I first read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as a freshman in high school, and I was instantly hooked. Each of the characters leapt off the page: the playful and lively Elizabeth, the sweet and soft-spoken Jane, and the proud yet gentlemanly Mr. Darcy. My friends and I spent hours discussing our favorite characters and watching the entire miniseries starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.
So when the opportunity arose for me to visit Goodnestone Park—an estate once frequented by Austen herself—during a recent trip to England, I leapt at the chance. Built in 1704, the ivy-lined brick manor is situated on 150 rolling acres of woodland in the county of Kent. Following an extensive three-year renovation, the 12-bedroom estate is now available for rent for the very first time. The 1.5-hour train ride from London provides the first glimpses of the lush English countryside, which is so storybook-esque that guests may feel they have stepped into their own fairy tale. A winding road leads the way to a regal estate encircled by a stunning maze garden and a canopy of cedar and holm oak trees. Overlooking a pasture dotted with peacefully grazing cattle, the home is the quintessential country escape.
Jane Austen’s brother Edward and sister-in-law Elizabeth resided at the property for a period, so Jane visited frequently. “Jane Austen stayed here often in the early 19th century and started writing Pride and Prejudice after a visit here,” says Lord Julian FitzWalter, whose family has owned the estate for generations. Down-to-earth and jovial, FitzWalter now acts as the estate’s curator. “Austen is the most famous person who stayed at the property, but ironically at the time she wasn’t considered grand enough to stay in the main house. She stayed in the guesthouse next door.”
Goodnestone Park features 15 acres of whimsical woodland gardens, and walking across the property no doubt gave Austen plenty of literary inspiration. Grass-covered trails snake through rose gardens and fields of snowdrops, blue hydrangeas, and camellias. The recently reopened 18th-century Serpentine Walk—a narrow pathway weaving through the gnarled trees and verdant shrubbery—was one of Austen’s favorite haunts. Nearby, a picturesque reflection pool overlooks the village church. The centuries-old stone structure once housed a double wedding that served as the inspiration for the wedding between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, and Jane Bennet and Mr. Bingley, at the end of Pride and Prejudice.
Working in tandem with Lord FitzWalter, interior designers Marcus Crane and Francesca Rowan-Plowden created a homey yet refined design aesthetic. “A feeling of family warmth, tradition and subtle modern influences was our brief,” Crane says. “We stuck to English fabric and previous family influences on color. The kitchen is hand-built, not by a great kitchen designer but by local craftsmen, to give the feeling that the kitchen has evolved in the space rather than out of the pages of a bespoke-kitchen magazine.”
“The bedrooms reflect the interests of Julian and his brothers to again maintain a cozy family atmosphere,” Rowan-Plowden notes. For example, William’s room showcases blue-and-white Japanese pottery as an ode to his pottery career, while George’s room features a horticulture motif to celebrate his position as CEO of the National Gardens Scheme. “Family portraits have been cleaned and brought back into the house along with antiques and lovely old chairs, which again have been reupholstered with a modern twist on traditional fabrics,” Rowan-Plowden adds.
A pillared portico on the porch leads the way to a grand entrance hall lined with original painted panels and charming windows. Elegant hardwood floors run the gamut of the home, and all of the grand fireplaces are original to the property. The dining room is papered with hand-painted de Gournay wallpaper, and the kitchen and breakfast nook are separated by a dramatic glass-and-bronze screen. Rare editions of Jane Austen books are displayed in the library; guests can cozy up in lounge chairs and read to their hearts’ content. Rich, floor-length curtains add character to each room. (“I love puddles of curtains,” Rowan-Plowden says of the long drapes as she guides me through the house.) Listed as a Grade II* historical landmark, the home also contains a dramatic grand staircase that is original to the property. Capable of housing up to 24 guests, the manor is well suited for summer vacations and family get-togethers. A resident management team will make reservations, arrange local outings, and answer any questions guests may have. While there is no on-site chef, guests can have groceries delivered to their doorstep, pick fresh produce from the estate gardens, or hire chefs to cook Michelin-caliber meals. Pricing for the residence varies depending upon the number of guests.
Initially published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice continues to attract a cult-like following over two centuries later. Travelers who want to follow in the footsteps of the literary legend herself will surely be enchanted by a stay at Goodnestone Park. (goodnestone.com)