Update on the Library Passage in Worthing

From Chris Sandrawich, Membership Secretary Jane Austen Society Midlands

If you have received this e-mail it means that I have written to you on this subject before.

I bring good news and ‘not so good news’: the Library Passage is to be closed but Jane Austen lovers will be allowed access to it, on terms controlled by the bus company Stagecoach, who own the site. I am also not sure how much I should say and what right I have to withhold information. So, I will tell you what I do know and also what I fear may be the outcome.

This further news is now emerging following the Secretary of State’s recent decision to allow Stagecoach, the bus company, to close off the Library Passage (which is a “twitten” – an ancient right-of-way) to pedestrians on safety grounds. This news is of interest to Jane Austen fans and societies everywhere because Jane Austen and her family will have used this Library Passage many times to gain access from where they were staying in the Autumn of 1805, Stanford’s Cottage (now a Pizza Restaurant bearing a blue plaque confirming Jane Austen’s stay there) Worthing, to both the Library and to the sea shore. The fact of the Austen family stay in Worthing is only recently coming to light through Jane Austen’s niece’s, Fanny, diaries being looked at more closely. There is no correspondence (letters) about their stay as all the usual correspondents were together.

An example of how well hidden “under the radar” this information is can be gained from looking at any current Chronology of Jane Austen’s life, taking say the one shown in an Oxford World’s Classics edition of any of Jane’s books and see that it moves from the Death of George Austen (Jane’s Father) in January 1805 to the family leaving Bath in 1806 without any mention of a long holiday stay in Worthing in the autumn of 1805.

What makes the Austen family’s stay in Worthing most interesting is that beyond doubt Jane Austen’s last fragment of a novel, Sanditon, is based upon the developing Worthing and Mr Parker upon a business man and entrepreneur, Mr Ogle, and the Great Terrace in Worthing is a close fit for the ‘Short Terrace’ in Sanditon and anyone looking at the Great Terrace and its corner house can easily imagine Miss Diana Parker settling her new friends, the Miss Beauforts, into it even to the rearrangement of blinds and flowerpots on the upstairs balcony.

As mentioned above and as a concession the owners, Stagecoach, are willing to allow by prior arrangement visits to the site. They would have an official open the locked gates and conduct a small party along the passage.

There is of course a problem, with this “Typical British Compromise” which is a way of saying neither side will be satisfied.

Stagecoach, are saying that they are, “only able to accommodate occasional group visits by prior arrangement and nothing on a regular basis”. At the moment interest in Jane Austen is high and numbers of visitors to UK sites of interest are rising, not falling. Some 60,000 pa to Bath, 30,000 pa to Chawton and 20,000 pa to Winchester Cathedral; and these last two sites are 50 – 60 miles and one hour’s drive from Worthing. So the mention of even a small percentage of these visitors descending upon a working bus station would possibly lead to an adverse reaction from Stagecoach. I know who and where the contact point is inside Stagecoach for any group planning a visit but I would prefer not to publish this information at this time as we need as a group of interested Janeites to somehow manage this situation so that the owners, Stagecoach do not abruptly withdraw this concession, as I imagine they are not compelled, by the Secretary of State’s decision, to allow access.

The local Member of Parliament for Worthing is aware of some of what is going on but possibly does not know of this potential issue where possible demand for access could quickly exceed the bus company’s tolerance levels. I propose to write to him and ask him to broker a deal (or find someone agreeable to all sides who can) with the bus company and business interests (as yet unknown) who will see the potential flood of visitors not as a problem and distraction from transport issues but as an opportunity to provide a service at a profit. All Stagecoach then need be satisfied with is that the other party manages this situation so that visits are not unsafe and are not a distraction to the smooth running of their buses to schedule and timetable.

If you have any comments or advice to offer then please let me know.

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