When travelling in the UK in 2011, one of my aims was to visit as many places associated with Jane Austen as I could. One of these places was The Vyne, now a National Trust property near Basingstoke and one of the finest and best-known Tudor mansions in England. The Vyne was one of many houses linked to the Austens in the area around Steventon and Chawton.
The owners that the Austens knew were, William Chute and his wife Elizabeth. Records show that William was a very cheerful, eccentric fellow with little conversation who cared only for his pack of 60 dogs, his horses and hunting 2 or 3 times a week. Does that remind you of anyone?
In 1792, Jane's brother, James Austen, became the Chute's rector at nearby Sherborne St. John, and it was then that the two families became acquainted. In my reading, I found that Jane took an immediate dislike to Elizabeth Chute on their first meeting at The Vyne. It was impossible to avoid her completely as they were often at social functions in the neighbourhood but she writes of using stratagems to spend as little time as possible with her, and she never visited The Vyne again.
When I visited there, my favourite room was the Orangerie due to its fascinating history. Throughout the year, even in the cold of winter, it was a place to grow orange trees, and every other kind of fruit tree they could, indoors in large pots. They also grew vegetables as well. This long downstairs room still had the shelves that would have been used for the plants, as well as the central heating pipes under the shelves, so it would have been the warmest room in the house. The beautiful Long Gallery, up above, would have been used as an exercise area by the ladies, but you can’t help feeling that maybe they spent time downstairs in the Orangerie’s warmth as well. Later when they gave up growing oranges and other plants, it was the children’s play area. In World War 2 the house was taken over to accommodate evacuated boys from the city and this former orangerie was used as a school to help the boys continue their education.
The gardens at The Vyne are also stunning and part of 1 120 acres that make up the estate. The grounds include a 600 year old oak tree which "according to family legend, William John Chute declined to sell it to a passing timber merchant who offered 100 guineas for the wood." I'm very glad he didn't!