by Ross Clark
Daily Telegraph, 24 September 2003
The Hertfordshire cottage where George Orwell lived during the war is for sale - and the original 'Manor Farm' is next door, says Ross Clark
One of George Orwell's gifts was to write books that you can almost smell. Turn the pages and you fancy you can catch the whiff of the unemptied chamberpot he found below the breakfast table of his boarding house in Wigan; you find yourself turning away from the sweat of the commercial travellers with whom Orwell shared his room.
It comes as a relief, then, to enter Orwell's old home and find that the only smell is that of expensive fabrics. In fact, for a writer who made much of seeking the low life, No 2 Kits Lane, in the Hertfordshire village of Wallington - now up for sale - seems suspiciously luxurious. With its sofas and lavishly draped curtains, it looks as if it has jumped from the pages of a Laura Ashley catalogue rather than Down and Out in Paris and London.
Life in the cottage was a good deal more spartan, however, when Orwell arrived to take up residence on April 1, 1936. Today the three-bedroom house, near Baldock, sports a thick roof of thatch; but in Orwell's time the owner, a Mr Dearman, had economised by re-roofing the then two-bedroom house in corrugated iron sheets, which created a thunderous roar whenever it rained.
Mr Dearman charged Orwell just 7s 6d a week in rent, a figure which reflected the lack of electricity, hot water and an indoor lavatory. Even the outside lavatory proved unsatisfactory: Orwell complained that the cesspit backed up unless he used the finest loo roll on the market. "The best brand is Jeyes paper which is 6d a packet," he wrote to a friend who house-sat for him. "The difference in price is negligible, and on the other hand a choked cesspool is a misery."
As suggested by the then address of the house - the Old Stores - the property had once been the village shop. To supplement his meagre earnings as a writer, Orwell bought a bacon-slicer and reopened the shop, selling 30 shillings worth a week of goods and making enough profit to cover his rent.
The venture also had the advantage that he could purchase his own groceries at wholesale prices. In the door between the kitchen and the living-room you can still see the four slots which Orwell drilled so that he could peep at shoppers rummaging in the shelves - and check the village children were not filling their pockets with fistfuls of sweets.
When Orwell's friend Cyril Connolly asked him what he was doing living the life of a village grocer, he explained that it was better than his previous employment working at the Booklover's Corner in Hampstead: "In a grocer's shop, people come in to buy something, in a bookshop they come to make a nuisance of themselves." When he sold books, he added, he felt as if he ought to be writing them; the same feelings did not haunt him when he was selling Jeyes' sixpenny loo rolls.
Orwell's journey from dingy lodgings in London and Wigan to an agreeable village was influenced by his impending marriage to Eileen O'Shaughnessy. They married in Wallington parish church on June 9, 1936, to the eternal gratitude of subsequent vicars who continue to do a brisk trade in copies of the marriage certificate for £2 each. As might be expected, the certificate carries Orwell's real name, Eric Arthur Blair, and records his occupation as an author rather than a grocer.
The couple celebrated the beginning of their married life by planting trees and rose bushes in their cottage garden. Orwell refers to them in a letter written in 1945 following Eileen's premature death (during an operation to remove tumours) at the age of 39: "The planting of a tree, especially one of the long-living hardwood trees, is a gift which you can make to posterity at almost no cost and with almost no trouble, and if the tree takes root it will far outlive the visible effect of any of your other actions, good or evil."
There are still roses in the front garden, and a yew tree to the rear, though the current owners remain sceptical as to whether these are the ones planted by Orwell.
Orwell's career as a grocer was short-lived. On December 23, 1936, he went off to fight in the Spanish civil war, leaving the cottage in the care of his Aunt Nellie. On his return, he was disappointed to find that Aunt Nellie had let the garden become a "ghastly mess" and that the house was overrun by mice. The shop had ceased to trade and Orwell decided to raise goats instead. Eyebrows were raised in the village over Orwell's activities in Spain, though the vicar did cheer up when Orwell told him the only churches burned down by him and his comrades had been Catholic ones.
Homage to Catalonia and Coming Up for Air were written during Orwell's time at Wallington, though of more interest to visitors is the range of barns that lies barely 100 yards from Orwell's cottage, called Manor Farm - the name Orwell gave to his creation in Animal Farm. The village in the book is similarly thinly disguised as "Willingdon".
At the real Manor Farm - which in the 1920s experimented in agricultural methods before going bankrupt - the pigs still seem to be in control. A large sign bears the words "No Admittance" together with an emblem - a human figure with a thick red line through it - that seems to reinforce the pigs' motto: "Four legs good, two legs bad."
Orwell left Wallington after Eileen's death. In 1948, the property was bought by Esther Brookes, a teacher from the nearby village of Sandon who was remembered locally for smoking cigars. She returned the house to its original name, Monk's Fitchett, and installed a bathroom.
In recent years, the property has undergone more improvements: an extension has created a larger kitchen and a more satisfactory bathroom (no longer requiring the use of Jeyes paper). The addition of an outhouse to the rear of the garden has created a further bedroom and office.
After six years, the current owners are moving on and the property is for sale through Country Properties of Baldock. In the 100th anniversary year of Orwell's birth, however, the price - £395,000 - makes it no longer of interest to struggling writers.
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