What do playwright William Shakespeare, novelists Charles Dickens and George Eliot, and poet William Cowper have in common?
Apart from providing the world with much-loved literary classics, each is linked to the Milton Keynes area, and in particula to the towns of Stony Stratford and Olney.
Stony Stratford had a long history as a coaching town before it was incorporated into the new town of Milton Keynes in the late 1960s. It is name-checked in Shakespeare’s Richard III – the Archbishop of York character says: “Last night, I hear, they lay at Stony Stratford. And at Northampton they do rest tonight.”
It is believed that the uncrowned Edward V was taken prisoner by his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester – the man who eventually became Richard III – at 26-28 High Street, formerly the Rose and Crown, in 1483.
From there, young Edward was said to have been taken to the Tower of London on the pretext of being crowned. Allegedly, he died there along with his brother.
Did Shakespeare ever visit the town himself? There are no records to prove this, but he would have had to pass through Buckinghamshire when travelling between London and his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, and so it is not too far-fetched to think he may have been to Stony Stratford.
The red-painted building at 26-28 High Street still stands and bears a plaque to commemorate the events which took place there.
Charles Dickens is known to have stayed in Stony Stratford, and it is said that the eccentric character of Mr Turveydrop in Bleak House was based on a local dance teacher called Joseph Hambling, who had a dance academy in Church Street.
Could Esther’s first impression of Mr Turveydrop in Bleak House be a description of Hambling? “He had everything but any touch of nature; he was not like youth, he was not like age, he was like nothing in the world but a model of deportment.”
Hambling, originally from London, was a professor of dancing. His school was open in the town from 1840 to 1870. The original building was demolished in the late 1890s. He also held dance classes in The Cock Hotel in the High Street.
In the 19th century, Mary Ann Evans, who wrote as George Eliot, visited relatives in Stony Stratford regularly.
Her relatives were said to be the local solicitors, the Parrotts of Tower House in the High Street. Eliot’s first full-length novel, Adam Bede, was published in 1859. In it, the tragic character Hetty Sorrel travels to Windsor, stopping at Stony Stratford by mistake, while searching for her old love Captain Arthur Donnithorne: “It was not till the fifth day that she got to Stony Stratford. When at last she reached Stony Stratford, her impatience and weariness had become too strong for her economical caution.”
Stony Stratford sits on Watling Street, the old Roman road. Watling Street which used to be the main road to and from London, so many famous people passed through over the centuries.
The origins of the term ‘a cock and bull story’ can be found in the town. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, people travelling by coach would stop at one of the town’s two main inns, either The Cock or The Bull. The travellers brought news from other parts of the country, and vied with each other as to who could tell the best tale.
For the last ten years, Stony Stratford has annually hosted a Literature Festival called Stony Words, attracting authors such as crime writer Ruth Downie and romantic novelist Carole Matthews, who both live in Milton Keynes.
Between 1767 and 1786, the poet William Cowper lived in Olney’s Market Square in a building which is now a museum dedicated both to him and to the preacher, John Newton. Between them, Cowper and Newton wrote the Olney Hymns, first published in 1779, which included the famous Amazing Grace.
From 1786 to 1795, Cowper lived in Weston Lodge – since renamed Cowper’s Lodge – in nearby Weston Underwood. He enjoyed going for walks in the area and a pub in the village has been named Cowper’s Oak after an old oak tree in Yardley Chase, which the poet liked liked to visit.