‘The beating pulse of poetry’: why you should visit Keats House

The Romantic poet’s home in London was a haven where he wrote some of his most famous works. Today, two centuries after his death, it still evokes Keats’ spirit

It’s testament to the hold that John Keats has on the English imagination that though he died, in 1821, aged 25 and leaving only two volumes of his poetry in print, 10 or 12 plaques or stones commemorate the geography of his short life from birth in Moorgate, London, to death beside the Spanish steps in Rome. Taken together, they form the basis of a route of pilgrimage I’ve always found worth the while and that draws me back, time and again, to Keats House, just off Hampstead Heath in London.

My grandparents – my dad’s mum and dad – were both committed pilgrims and I have so many memories, while they quested over the sacred sites of Gujarat and Rajasthan, of being pulled along and never really understanding what the point of it was. In my 20s, though, on Keats’s trail, I came to feel something like what they must have felt in that coming together of Jain iconography and encounter with place. The cinematic quality of Keats’s writing puts us right there in the landscape beside him and, piece by piece, the landscape is transfigured by his vision.

Joseph Severn’s portrait of Keats
Joseph Severn’s portrait of Keats on the day he wrote Ode to a Nightingale in Hampstead. Photograph: Alamy

There’s a two-mile walk in Winchester, for example, where you can retrace the steps of a daily route he took in September 1819, a crucible of inspiration that would find expression in his ode To Autumn. On the right day, “the stubble-plains with rosy hue”, the “wailful choir [as] small gnats mourn/ among the river sallows”, the heavenly portent of “gathering swallows [that] twitter in the skies” are sensations that we can see, hear, inhale with Keats in moments that carry connection through the landscape and through time.

Margate, Teignmouth, Bognor Regis. For Keats, the cold waters of the southern English coast were a space of exhilaration that nurtured the imagination. He once likened the process of creating his early long poem, Endymion, to exactly that of cold-water swimming, writing that with it he had “leaped headlong into the sea”. I think of that phrase almost every time I’m reluctantly dragged by my four- and six-year-old daughters (more fearless than me) into cold water at Start Point or Mothercombe in south Devon. Once in, I feel my imagination reaching out, with Keats, towards “the soundings, the quicksands, and the rocks”. Everyday landscapes, in his company, are electrified.

There’s no scene that evokes this sense of connection, and the young man’s inner drama, more vividly than the place he called home from December 1818, after the death of his younger brother Tom (from tuberculosis), until August 1820 when, by then living with tuberculosis himself, he left for Rome to avoid another English winter.

Wentworth Place in Hampstead – now Keats House at 10 Keats Grove – was then a semi-detached new build with a garden – a manifestation of the early suburbanisation of north London. It was probably here, over the gate, that he first set eyes on the girl next door, Fanny Brawne.

The weeks that followed Keats’s August 1818 return from a long walking trip in the Scottish Highlands had been rough, as he had come home to 1 Well Walk, just up the road, to discover that in his absence his brother’s condition had deteriorated. By December, Tom was buried. Now grieving and alone, Keats moved in with his friend Charles Brown in Wentworth Place and fell in love with Fanny Brawne. (Their romance is the subject of Jane Campion’s 2009 feature film, Bright Star.) Beneath a plum tree that stands in the garden, he wrote perhaps his most celebrated poem, Ode to a Nightingale. It was here, after a night-time journey through the city in torrential rain, that he first coughed up blood into a handkerchief and glimpsed his own fate.

The commemorative plaque at Keats House in Hampstead, north London
The commemorative plaque at Keats House in Hampstead, north London. Photograph: Jeremy Hoare/Alamy

A stone’s throw from the heath, the neighbourhood has evolved into one of London’s most affluent, but Keats House is a sanctuary and a shrine that can carry you back to another time, the months of Keats’s highest poetic achievement. The garden is free to enter. There is no cost to the experience of sitting beneath the plum tree, one has grown on this spot for 200 years since Keats invited us, with him and with the birdsong, to “fade away into the forest dim”. The house is also free to under-18s, leaving children free to roam inside and out, and making this a great place to spend time with the family. The volunteers are welcoming.

The place has been put together with such elegant simplicity that, while so many historic homes or heritage sites become almost parody of themselves, for me this one never fails to evoke a sense of presence with the beating pulse of Keats’s poetry.

Other homes of interest

Shandy Hall, Yorkshire
JB Priestley called Tristram Shandy author Laurence Sterne’s residence “the medieval house where the modern novel was born”. The hall is still lived in, a changing tribute to the writer and his work.

Back to Backs, Birmingham
Court 15 is a tribute to a way of life, rather than an individual. It’s the only surviving court of back-to-back houses in Birmingham, a housing style once ubiquitous here. Court 15 preserves the lives and work of families in this working-class area, including the only UK archive of work by a Caribbean tailor – George Saunders, who had a shop here from 1974 to 2001.

Freud Museum, London
Sigmund and Anna’s final home opened to the public in 1982 after her death. Much of the house is preserved as a family home, including Sigmund’s study with his famous couch and collections.

Mr Straw’s House, Nottinghamshire
A house fascinating not for what has been done there but for what hasn’t. The Straws bought this semi-detached in 1923 and virtually no modernisation has been done since. A fascinating time capsule and insight into a family who refused mod-cons.


Ashish Ghadiali

The GuardianTramp

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