Pilgrimage to Orwell
Friday, August 13, 2004
5. VISITING ORWELL'S WALLINGTON HOUSE
It was with excited anticipation that we drove out the long driveway of my "Ancestral Bookend" in Bedfordshire toward our next destination on the Pilgrimage to Orwell.
Ever since reading the first biography about Orwell I had formed a mental picture of his little house in Wallington and deep down it had been the place that I had MOST wanted to see. However, in my previous trip to England in the summer of 2003 - during which time I went on a Homage to Orwell - I had not been in this neck of the woods. But now this year, as an added bonus to the already incredible experience of having visited Orwell's house on Jura, we had the time and flexibility to travel to Hertfordshire wherein the village of Wallington is located.
A few miles down the main highway we got off at a roadside travel center and after a quick bite to eat drove the rest of the way on a country road. Before long we saw signs announcing "Baldock" which is the closest big town to Wallington. As we approached the centre of town we saw a turn-off to the city of "Letchworth" which is where Orwell used to attend seminars of the Independent Labour Party summer school which, as he wrote in Road To Wigan Pier, attracted "sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers like bluebottles to a dead cat".
A mile or so out of Baldock we came to a sign pointing to Wallington and then a couple of miles after that to Wallington itself:
We proceeded slowly down the road until there, straight ahead of us on the left, I caught my first glimpse of Orwell's house, "The Stores" which I recognized from photos a reader had sent of his visit there* a few years previously.
The addition you see on the back of the house is new, as is the thatched roof. When Orwell lived there the roof was corrugated iron and made an incredible noise when it rained (and it leaked too). Beyond the house in the far right of the center picture can be seen the Village Hall where we parked the car so we could walk around the village. The hands on the clock said it was ten-to-five when we arrived. From the Village Hall we walked the very short distance back to the main road and toward Orwell's house.
Along the way we stopped to take a photo of me standing in front of what used to be a pub named "The Plough" but which is now a private home. That's the kitchen chimney of Orwell's house that you see in the far left side of the pub photo. Two months after moving to Wallington Orwell married Eileen O'Shaughnessy and they held their wedding reception in "The Plough".
Finally the long-anticipated moment arrived and we were standing in front of Orwell's house:
While we were taking the photo above (from the field across the road where Orwell used to graze his goats) a miraculous thing happened. A car came down the road and turned into Orwell's driveway! I hurried over to the lady who got out of the car and introduced myself as an Orwell researcher, giving her my card, and telling her how thrilled I was to be here. Extending hospitality beyond our wildest imaginings she invited us to come inside and take a look. First, for posterity, I went to the front of the house and pretended to be knock-knock-knocking on Orwell's door.
You can see how tiny it is compared to my 5'10" height. Imagine how Orwell must have stooped with his 6'3" frame every time he went in and out that door.
Before entering the house from the addition at the back we admired the beautiful yard and discussed whether anything Orwell had planted was still there. When he'd first arrived in April 1936 (just after his trip up north to Wigan) the property was in abandoned and neglected state. Orwell had spent months digging a vegetable garden and in the process he'd unearthed twelve boots.
In a sentimental essay written seven years after leaving Wallington, Orwell described returning there for the first time since the death of his wife and being thrilled to see that the things he'd planted were still alive, except for one fruit tree and a rose bush. He'd planted "two rambling roses and three polyantha roses from Woolworth's; two bush roses from a nursery garden; and six fruit trees, three rose bushes and two gooseberry bushes from a job lot." Now, 68 years later, I asked the owner if there was still anything left from Orwell's day. She said that some of the roses in the front yard MIGHT be part of what Orwell planted, but that was all.
Inside the house everything has been beautifully modernized and updated but otherwise structurally the same. The kitchen is bigger because of the addition and the stairs have been moved from the center of the house to the back, but the original rooms are still here. We walked through the narrow kitchen to the front of the house and looked out the window (obscured by the tree in the above photo). Then we entered the little sitting room where Orwell used to write (that's its window in the middle). The original door with vertical slits that Orwell used to peek through when customers came into the store is still there and I peeked through it before going into what is now a sumptuous living room. Looking at the fireplace I recalled the story I'd read in a biography about friends visiting Orwell and being smoked out because the chimney was missing a brick and Orwell hadn't gotten around to plugging it. A friend found a piece of granite in the churchyard that was a perfect fit but Orwell wouldn't use it because it was probably a broken headstone and he felt it would be sacrilegious. The owner told us the fireplace doesn't smoke anymore and keeps the house cozy and warm. I told her it's a perfect room for curling up on the couch and reading The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, the two books Orwell wrote under this very roof, along with many essays. She said she looked forward to doing that, having not yet read all of Orwell's writings.
We went back through the little sitting room and kitchen and then upstairs to the top floor where the addition has created a big, luxurious bathroom which no doubt Orwell and Eileen would have loved. In their day there was a major problem with the plumbing and the pipes used to freeze and the septic field overflow unless a certain type of toilet paper was used. The landing at the top of where the stairs used to be is large enough now to be a little room of its own between the two original bedrooms, the master above the living room and the spare above the kitchen. It was a moving experience to see the room where Orwell used to lay his weary head.
Back downstairs we had "a nice cup of tea" in the very kitchen where Orwell himself would have made endless cups. To me it felt as though he was with us in spirit enjoying the comradery.
Back outside the owner pointed the way to the church up the road where Orwell had been married and we happily set off in that direction after expressing our profound thanks for the generosity of spirit she had shown to us.
Upon returning to Orwell's street an hour or so later - after visiting Manor Farm (the REAL Animal Farm) and St. Mary's Church (where Orwell was married) - I sat in the bus shelter beside the Village Hall and wrote out the post cards we'd bought at the church.
Then I went and popped them into "George's Mailbox" before one last walk to his house to say a final goodbye.
A. Orwell's Life in Wallington
*George Orwell in Wallington (or, Robbie Goes to Herts)
go next to 6. VISITING ORWELL'S ANIMAL FARM or back to index at PILGRIMAGE TO ORWELL
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~