IIt is a testament to the influence John Keats has on the English imagination that, although he died in 1821 at the age of 25, leaving only two volumes of his poetry in print, 10 or 12 plaques or stones detailing the geography of his short Life from birth commemorates Moorgate, London, to death next to the Spanish Steps in Rome. Taken together, they form the basis of a pilgrimage that has always been rewarding for me, and one that keeps drawing me to Keats House off Hampstead Heath in London.
My grandparents – my father’s mothers and fathers – were both dedicated pilgrims and I have so many memories of getting carried away and never really understanding what the point was as they explored the holy sites of Gujarat and Rajasthan. However, in my twenties, following in Keat’s footsteps, I felt something akin to what they must have felt at this clash of Jain iconography and encounter with place. The cinematic quality of Keats’ writing puts us right next to him in the landscape, and bit by bit the landscape is transformed by his vision.
For example, there is a two-mile walk in Winchester where you can retrace the steps of a daily route he made in September 1819, a crucible of inspiration that would find expression in his Ode To Autumn. On the right day, “the stubble plains of rosy tint,” the “lamentation chorus [as] little gnats mourn / among the river yellows”, the heavenly omen of the “gathering of swallows”. [that] twitter in the sky are sensations we see, hear and breathe with Keats in moments that carry a connection across the landscape and through time.
Margate, Teignmouth, Bognor Regis. For Keats, the cold waters of the southern English coast were a place of exhilaration that stimulated the imagination. He once compared the process of creating his early long poem with bluebell, precisely that of cold-water swimming, and wrote that he “jumped headfirst into the sea” with it. I think that phrase almost every time I’m reluctantly dragged into the deep end by my four and six year old daughters (who are more fearless than I am) at Start Point or Mothercombe in South Devon. Once inside, I feel my imagination reaching out with Keats for “the soundings, the quicksand and the rocks.” Everyday landscapes in his company are electric.
There is no scene which more vividly evokes this sense of connection and the young man’s inner drama than the place he lived from December 1818, after the death of his younger brother Tom (of tuberculosis), to August 1820, when he lived until then , calling his home himself ill with tuberculosis, he traveled to Rome to avoid another English winter.
Wentworth Place in Hampstead – now Keats House at 10 Keats Grove – was then a new semi-detached house with a garden – an expression of the early suburbanisation of north London. It was probably here, behind the gate, that he saw the girl next door, Fanny Brawne, for the first time.
The weeks following Keats’ return in August 1818 from a long trek in the Scottish Highlands had been hard, when he returned home after 1 Well Walk, just up the road, to find his brother’s condition much better in his absence had deteriorated. Tom was buried in December. Now grieving and alone, Keats moved in with his friend Charles Brown in Wentworth Place and fell in love with Fanny Brawne. (Their romance is the subject of Jane Campion’s 2009 feature film, Bright Star.) Under a plum tree in the garden he wrote what is perhaps his most famous poem, Ode to a Nightingale. Here, after a night drive through the city in the pouring rain, he coughed up blood into a handkerchief for the first time and divined his own fate.
A stone’s throw from the moors, the area has grown into one of London’s most affluent, but Keats House is a sanctuary and a shrine that can transport you back in time, to the months of Keats’ greatest poetic achievement. The garden is freely accessible. The experience of sitting under the plum tree costs nothing, one has been growing at this spot for 200 years since Keats invited us with him and the birdsong to ‘fade into the dark forest’. The house is also free for under 18s, so kids can roam freely inside and outside, making it a great place to spend time with family. The volunteers are very welcome.
The place has been put together with such elegant simplicity that while so many historic homes or heritage sites become almost a parody of themselves, this one always evokes for me a sense of presence with the beating pulse of Keats’ poetry.
Other houses of interest
Shandy Hall, Yorkshire
JB Priestley called Tristram Shandy the home of the author Laurence Sterne “the medieval house where the modern novel was born”. The hall is still occupied, a rotating homage to the writer and his work.
Back to Back, Birmingham
Court 15 pays homage to a way of life rather than an individual. It is the only surviving terraced courtyard in Birmingham, a style of living that was once ubiquitous here. Court 15 preserves the life and work of families in this working-class area, including the only UK archive of the work of a Caribbean tailor – George Saunders, who had a shop here from 1974 to 2001.
Freud Museum, London
Sigmund and Anna’s last home was opened to the public in 1982 after their death. Much of the house survives as a family home, including Sigmund’s study with its famous couch and collections.
Mr Straw’s house, Nottinghamshire
A house that fascinates not for what has been done there, but for what has not been done. The Straws bought this semi-detached house in 1923 and virtually no modernization has taken place since then. A fascinating time capsule and glimpse into a family that denied all comforts.