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In Orwell's footsteps in Letchworth and Wallington

PUBLISHED: 11:09 07 September 2011 | UPDATED: 19:57 20 February 2013

George Orwell at a BBC mic, but no archive of any of his recordings survive

George Orwell at a BBC mic, but no archive of any of his recordings survive

As the inaugural Orwell Festival launches its diverse programme in September, Amanda Hodges retraces the productive period George Orwell spent in the Hertfordshire countryside


IN 1940, the year George Orwell left Wallington to join his wife in London, he wrote a piece reflecting on lifes greatest pleasures. Outside my work the thing I care most about is gardening. I like English cookery and beer, Indian tea, coal fires and comfortable chairs. I dislike big towns, motor cars, tinned food, central heating and modern furniture. Such relatively simple tastes probably reflect why his happy years ensconced in a tiny, old-fashioned Hertfordshire cottage suited his spartan nature so well.


It was spring 1936 and Orwell, not yet the famous writer of Animal Farm renown, had just returned from the northern trip which inspired The Road to Wigan Pier.


I am going to take a cottage near Baldockit is very cheap, only 7s 6d a week, he announced. Tired of London life and hankering for a country abode where he could live cheaply, have a garden and keep poultry, the prospect of a cottage, mooted by friends, seemed fortuitous and he impulsively rented it sight unseen.


Situated in Kits Lane in the village of Wallington surrounded by rolling hills, The Stores was an ancient, four-roomed building whose corrugated-iron roof offered noisy interruptions whenever it rained heavily. With a large, overgrown garden, the houses bucolic appeal clearly proved irresistible despite low ceilings unsuitable for a man well over 6ft tall.


There was also no electricity, no hot water and only an outside convenience, one whose temperamental nature had to be placated with specific toilet paper. Orwell planted fruit trees and a sixpenny Woolworths rose in the front garden which flourished today its the only survivor of his time at the house now rechristened Monks Fitchett.


Buses visited Baldock infrequently so the best form of transport was a bicycle. Jack Common, a local friend and cottage caretaker, remembered a visit Orwell made, seeking shop-keeping advice. There appeared a tall man on a tall bike. He could have walked at the worst gradient. Not he. This Don Quixote weaved and wandered, defeating windmills of gravity... It was odd, seeing him in country circumstances He was negotiating, he said, for a bit of rough land opposite his cottage; he could run hens there and sell eggs in his store.


This domestic idyll saw Orwell keeping not just chickens but goats too and Manor Farm which lay close by hosted a herd of pigs, the place inspiring 1945s Animal Farm. Orwell said the books origins came from spotting a boy whipping a carthorse. It struck me that if such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them and that men exploit animals in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat.


The Stores was formerly the villages only shop and Orwell hoped to revive trade. He cut squint holes into his study door ready to spot potential shop customers, opening afternoons only after a mornings dedicated writing. It was an enjoyable arrangement as Orwell acknowledged. In a grocers people come in to buy something, in a bookshop they come in to make a nuisance of themselves, words surely influenced by memories of Booklovers Corner, Hampstead, and pertinent even if most customers were simply children feverishly buying sweets.


Orwells hopes of creating a home in Wallington with girlfriend Eileen OShaughnessy soon materialised. Eileen, an aspiring psychologist, shared Orwells simple tastes although happily her arrival heralded improved home comforts. On 9 June 1936 Orwell was happily telling a friend, I am getting married this very morning in fact am writing with one eye on the clock and the other on the Prayer Book, a reference to his distrust of conventional pieties.


The couple walked along to St Marys where an athletic Orwell sprinted over the wall and carried his bride to the church door, his knowledge of wedding rituals slightly muddled.


After their reception in the nearby Plough the couple assumed a comfortable daily rhythm of writing, gardening and shop-keeping, Orwells quiet integrity liked by locals even if his political affiliations caused ambivalence.


By late December however news of the Spanish Civil War filtered through, piquing Orwells interest. Finishing The Road to Wigan Pier, the influential book examining iniquitous living conditions in the industrial north, he left for Spain, Eileen joining him before a snipers near-fatal wound forced Orwell home to Herts in July 1937.


He swiftly began Homage to Catalonia and the couple acquired a black poodle named Marx, resuming a country life interrupted only by the start of the Second World War. With Eileen leaving to undertake wartime work in the capital, Orwell would reluctantly relinquish the cottage as his main home in 1940 but retained the lease for a further seven years, snatching brief breaks there when time permitted.


Good prose is like a windowpane, Orwell once commented. Hertfordshire proved the place where his literary identity finally came into sharp focus and it seems entirely apt that Wallingtons neighbour, Letchworth Garden City (where Orwell attended annual political conferences), hosts the new festival honouring the life and work of a truly visionary writer.



Orwell Festival, September 9-18



Enjoy a full programme of events in Letchworth Garden City and nearby Wallington. We want to involve people of all ages and interests, says Festival committee chair, Richard Hallmark. Orwell had many passions outside literature and politics from country living and the natural world, to goat keeping, real ale, and seaside postcards all of which he wrote about. We want the Festival to reflect the full range of his interests.


For full details and tickets visit www.georgeorwellfestival.org or Letchworth Tourist Information Centre, 33-35 Station Road, Letchworth Garden City. 01462 487 868.




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