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From Wallington to Willingdon

Most of the scenes in George Orwell's Animal Farm take place in the Big Barn of Manor Farm, Willingdon. Orwell never states in which county Animal Farm is set, but it is almost certain that Wilingdon is based on the tiny Hertfordshire village of Wallington, near Baldock, where Orwell lived on and off from 1936 to 1944.

Small villages and towns such as Haworth and Hawkshead are today almost entirely defined by their connections with the Brontes and Beatrix Potter, but Wallington wears its literary associations lightly. I discovered Wallington by accident, while walking the Icknield Way footpath from Baldock to Royston. The national trail skirts the village, but Orwell's House is only a few hundred yards off of the trail. There is no souvenir shop, no cafe, no pub and no National Trust sign.

The house where Orwell moved to in April 1936 was known as the Stores, and had been the village store until the owner went bankrupt in the 1920s. It was a very basic dwelling, this is how Miss Esther Brooks, one of its later occupants, describes it:

"The medieval Lords of the Manor built their barns in composite units of eleven feet since that was the space needed for a yoke of oxen. They built the cottages to match....They were constructed of lath and plaster on a timber frame with thatched roofs. The materials were local beechwood, chalk and wheat straw."

By the time that Orwell lived there, the thatch had rotted, and a corrugated iron roof had been erected over the thatch. Miss Brooks continues:

"Each cottage has two room up and two rooms down, with a lean-to at the west end. This cottage was special in that while the downstairs rooms were the usual height of six foot three inches (the same height as Orwell) the upper rooms rose to that height before sloping to a very pitched roof. Downstairs, the floor is now sixteen inches below ground level. Two steps rise to the sill. The height of the door was three foot nine inches....A ladder gave access to the upper storey, smoke curled up through a hole in the roof. Hams hung from hooks embedded in the centre beams. Water was fetched from the Church Well."

As well as no water, the house had no electricity or gas, Calor gas cylinders provided fuel for cooking and heating, and The Road to Wigan Pier was written under a the light of a Tilley lamp. Orwell re-opened the shop. He sold a few groceries and sweets as well as eggs laid by the hens that Orwell kept, together with goats, on a piece of rough ground that he rented opposite the cottage. At the time Orwell was a struggling writer and the reason that he moved into the cottage was that it was cheap - the weekly rent was only seven shillings and six pence - and he made about thirty shillings a week from the shop. He had to invest in a bacon slicer, and his letters to his friend Jack Common show that he took the role of shopkeeper quite seriously.

Or at least one member of the family did, because he was too busy - writing The Road to Wigan Pier during 1936, fighting as a volunteer in Spain from December 1936 to July 1937 and in a sanatorium being treated for tuberculosis for six months during 1938. So the shopkeeper was probably Orwell's wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy, an Oxford psychology graduate whom he had met at a party in Hampstead the previous year and whom he married at Wallington Parish Church in June 1936. A villager recalled:

"The occasion was very simple. Eileen and he walked down the road from the cottage together. George vaulted over the churchyard wall so as to be standing inside the gate to pick up Eileen and carry her to the church door; having plainly got his folklore muddled."

After the wedding there was a lunch at The Plough, which was next door to the cottage. Eileen later recalled Orwell's mother's advice to her daughter-in-law on that day:

"Mrs Blair shook her head & said that I'd be a brave girl if I knew what I was in for, & Avril the sister said I obviously didn't know what I was in for or I shouldn't be there."

Both the Orwells chain smoked. Imagine the atmosphere in that cottage. Rotting thatch, Calor gas, paraffin lamps and hand-rolled shag tobacco. This very basic environment must have contributed to Orwell's TB which would kill him at the age of forty-six, at the height of his literary powers. Eileen would die even younger, in March 1945 when she was only thirty nine. Her death certificate reads "Cardiac failure whilst under anaesthetic of ether and chloroform skilfully and properly administered for operation for removal of uterus." In June 1944 she and Orwell had adopted a three-week-old boy they named Richard Horatio. After Orwell's death in 1950 Richard was brought up by Orwell's sister.

But did Wallington actually become Willingdon? There is a competing claim from the village of Willingdon in East Sussex, but there's no evidence from the Orwell archives that he'd ever been there or even heard of it. Wallington is a much more likely explanation. The biggest farm in Wallington is Manor Farm, and one of Manor Farm's most historic buildings is a medieval barn called the Great Barn. Every time that Orwell went to the village well to fetch water he would have passed the great barn, and he almost certainly used that building on that farm as the setting for the big barn at Manor Farm in Animal Farm. The Plough at Wallington has become the Red Lion at Willingdon, which is where Farmer Jones got so drunk one night that he forgot to shut the pop-holes on the barn. The rest of the story is Orwell's. Willingdon East Sussex does actually have a Red Lion though, and the pub's owners are careful to make the Orwell connection on their website.

There are no pubs left in Wallington, though and you can't go in to the barn as its privately owned, as is Orwell's much modernised house. You can't but a coffee or a beer in the village, let alone of Orwell's own books or the many biographies of the man. In St Mary's Church you can leave £2.50 in the honesty box for a facsimile of his marriage certificate, as well as a few local history booklets describing his life there. There are no longer any people alive who remember him. As long ago as 1975 a local historian asked elderly locals of they remembered George Orwell and none could. However one old timer remembered Eric Blair (Orwell's real name) who kept the shop and had a dim recollection that the shopkeeper might have written a book.

 The commemorative plaque on Orwell's House

The Great Barn at Manor Farm

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