I was terrified, certain of my imminent and undignified demise – death by stampeding cows – which got me thinking about how I came to be standing atop the scenic, grassy slope that was once the site of Jane Austen’s childhood home and would now play host my unfortunate end. I had come to England to do research for my thesis, a narrative of my travels to places in which Austen had lived, visited and written about in her novels.
So there I was, on an epic Austen pilgrimage with my travel companion Colin, having already hopped the fence surrounding the site, and encountered a generous helping of cow pies. These deposits, we naively thought, were the worst things we could face in the English countryside.
We strode up the terraced hill and stopped, where the house in which Jane Austen had been born used to stand. Colin threw up his arms and let out a sort of bellow. I’m not sure why, but it seemed appropriate.
Austen’s home village of Steventon is scarcely less isolated now than it was when she was living. It’s several miles off the nearest decently-sized road and we took a couple wrong turns – including one through Hampshire’s version of Arcadia – before we finally found our way to the village. Or, more precisely, before we found our way the middle of nowhere. One of the delightful aspects of the English countryside is how easily it allows one to imagine that, apart from the covering of dusty country roads with asphalt, little has changed in the past several hundred years.
The only reminder of the house’s presence – excepting the gently terraced ground on which it once stood – is the pump to the family’s well, which has acquired a relic-like status. The original pump was removed during World War I to be melted down for munitions. The replacement was stolen, as was its replacement. The locals usually blame this on Americans.
Colin and I entertained no thoughts of petty theft and instead focused on the situation at hand. There we were, two American tourists, sharing the site of the home where Austen spent over half her life with only a pack of strangely aggressive cows, who had trotted at a disturbingly rapid pace from some distant grazing spot to face us in attack formation. Colin and I froze. They advanced.
“Should we run?” Colin asked.
“No! Then they’ll run after us!” I squealed.
I’m not sure whether my fear of a chase was based on logic or some dim recollection of advice for dealing with an angry bear. But I was too busy to think on it, as I was already envisioning the newspaper blurb about two Princeton students found trampled to death after trespassing on the site of Jane Austen’s childhood home. Writers were supposed to get killed only when they were embedded in Iraq or reporting on warring tribes in Central Africa. Not when they were in England, researching Jane Austen and her “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which” she worked “with so fine a brush.”
A car stopped outside the gate and a middle-aged couple got out. I felt a sense of relief – perhaps they could distract the cows. They took in our predicament, turned around and left. While Austen may indeed bring people together – mostly people costumed in empire-waisted dresses, fumbling through country dances – she did not bring us together with anyone who was willing to help.
We walked cautiously away from the cows. They followed. Colin attempted an escape through a gap in the barbed wire. He cut himself, got stung by nettles and then returned, defeated, to face the cows with me.
Eventually the cows lost interest and went to graze – directly by our only nettle-and-barbed-wire-free escape – leaving us to our own devices, consisting chiefly of trying to tempt them with fistfuls of grass. When that failed, we set out to search for an alternative route, which involved jumping over a fence and scampering down a steep incline into the small country road that leads up to Steventon Church, where Austen’s father was once rector.
Laughing at the cows from the other side of the fence, Colin claimed that he had never believed us in danger. I practiced some deep, nicotine-assisted breathing and looked warily at the cows, not exactly sharing in his confidence. One of the cows attempted to hump another. An old lady carrying a Tesco’s bag walked by. She paused, clearly used to seeing people clustered by the empty field and started pointing out the terracing and pump. Colin inquired about our bovine friends.
“Oh, they’re just young!” she laughed.
“I knew it!” he exclaimed, as if that solved everything.
As the lady walked on, the unhelpful couple reappeared and looked guiltily pleased that we were alive.
“We were going to come in but then we saw those cows,” the woman explained in what sounded like some sort of Soviet accent. I nodded, smiled, and swatted at the flies that had decided my head was more pleasing than the cows’ eyes and mouths. The uncharitable foreigners drove on and Colin returned to taunt the cows one last time before we drove off in search of our much-needed cocktail.