On the 2nd of April 1936 a tall, gaunt, moustachioed man got off the train at Baldock and walked towards the village of Wallington. Nowadays the village is a pretty rural retreat, but back then the place was "on its uppers". One in three of its young men had been lost in the Great War, others had moved away as agriculture went through one of its periodic slumps and all that remained in the village were the elderly and the penniless. This situation suited the young man's purpose; he was a struggling writer who wanted quiet backwater in which to concentrate on his craft.
The man's name was Eric Blair, though he later found fame as George Orwell. In 1936, although he'd had books published, he was not a wealthy man and was glad to rent a cottage for 7s 6d a week, even though he'd never set eyes on the property.
A modern visitor to Wallington, reading the neat little plaque put up by the council, might think that Orwell had found an idyllic nook in a rural paradise: nothing could be further from the truth. Back in those days the building was not thatched but had a corrugated iron roof which was very noisy when it rained. As Orwell wrote of the cottage:
"You know what our cottage is like. It's bloody awful. Still it's more or less liveable......When there is sudden rain in winter the kitchen tends to flood, otherwise the house is passably dry. The living room fire, you may remember smokes....There is water laid on, but no hot, of course. There is a Calor Gas stove, which is expensive (the gas, I mean), but there is also a little oil oven that can be resuscitated."
In June 1936 Orwell got married to Eileen O'Shaughnessy in the parish church at Wallington. An eye-witness said that on the wedding day she saw them walk up the hill to the church. He climbed up the bank, leapt over the gate and hurried up the path. Meanwhile Eileen continued around to the main church gate where he met her and carried her into the church.
The book most often associated with Orwell's time at Wallington is Animal Farm, though it was written after his time in the village. Somewhere I'm sure I've read that his wife Eileen, a child psychologist, was in the habit of making up stories about animals for her own amusement, giving them complex human characteristics.
The reason that people make the connection is clear - the book is based at Manor Farm, Willingdon, while just down the road from the cottage stood Manor Farm, Wallington. The great barn which is mentioned in the book is clearly modelled on the barn at the real farm, which can be seen in the picture below....
Orwell said this about the origins of the book:
"I saw a little boy, perhaps ten years old, driving a huge carthorse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only 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."
At the time when Orwell wrote the book, during World War II, no one would publish the work - the Allies needed the help of Stalin to stand any chance of winning the war and a book satirising the Communist regime was not considered to be in the nation's interest.
There are still a few animals to be seen around Wallington though most of the land is arable these days.
Orwell kept a connection with the cottage till the mid 1940s and, although he sub-let it to friends who'd had their London home bombed, he came for occasional visits.
"At Wallington. Crocuses out everywhere, a few wallflowers budding, snowdrops just at their best. Couples of hares sitting about in the winter wheat and gazing at one another. Now and again in this war, at intervals of months, you get your nose above water for a few moments and notice that the earth is still going round the sun" - from Orwell's diary, March 1941.
(the colour photos are mine, while the sepia ones have been "borrowed" from elsewhere).