A Date Out and About Near Home

My mission: To go on 60 dates with friends & family to celebrate my 60th birthday.

We love our home. Our home is our castle, our refuge, our safe place, a place where we can do what we like (within the law). The phrase, ‘An Englishman’s Home is his Castle’ was adopted as early as the 16th century and is now hard-wired in our psyche. Yet when it comes to going out and about near home we are strangely reluctant. We’d rather go to Rome to visit the Colosseum or sunbathe on the French Riviera than investigate what’s on our doorstep.

I’m just as bad. Having moved to the Surrey/Hampshire border over five years ago you’d think I might have gone to see some of the local attractions. OK – so we were renovating a Victorian Farmhouse and I did have a heart operation but still…

A sixty date would put it right.

I asked John and Carol, two local friends who we’d met shortly after we moved in. They tried to hide their surprise when I said I’d never been to Midhurst or Petworth. And what about Jane Austen’s house they said?  Only 30 minutes away.

And so, a date was fixed.

Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton, Hampshire

A Date Out and About Near Home
©Jane Austen’s House Museum


I confess – I love Pride and Prejudice and read it every year. When I’m particularly tired, which happens when you reach a certain age, I make a cup of tea (or pour a glass of wine) and re-watch Joe Wright’s film. Of course, I loved the 1995 hit BBC TV series starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, but it’s too long for a quick sit-down. The only problem with the film is the missing kiss. Why didn’t we get to see Elizabeth (Keira Knightly) and Darcy (Mathew McFadden) kiss at the end? Don’t the producers know every good love story ends with a kiss? The only disappointment in this otherwise lovely romantic re-telling.

A Date Out and About Near Home
First Edition Pride and Prejudice ©Jane Austen’s House Museum


I was excited to visit the house (museum) where Jane Austen lived for the last eight years of her life (1809-1817). There she wrote or rewrote some important works. Sense and Sensibility (published in 1811) and my favourite Pride & Prejudice (1813), followed by Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1815). While she lived at Chawton, she also wrote Persuasion and Northanger Abbey although both were published after her death.

As I walked from room to room I was struck by how much it still felt like a family home. Full of family memorabilia and creaky stairs. Clothes and cooking pots. Books and pens. The writing table where she worked. Pause. Really? It’s so small. Positioned by the window in the dining-parlour, you can’t help but wonder. No grand desk and expensive laptop for Jane to produce her memorable characters and great story lines.

A Date Out and About Near Home
©Jane Austen’s House Museum


Perhaps my favourite item was the blue ring. It caused a national outcry when the singer Kelly Clarkson outbid the museum in an auction, paying £152,450 for the ring. She intended to take it back to America but after a fundraising cri de coeur, donations flooded in, including an anonymous one of £100,000, enabling the Museum to buy it back, saving it for the nation.

A Date Out and About Near Home
©Jane Austen’s House Museum, photograph by Peter Smith


Outside the kitchen there’s a pretty courtyard which had such a feeling of tranquillity that I sat for a while and imagined myself transported back to 1813, having tea with Jane, and discussing writing. I grinned at the idea of asking her to read my blog.

A Date Out and About Near Home
Jane Austen Woodcut ©Jane Austen’s House Museum


Rule 1: Focus you’re exploring on your interests


Midhurst, West Sussex 

Still on a literary tale we headed for Midhurst, a pretty market town and only fifteen minutes’ drive from home and the inspiration for such writers as HG Wells, Anya Seton and Ruth Rendell.

A Date Out and About Near Home
Novelist, teacher, historian, journalist


The town voted one of the best places to live in the UK dates back to before the times of the Romans although the name was first recorded in the early 12th century. We walked to St Ann’s Hill where there is evidence of an Iron Age fort and pagan worship. (see also my blog on a date to Danebury Hillfort).

The hill, lying to the east of Midhurst’s market square, was once the sight of the festival of Beltane, an ancient fire festival celebrating the start of summer on May 1st. Bonfires were lit (usually on 30th April), and rituals followed. The Anglo-Saxons and the Celts believed fire to be purifying and healing. I particularly loved the story of the Beltane cakes. A large sweet offering to the spirits, it would be big enough to split into portions, with one containing a piece of charcoal. The unlucky recipient of this piece would be thrown in the fire, although usually rescued by friends. Villagers would dance around the fire and cattle would be herded through two bonfires to protect them from disease.

Anything to do with the time of the Anglo-Saxons, the Celts and the Norse is right up my street.

A Date out and About Near Home
Me at the ruins, St Ann’s Hill, Midhurst

Fast-forward a few centuries to Tudor times and to the Cowdray House Ruin. Originally called Coudreye, the Norman name for hazel woods, it was built in 1273 by Sir John Bohun as a fortified manor house. In Tudor times, Sir David Owen, uncle to Henry VIII, used the same footprint to build his celebrated Cowdray House. Both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were guests at the house. It was partially destroyed by fire in 1793 and now sits as a magnificent ruin overlooking the South Downs National Park. With another of my interests being Macbeth, (written in 1606 the year after the Gunpowder plot and probably because of it), I was intrigued to learn Guy Fawkes had been employed as a footman at Cowdray before his infamous attempt to blow up parliament.

In more recent times the house has hosted film crews intent on recreating period drama. Due out at the end of 2018 is Mary, Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan and featuring a scene using the Cowdray House ruins.
Unfortunately, it was closed but I did manage some photos. Still, it’s a good reason to go back.

A Date Out and About Near Home
The Cowdray Ruins

Rule 2: Read websites or books on local history so you know where to explore. Check opening times.

We finished the day with a delicious meal in the Spread-Eagle Hotel and we agreed to arrange to see Petworth, with yet another famous house, an artistic heritage and, as I would discover, a Macbeth connection.


Moral of the date: A national treasure may be close to home. Don’t miss out.

With many thanks to John and Carol who came with me on this date.

20/60 dates completed


Next: A date with Macbeth

Follow me to see what happened.


©spearean 2018 The Jasmin Vine




A Family Date with History

My mission: To go on 60 dates with friends & family to celebrate my 60th birthday

Various surveys over the last few years have shown family time spent together is as low as three hours over an entire weekend. Between work, household demands and creeping fatigue, families often turn to non-active togetherness such as watching TV or a cinema trip.

So figuring out how I could go on a date with my gadget-loving husband and video-game playing son, the number one criteria had to be a date outside the home. I wanted something active, educational and linked to British History.

I decided on a date to Danebury Hillfort, followed by a visit to the Iron Age Museum in Andover. To my surprise both places were free entry. So ignoring the moans and protests, dragging both away from their computers, I drove us to the site in Hampshire where the hill rises up above the surrounding chalklands.

Rule 1: Arrange a family date away from home

After parking the car, we climbed the path to the hillfort to find the grassy rampart, all that remains of the settlement from 550 BC. We walked the entire circle which once protected several hundred people from neighbouring invaders.

En route, I talked about hillforts and their significance to British History.

My son told us the early fortification was destroyed sometime before the invasion of Julius Caesar (55 BC). I looked at him suspiciously; was he gleaning knowledge from his phone? His indignant protest included visual proof of phone in pocket. He studied Danebury, he said, as part of his classics course at university.

A Family date with history
Danebury Hillfort, reconstruction drawing by Karen Guffogg

We stopped to imagine the timber faced ramparts, virtually impossible to attack, the wattle and daub huts where the iron-age people lived and traded. We wondered if animals would have been corralled outside the fort, unlike the sheep who wandered freely over the hill with us.

Rule 2: Gather some information about the place before you go

We left Danebury Hillfort and headed to the Iron-Age Museum in Andover, only a few miles away.

Once a Town House, the museum holds many of the items excavated from the hillfort. Entering the exhibition we were greeted by a Iron-Age warrior in full armour.

A family date with history
Iron-Age Warrior – takes you back in time

His shield made of wood, a helmet made of leather and a long spear with a nasty looking iron head. By his side, a sword made of iron. We discussed his battle worthiness, Jake having played many a videogame where battle armour makes a difference to the outcome.

Rule 3: Make sure the date relates to present day interests

The exhibition is set up to make visitors feel they are inside one of those wattle and daub huts, with a cooking pot on a fire in the centre of the room, where smoke could escape through a hole at the top.

We looked at the reconstructed oven and grain grinder. We read about how they made bread. The iron-agers also used grain to make porridge and beer. It’s fun to imagine they ate such things over two thousand years ago.

A family date with history
The Museum of the Iron-Age, Andover

We discovered the people of Danebury traded as far away as Italy, importing wine and figs in exchange for metals, hides and slaves.

As we left, I asked my two how they enjoyed Danebury and the Iron Age Museum.

Husband said it for us all.

“Hidden gems”.

Moral of the date: Family outings are fun

With many thanks to Brian and Jake for making such a special date with me.

Dates completed 7/60

*Picture of the aerial view of Danebury Hillfort courtesy of Hampshire County Council, Central Countryside Sites

*Picture of Danebury Interior courtesy of Historic England.

*Pictures from inside the Iron-Age Museum courtesy of Hampshire Cultural Trust.

Next – a Date with a religious site.

Follow me to find out what happened.