“They determined on walking round Beechen Cliff, that noble hill whose beautiful verdure and hanging coppice render it so striking an object from almost every opening in Bath.” – Northanger Abbey
On a trip to Bath a couple of summers ago, I was fortunate to visit an old “friend in Jane,” another Jane – Jane Odiwe, the well-known Austenesque author and artist. Nothing could be more delightful than to spend time in such a fashion, and my memories of every detail are precious. I had visited that beautiful city several times before, but knew that to see it through the eyes of an enthusiast as knowledgeable as Jane would be a special privilege.
It was a bit of a scramble dragging my suitcase through Paddington, but the train ride was restful and lovely, gliding through the green English countryside with clouds changing every minute, and flowers nodding by the sides of the train. On arrival, I was immediately struck with the freshness and restfulness of Bath after London: the air is purer, and the small, compact, hilly city, enfolding spots of greenery, looked really lovely, in cool sunny weather with a few clouds and the breeze changing every minute and June flowers everywhere – roses and foxgloves, forget-me-nots and geraniums.
Jane’s home is most beautiful. The building was here in Jane Austen’s day and is so near the house at 4 Sydney Place where Austen lived, you can see into the garden. With her historical eye and artistic sense, Jane has made her home reflect the beauty and the spirit of Austen’s time. It was a rare treat for the mind, eye, soul, and more prosaically, stomach, to sit and enjoy the elegant English tea she so generously laid out, on exquisite and authentic Burleigh willow ware. Shrimps and salad, cake and tea, while we talked a mile a minute about Austenesque writing, mutual friends, family, and aspirations – it was almost too much delight to take in!
Jane thought I must need to rest after my journey, but I could not wait to be afoot with my hostess in Bath. Asked what I hoped to see, I begged at once to be taken up Beechen Cliff where Jane Austen (always a great walker) had climbed! I had seen the major sights of the city on previous visits, but had never done this walk and was inspired by a blog Jane (Odiwe not Austen!) herself had recently written. Since she had made the climb so very lately, it was most generous of her to undertake it again so soon, for my satisfaction.
Jacob’s Ladder, the stairs on the way up Beechen Cliff
Of course, like many another Austen pilgrim, and much in the spirit of all those who go to Lyme to see the spot where Louisa Musgrove fell, I wanted to go to Beechen Cliff in honor of the scene in Northanger Abbey where clever Henry Tilney teaches the naive Catherine about artistic views and perspective:
The Tilneys…were viewing the country with the eyes of persons accustomed to drawing, and decided on its capability of being formed into pictures, with all the eagerness of real taste. Here Catherine was quite lost. She knew nothing of drawing — nothing of taste: and she listened to them with an attention which brought her little profit, for they talked in phrases which conveyed scarcely any idea to her. The little which she could understand, however, appeared to contradict the very few notions she had entertained on the matter before. It seemed as if a good view were no longer to be taken from the top of an high hill, and that a clear blue sky was no longer a proof of a fine day. She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance.
Halfway up – it was quite a steep hike!
[Catherine] confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances — side–screens and perspectives — lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape. Delighted with her progress, and fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject to decline, and by an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the enclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence.
Diana and Jane at the top of Beechen Cliff
The walk certainly proved to be one of the most satisfying walks of my life. We probably walked several miles – four hours, all told – right up the wooden stairs known as Jacob’s Ladder, shaded by beech trees (from which the name is derived), and along the forested cliff, or hangar, where spread out before you is the magnificent prospect of Bath, as described by Jane Austen. It was a complete thrill, exhilarating and beautiful and flowery and wild and 18th century and divine. The walk reminded me a bit of the hangar at Selbourne, Gilbert White’s house, equally unspoiled, where the modern world recedes completely.
After enjoying the views, taking pictures, and smelling the wild garlic for which the hill is famous, we walked down, returning alongside the Kennet & Avon canals – and still walking in the steps of Jane Austen.
Kennet and Avon Canal boats