From Jane Austen to bloody war: A Visit to Alton

Just before Christmas, Mum and I spent a day in the local market town of Alton. I’d given it a passing mention in A Frost of Cares and was curious to track down the real life evidence of the battle I’d alluded to. She had never been to Jane Austen’s house at Chawton, and neither of us had ever been to the town museum. The town is only an hour or so away by bus, and we had both finished our Christmas preparations and were twiddling our thumbs. A day out seemed like a good idea.

We headed for Chawton first. These days the outskirts of Alton press up against the village, but in the early nineteenth century it was a pleasant little place of its own, about half an hour’s walk from the old market town. After the death of Jane Austen’s father, her wealthy brother offered his mother and unmarried sisters the choice of a number of cottages on his estates. They chose a handsome house in Chawton, and Jane lived there until the final weeks of her life, when she moved to Winchester, some 15 miles away, to be closer to her doctor (she died there, in a little yellow house behind the close, and is buried in the cathedral).  Most of her books were either written or redrafted there, on a low round table that still sits beside the front window of the cottage, where she could see the other residents of the village passing by.


This is Chawton. In the summer, all these cottages have wonderful gardens bursting with flowers. Even in a damp midwinter, it’s a pretty place.


This is the back of the Austens’ house. It has been mostly restored to Regency furnishings and operates as a small museum. Some family trinkets are on display, and the rooms have been set out as they would have been in Jane’s day. The first floor window on the left is the room she shared with her sister Cassandra. I haven’t taken any pictures of the interior, because they do ask you not to, of course.


We were almost the only ones there (though in summer they get coach parties cramming in). The whole house was decorated in appropriate style–no tree, but fresh greenery lining the windowsills and fireplaces and in pots and vases. The wreath caught my eye.

After a pleasant hour, we decided to move on. We had an excellent lunch in the village pub and then headed back into Alton itself. I wanted to find St Lawrence’s church in the town centre, which looks very peaceful in the pictures below. In December 1643, however, it was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the English Civil War.


Here is the south door of the church. The flowers are roses, blooming in the mildest December on record! It was a much colder day on December 13th 1643, when the Earl of Crawford was stationed here with two regiments of the Royalists army, one of cavalry and one of infantry. They had set sentries on the roads, but hadn’t taken into account the hard frost which froze the ground and the Parliamentarians’ newfangled leather guns, light enough to be led by a single horse. At dawn, the sentries on the west of the town saw five thousand Parliamentary troops emerge from the woods. Six of the sentries were captured, but one managed to raise the alarm. Crawford and the cavalry broke out towards Winchester at a gallop, promising they would bring reinforcements. About six hundred foot soldiers were left in Alton to face an army of five thousand. They were driven back through the streets of the town until they were forced to take shelter within the church grounds.


For two hours, the Royalists held off their attackers, even as the Parliamentarians hurled grenades through the windows and fired rounds at the church (the picture above shows just some of the musket holes in the south door). The Royalists were forced into the church, without even enough time to barricade the doors behind them. At the last, they retreated behind a bulwark of dead horses, as their commander, Richard Boles threatened to “run his sword through him which first called for quarter.” It wasn’t until Boles himself was killed that the survivors surrendered.  Over 100 Royalists were killed and about 500 taken prisoner. The Parliamentarians lost ten men.


There is still a plaque commemorating the battle and Boles’ actions inside the church. When Luke and Jay start investigating the ghost of Eelmoor Hall in A Frost of Cares, they find a connection between their ghost and one of the Royalist officers killed in this battle.


From the church, we wandered back into the town to visit the museum, where Mum indulged me while I cooed over the Alton Buckle, their gorgeous Anglo-Saxon treasure (it’s actually very small indeed. Somehow I imagined it would be the same size as the illustration of it on the front of my old Old English textbook XD). On the way back to the bus stop, the colourful display outside this shop caught our eye (“Brussel sprouts for Christmas lunch!” said Mum. “Oooh, hyacinths!” said I, and we were both drawn in. Two of those pots of hyacinths on the bottom row have been flowering madly on my kitchen windowsill for the last two weeks).

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