost had also lived there while he was in England. Already a very impressive trio!

But when I checked the relevant page in Wikipedia I was reminded that Enid Blyton had also resided in that small town; along with a large number of other eminent authors including Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli, and Alison Uttley. 

While Beaconsfield's roster probably does not match Concord, Massachusetts (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott...) in terms of literary significance and influence - it is nonetheless probably unbeatable in the UK. 

Or is it? 

Any other suggestions?



Geir said...

My favourite place, of course. Chesterton lived there from 1909 to 1936 and his wife until 1938, and his secretary Dorothy Collins inherited money after his death so that a cottage on the premises could be built, where she kept all the Chesterton papers until her death in 1988 so that the British Library could acquire it. A miracle. We visited Top Meadow in 1982 and 1983 and stayed for days each time.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Geir - I haven't yet visited Beaconsfield, I don't think I've got closer than Reading; but I hope this can be managed at some point.

I wonder what it is about the place that such a concentration of literary talent is associated with it? But then we no real idea why clusters of talent happen.

The most remarkable example, IMO, was the literary genius of the Anglo-Irish:

Geir said...

In my Chesterton bibliography (published 2022 and reprinted 2023, with probably a new edition will come to Chesterton's 150th anniversary this year) there is a chapter on objects relating to G. K. Chesterton and his memory, where, in addition to busts, statues, portraits and other pieces of art, I have included all the houses he lived in or worked in or was connected to in some way. There are several houses in Beaconsfield of interest for that purpose: Overroads, Grove Road (1909-22); The White Hart, Aylesbury End where the Chestertons stayed in 1901 and decided for Beaconsfield, they even have some memorabilia; Top Meadow, Grove Road (1922-36) (and Top Meadow Cottage), The Railway Hotel, Penn Road where GKC was received into the church - demolished to give way to a Waitrose supermarket; The Church of St. Teresa and the English Martyrs, 40 Warwick Road built with donations from GKC and with a stained glass window with him; The Roman Catholic Cemetery, Shepherds Lane, with the Eric Gill monument and a new monument; Chesterton Memorial Church, Bekonscot Model Village; and of course, if you are a Bond fan you will recognize a hotel in the centre of town where some crook pilot stayed in Thunderball. So yes, you can spend a day just walking around. And there used to be Beaconsfield Film Studios in the neighbourhood, and one day the secretary went over to it and said that they "must not make so much noise. Mr. Chesterton can't write." To which they answered: "We know that!" And one should also take some deep breaths at the railway station where Chesterton commuted. With the help of another Chestertonian, I recently found the houses in Keighley and Ilkley from when Chesterton met Fr O'Connor for the first time and they walked over the moor from the one to the other: The birthplace (almost) of Father Brown.

Jack Jones said...

I'm always impressed with how much more articulate and well read the average Briton is compared to the average American. Some of them even speak in complete sentences! I've got a few Britons in my immediate family (Grandfather was from Yorkshire) and it's nice to hear them speak. Classier like hehe.