Inquiring Readers: I welcome today Tony Grant with a guest post on Tenby, Wales, a place that in all probability Jane Austen had visited. Tony, who writes often for Vic’s Jane Austen’s World blog , as well as his own blog London Calling, and I had been cyber-discussing Jane Austen’s knowledge of the seaside – I sent him the link to the Brian Southam essay “Jane Austen Beside the Seaside” (see below) – he was immediately prompted to write more about Tenby, a place he is very familiar with because it is his wife’s birthplace. Just reading this piece and seeing Tony’s pictures makes me want to go back to Wales and continue to explore more of this incomparable coastline! … The question today however is, did Jane Austen actually visit Tenby? If she did it seems to have taken place in those no-letters gap years of 1801-04, so we cannot know for sure…. Read here what Tony has to say about it all…
Tenby is old, very old. The ground it sits on is a high bluff promontory formed from a hard rugged limestone plateau worn and eroded at the edges creating spectacular cliffs and rock formations. Its strata upended and twisted by continental landmass shifts over 400 million years ago, and underlined by smooth yellow sands, is the result of a 700 million year process, a process that has created a very beautiful landscape that stretches all around Pembrokeshire; the bit of Wales that sticks out into the Irish Sea at the south western tip. It is this combination of geology, seascape and the rich and diverse flora and fauna that has attracted visitors and tourists over hundreds of years.
Visitors come to experience walking along sunken country lanes within the shadow of high hedgerows that are full of a multitudinous variety of wild flowers, herb robert, knapweed, chicory, yarrow, ox eye daisies, common hawkweed, hearts tongue and maiden hair spleenworts. The olfactory experiences are delicious. Above our heads kites and kestrels, guillemots and large sea going gulls wheel and slice the clean air. Visitors can stand on the cliffs looking out over the sparkling sea and catch sight of dolphins, porpoises, basking sharks, orcas and wales. They can hear and see gulls and puffins, skylarks and choughs and on the beaches visitors come across jelly fish and turtles. Atlantic grey seals use secluded coves and bays, along this coast, to give birth.
Pembrokeshire, the county within which Tenby is situated, is a jewel that has never been much affected by modern industrialisation, and scarring developments in its landscape. In the 18th,, 19th and early 20th centuries, mining for the rich anthracite which comprises one of the many geological strata’s that pervade Pembrokeshire, were mined but the mines have closed down and disappeared long ago. It is, nowadays a struggling farming region. The people of Pembrokeshire rely on tourism and many farmers are diversifying into this area, opening fun parks, country zoos and offering country pursuits such as horse riding and trekking.
Tenby is a small town that has mostly developed within its medieval town walls. The street layout and town plan is medieval. Its earliest mention is in “Etmic Dinbych, or In Praise of Tenby,” a 9th century poem that is preserved in the 14th century Book of Taliesin. It probably began as a hill fort. Norse invaders and settlers probably developed it later as a trading point. The Normans after 1066 really developed Pembrokeshire and
took charge of the area with their iron fist, building the immense fortification of Pembroke Castle and a whole string of other castles called the Landsker Line. It was after this that Tenby developed its town fortifications and the castle on castle hill. The castle in Tenby was developed by the Normans on a higher promontory overlooking the town. It was attacked by the native Welsh in 1187 and again in 1260.
The town you see today has many fine Georgian buildings and more recently, Victorian Villas and cottages. There are still some fine examples of 13th and 14th century buildings too and many of the Georgian and Victorian additions have cellar and tunnel complexes that were created in the medieval period to bring goods and provisions from the harbour .
Tenby became famous during the Georgian period as a place for the middle classes and wealthy to visit on holiday. The French Revolution (1789 -1799) followed by the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) curtailed, somewhat, the grand tour of Europe that many well off Georgians liked to embark upon. Travel within Britain to the beauty spots of the British Isles flourished during this period. The Lake District was a place to visit, the Highlands of Scotland, The West Country and indeed Tenby and the beautiful West Coast of Wales was also included in this desire for tourism the pursuit of health, art and literature.
I have visited Tenby and Pembrokeshire twice a year, for over thirty years. My wife comes from Tenby so we have always visited her sister and mum and dad. Our children have had the privileged opportunity to experience the beautiful countryside and the wonderful breaches. So we are in the company of Jane Austen and the Austen family.
Jane writes in a letter to Cassandra dated Wednesday 15th – Friday 17th June 1808,
“I hear a very bad account of Mrs Whitefield; a very good one of Mrs Knight, who goes to Broadstairs next month. Mrs Sharpe is going with Miss bailey to Tenby.”
That is the only mention of Tenby by Jane herself. The letters in the period before 1808, the years 1801 to 1804, when the Reverend Austen, his wife and two daughters were gallivanting around seaside resorts in the West country and South Wales are lost to us now. That draconian, terrible letter cull of her sisters letters by Cassandra after Jane’s death are the reason for this lack of correspondence that might have revealed Jane’s direct response to visiting Tenby. However, the tone of the commentary in the above letter, written by Jane, telling Cassandra about the travels of acquaintances to various holiday resorts reveal that she was well acquainted with those places herself. For instance Broadstairs is in Kent on the coast, not far from Canterbury. Of course, just south of Canterbury, a mere half a dozen miles, is situated, Godmersham Park, the principal estate of Jane’s brother, Edward Knight. She would have known Broadstairs.
Brian Southam, in an article for Persuasions, entitled, “Jane Austen Beside the Seaside: Devonshire and Wales 1801 – 1803,” provides more evidence. Brian Southam relates, “Jane’s movements during these lost years can only be deduced by hints and glimpses found in other sources.” A recollection from Anna Lefroy sent in 1862 to James Edward Austen Leigh, who gathered evidence for his memoir of Jane, states that,
“She was once, I think, at Tenby- and once they went as far north as Barmouth.”
Barmouth is much further north from Tenby and Pembrokeshire, on the coast of the Snowdonia National Park, which is in the Welsh mountains; another beautiful area to visit.
The writing of tour guides were flourishing at this time to help promote the areas of natural beauty such as Pembrokeshire and Tenby. The artist Charles Norris (1779-18580) lived in Tenby in a small terraced cottage overlooking the harbour. There is a blue plaque on the wall of his cottage that you can see as you wend your way down the steep narrow path from the high street, wedged between overhanging Tudor, stone built houses . Norris’s cottage is directly opposite the Tudor Merchants House. He produced a series of etchings of Tenby and wrote about Tenby in a guide book. The Austen’s may well have owned a copy and consulted Norris’s pictures and information about the place.
I have actually asked in the Tenby Museum, situated on Castle Hill overlooking the town, about Jane’s visit to Tenby. The people in the museum are convinced she stayed in the town but do not know which house the Austens rented. What would we give for a signed bill or contract for the rental of a house by the Austens? Maybe somewhere, in some cupboard or box, stored away in a Tenby cellar is such a document. There is every chance that the house still exists they would have stayed in. Most, if not all the properties built in the Georgian period remain, giving Tenby a genteel and somewhat sophisticated air, raising it above what was really a thriving fishing and trading port at the time. Admiral Lord Nelson visited and stayed in Tenby with Lord and Lady Hamilton. East Rock House, situated within an elegant Georgian Street has the evidence on a plaque relating to such a sojourn. “Admiral Lord Nelson stayed here, 1802.” That was round about the time the Austen’s could have been there.
Tenby was developed as a resort by Sir William Paxton. In 1802, local resident, merchant banker and politician, Sir William Paxton bought his first property in the old town. He invested heavily in the town, with the full approval of the town council. Engineer James Grier and architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell were briefed to create a “fashionable bathing establishment suitable for the highest society.” His baths came into operation in July 1806, and after acquiring the Globe Inn transformed it into “a most lofty, elegant and convenient style” to lodge the more elegant visitors to his baths. Cottages were erected adjoining the baths, and livery stables with an adjoining coach house. In 1814 a road built on arches overlooking the harbour was built at Paxton’s expense. He later got passed a Bill in Parliament to enable fresh water to be piped through the town. However the theatre he built in 1809 was closed in 1818 due to lack of patronage.
[Image from Pubs Galore]
The house he had built for himself in the main square in Tenby is now Paxton’s Hotel and Bar. It is a very popular place in the summer months. The sea water baths, built on the edge of the cliff overlooking the harbour in one direction and the sea in the other, constructed for the purpose of promoting health and for bathing and drinking are still there, although converted into a house. The Ancient Greek legend is still prominently picked out in stone above its entrance.
Tenby has had many famous people visitors to it and some have lived there for a while. Henry Tudor who was born in Pembroke Castle, escaped from Tenby through the tunnels under the town when being pursued by Richard III’s agents. It was from Wales, with a predominantly Welsh army he marched into England and secured his kingship at Bosworth Field, defeating Richard III in 1485.The Tudor dynasty grew out of Wales and came to dominate Europe and begin the British Empire.
George Eliot lived in a house in Tenby for a while. Robert Record (1512-1558), the inventor of the equals sign lived here. Augustus John and his sister Gwen John, the early twentieth century artists lived here for a while. Rather obtusely, Bill Clinton visited in the 1990’s. I am not sure what that tells you about the allure of Tenby. Beatrix Potter visited and another rather unusual visitor was, Haillie Selassie, during his exile in Britain between 1936 and 1941. Towards the end of the 18th century John Paul Jones, who has been infamously saddled with beginning the American Navy, was the most notorious pirate in these waters. One of his officers, nicknamed ‘Leekie’ Porridge, came from Tenby. John Paul Jones’s crew used to land on Caldey Island, the monastic island off shore from Tenby, to obtain provisions.
The Coach and Horses, a lovely pub and restaurant in Tenby has a claim to literary fame. In 1953 Dylan Thomas, who was in Tenby to perform a poetry reading in the pub, had one or two to drink. When he left The Coach and Horses he left a first draft of “Under Milk Wood” that he was working on at the time on the bar stool. Dylan was living at the boathouse in Laugharne, a few miles along the coast at the time.
As I mentioned above I have been to Tenby many times. It is a wonderful place. It has major scientific importance. I have also mentioned a little about the geology of the area. Pembrokeshire provides a whole array of geological and fossil evidence. It is so rich in wildlife and wild flower diversity it is an important area for the study of plants too. Its archaeology and history is integral to the study of the British Isles as well. It is a place for the academic as well as the sunbather and also a place for Jane Austen to visit and enjoy.
- Brian Southam, “Jane Austen beside the Seaside: Devonshire and Wales 1801 – 1803. http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number33/southam.pdf
- The Tenby Museum: http://www.tenbymuseum.org.uk/
- Tenby at wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenby
- Maps of Wales: http://www.virtualtenby.co.uk/map-of-south-wales.asp?lon=-3.808313&lat=51.656803&zoom=9
- Pembrokeshire National Park website: http://www.pembrokeshirecoast.org.uk/default.asp?PID=4