Literary Haunts

21st July 1995 at 01:00
In some writers' houses it's their personal possessions that provide the main attraction. In others, such as John Milton's cottage at Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire, it's undoubtedly the atmosphere.

This exquisite late 16th-century building, with its weathered orange brick, low ceilings and enormously wide fireplaces, remains almost exactly as it was when Milton came in 1665 to what was then merely a hamlet with his third wife and his daughter, to escape the plague then raging in London. Although Milton stayed here for less than two years, the tranquillity of the place enabled him to complete Paradise Lost and to begin to plan Paradise Regained.

Already blind, he spent most of his time in his small ground-floor study bedroom. Rising at 4.00am, he would commit his thoughts to his near- photographic memory, and a few hours later dictate them to one of his secretaries.

Today the room is hung with portraits of the poet, and contains a small library. The only personal item is a touching one: a wisp of his white hair, from his tomb in Cripplegate in London. As for his work, there's a facsimile of an early draft of Paradise Lost, in which he sketches out the structure and main characters for his epic poem.

To visit the cottage (the only one of his residences now re-maining) is to be reminded that Milton was not merely a celebrated poet, but a pamphleteer and political figure of the first rank, and a vigorous defender of liberty he was even made an honorary founding father of the United States.

After the English Civil War he was appointed "Secretary of State for Foreign Tongues". One print in his study shows a somewhat cherubic Milton taking dictation from Cromwell on a matter concerning the Piedmontese: fluent in six languages, Milton was apparently able to translate Cromwell's words directly into Italian as he spoke.The other accessible room (a third, the parlour, is to be opened up soon) is the kitchen, where Milton ate with his family. Here the trust that manages the cottage has created a small museum of domestic artefacts of the Civil War period, including a bobbin winder, a pair of bellows, and a flitch of venison hook. Here also are some cannon balls, once fired at the local church by Cromwell's troops.

Milton had a particular love for mulberry trees, and liked to write beneath them. In the cottage garden, which is faithfully and attractively maintained, stands one such tree, originally a cutting from the mulberry at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he was a precocious student.

The curator, Edward Mason, is an excellent source of information, be it gossip or the intricacies of scholarly debate. A Milton enthusiast, he suggests the poet anticipated the national curriculum in his 1644 pamphlet "Of Education" (included in the excellent and comprehensive Portable Milton).

He is happy to talk to small groups of GCSE and A level students, and to researchers by appointment. An innovation this year is a linked educational programme with the nearby Chiltern Open Air Museum, which includes buildings from Milton's time.

The Curator, John Milton's Cottage, Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire HP8 4JH. Tel: O1494 872313. The Portable Milton, edited by Douglas Bush, Penguin, Pounds 8.99

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