There was a time, when Sundays were special, that most English families owned only three books. The Bible was one, Pilgrim's Progress another, and the third was Paradise Lost. Its author was John Milton, a 17th century poet and politician, and "one of the preeminent writers in the English language". Paradise Lost is an epic tale in blank verse, more than ten thousand lines of the stuff, with leading roles for Satan, Adam and Eve and a cast of supporting angels. Impressively the author wrote none of it, every word was dictated, because Milton went blind fifteen years before Paradise Lost was published. And the twelve volumes were finished off in the only one of his homes that still stands, a rented cottage in the village of Chalfont St Giles, a few miles to the west of London.
John Milton didn't stay here long, just long enough to escape the Plague in the City, and for the Great Fire to wipe out his London property. But Milton's Cottage remains of national importance, and has been in the hands of a group of volunteers since 1887 when Queen Victoria was first to chip in with some money to save it. It is a gorgeously higgledy building, with irregular brick chimneys and gables askew, and is in fact three old cottages knocked together - John lived in the end one.
In the room where the great author would have sat and pondered, at a wooden desk in front of a roaring hearth, the museum has a unique collection of first editions. You can also sit down and read an illustrated version of his epic, should you have the time, and be wilfully impressed by Milton's command of English. He introduced hundreds of words to the language, far more than Shakespeare, including 'echoing', 'lovelorn', 'padlock', 'fragrance', 'terrific' and 'gloom'. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein kicks off with a direct quote from Paradise Lost, as is the title of Philip Pullman's trilogy 'His Dark Materials'.
Don't worry, the museum's not all books, there are for example portraits and busts and pottery sculptures, plus a lock of hair from a disinterred corpse that might or might not be John's. None of the furniture from the rented home survives, obviously, but the floorboards are "as trodden", and a high-backed chair in the adjacent room is thought to be an original from a home elsewhere. It's also illuminating to read about Milton's separate life as a politician, rising swiftly to Cromwell's favour in the month after Charles I was executed and becoming the Commonwealth's equivalent of Foreign Secretary. He spoke more than ten languages and was well travelled in Europe, even meeting up with Galileo on his travels for a chat. But the mid 17th century was a turbulent time, so Milton's beliefs fell in and out of favour, resulting in a prison sentence at the Restoration, then huge public acclaim when Paradise Lost went viral.
Having toured the ground floor there's then the garden to explore, which is larger than it first appears, well-tended and informally laid out. Every plant is labelled on a laminated map, if that's your thing, or you can simply wander up and back and round. A nice touch is the miniature Milton's Cottage in a rear flowerbed, like an escapee from a model village, and another is the selection of nature-focused quotations from Paradise Lost scrawled on mirrored tiles and scattered appropriately. The wishing well beside the front lawn is original, and the magnolia nearby was planted by the Queen Mother when she visited in 1977. Indeed she's been, the Queen's been, the next King's been, this is very much a favoured royal dropping-in point.
On previous visits to Chalfont St Giles I'd always found Milton's Cottage closed, because it was only open on Tuesdays. Now Tuesday is the only day it never opens, but make sure you turn up between Easter and the end of October, and not before 2pm, and not on a Sunday or a Monday unless it's a bank holiday weekend. This Saturday would be fine. Bring £7 in cash (not plastic), a price you might think a bit steep for three rooms and a garden, but the volunteers receive no additional funding so deserve all they get, plus they'd be delighted if you bought a souvenir or two. I must praise the two ladies who showed me round, who were excellently informed and brought the place to life, as well as knowing when to step back and leave me to it.
Oh, and Chalfont St Giles is lovely too. It has the kind of ye olde village green and independent cottagey shopping parade most estate agents would kill for, and it's Buckinghamshire's Best Kept Village again this year, the lucky residents.
How to get to Chalfont St Giles
» Drive (satnav HP8 4JH) and use the free car park alongside
» Get the 730 bus from Beaconsfield, Gerrards Cross or Uxbridge (hourly)
» Get the 353 bus from Amersham, Gerrards Cross or Slough (two-hourly)
» Walk from the train: Seer Green & Jordans (2 miles) or Gerrards Cross (3 miles)
» Walk cross-country from the tube: Amersham (4 miles), Chalfont & Latimer (3 miles) or Chorleywood (3 miles)