Wallington: the Hertfordshire village that George Orwell called home
PUBLISHED: 10:34 18 March 2019
Seventy years on from the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Liz Hamilton walks in George Orwell's footsteps in the village that played a pivotal role in his life and works
In the small Hertfordshire village of Wallington, three miles east of Baldock, a plaque records that author George Orwell lived here between 1936 and 1940. Since I first walked past his cottage in Kit’s Lane I have wondered what brought him here: I had imagined the Eton-educated writer living a city life in the midst of literary and political circles.
Orwell was born Eric Blair in India in 1903, where his father earned a modest living in the government’s Opium Department. Scholarships took the young Eric to prep school and Eton, then he returned to Asia where he spent five years in the Burma Police. But as biographer Bernard Crick notes in George Orwell: A Life, a childhood friend remembered that Eric always wanted to be a famous author. From 1927 he set out to achieve this, living cheaply and sometimes with the impoverished and as a tramp. Down and Out in Paris and London, his first published book, appeared in 1933; for it he first adopted his pen name. This and several subsequent books didn’t sell well, but he began to be noticed as a writer.
A £500 publisher’s advance sent him to northern England early in 1936 to report on the impact of the depression there. It also brought him to Wallington, where a cottage was available to rent cheaply – the money meant he could at last become a full-time writer, escape the noise and poor air of London and get married. By today’s standards the cottage was primitive, although typical of much rural housing at that time. Soon after arriving he married his fiancée Eileen in Wallington church. A friend later remarked that the first few months of his married life were probably Orwell’s happiest. He loved walking, the countryside and animals. The couple kept hens and goats, grew fruit and vegetables and reopened the village shop in the cottage, then known as ‘The Stores’.
When I revisited Wallington earlier this year I walked some of the paths Orwell surely followed. In Clothall, two miles away, Orwell might have seen the 14th and 15th century glass in the east window of the parish church depicting birds of the local fields. Perhaps he also wondered how the 12th century font in Purbeck marble from Dorset came to be in this little medieval church. As I returned to Wallington along the Icknield Way trail the sky darkened and obscured the view. I’m sure Orwell walked this high chalk ridge in better weather, with skylarks overhead and the view stretching for miles to the north.
Orwell’s rural idyll was short-lived. He finished his account of his northern trip, published as The Road to Wigan Pier, and in December 1936 went to fight in the Spanish civil war, an account of which he gave in Homage to Catalonia. Shot in the throat during the conflict, he recovered and returned to Wallington to resume rural life, but only briefly. He had suffered from chest complaints all his life and incipient TB meant a long hospital stay followed by a winter abroad. There was a further brief stay at Wallington, until the Second World War broke out and first Eileen and then Orwell went back to London to work. The cottage was sublet and they returned only occasionally.
After a spell at the BBC, Orwell became literary editor of Tribune magazine, a publication which mirrored Orwell’s philosophy of democratic socialism, adopted on his return from Spain. He loved this job, which left him time to write, and he especially relished his As I Please column in which he often wrote about his beloved countryside and its wildlife. He left the job in 1945 to become a correspondent for The Observer, travelling into Europe just as the war was ending. Tragically Eileen died two weeks after he left, during an operation.
From 1933 to 1939 Orwell published seven books. The next, Animal Farm, appeared in 1945. Orwell struggled to find a publisher for this exposure ‘of the Soviet myth’. Paper shortages further delayed printing. He said the theme of the novel came to him in Wallington, when he saw a carthorse being controlled by a small boy. He realised that men exploit animals ‘in much the same way as the rich exploit the proletariat’, and wondered what might happen if animals became aware of their strength.
Soon after Animal Farm appeared Orwell moved to the remote Scottish island of Jura with Richard, the son he and Eileen adopted in 1944. Here he worked on what was to be his final novel – Nineteen Eighty-Four – his warning that a totalitarian state could take hold, even in Britain, was in part inspired by an event in Wallington. The police called on him in the village to warn him about importing banned books. He realised then that he had been under Special Branch surveillance and his post was being opened.
Orwell’s TB took hold as he struggled to finish his last book. It was published in 1949 seven months before he died aged just 46 in January 1950. As I left Wallington I pondered how quite random events in this small place had influenced the most successful of Orwell’s books. How sad that he did not live to enjoy his own fame, or to write the further books he was planning.