Travel: UK - Finding a piece of quiet

Paul Buttle journeyed across Jura to track down the spartan retreat to which George Orwell escaped in order to write Nineteen Eighty-four
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The Independent Culture
I first read George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-four in a youth hostel in Argyll. Some time later, and much to my surprise, I learnt that the book had in fact been written in Argyll, on the Isle of Jura. I imagined Orwell living in some idyllic croft next to the sea, absorbed in his writing, and then became determined to track down the croft in the manner closest to the means preferred by the great writer himself - by bicycle.

It turned out to be about the toughest literary quest in Britain. Reaching Jura is something of an achievement. It took me 20 miles of cycling, and four ferry crossings from Ardrossan via Arran and Kintyre. Tracking down Orwell's former home, Barnhill, is harder still. Stretching from the Feolin ferry landing, where I landed, and winding away across a landscape of empty bog, is a narrow, surfaced road the width of a city pavement - Jura's main road. And this road, very nearly the only one on Jura, runs from the southern end of the island along its eastern coast to within a few miles of its northern tip, covering more than 30 miles altogether.

Barnhill is about a mile beyond the northern end of Jura's modest main highway. I knew from examining the map that Jura was sparsely populated, but nothing really prepared me for the island's great emptiness. It is one of the 10 largest islands in the country, yet one of the least populated. Fewer than 200 people live there, in an area the size of Glasgow.

Nine miles from the ferry landing the road comes to the island's one and only village, Craighouse. More precisely, six miles from the ferry you reach around 50 widely spaced houses. A church and a school sit on the left-hand side of the road, whileon the right there's the hotel, shop and village hall. It hardly seems like a village but, compared to what follows, Craighouse is a metropolis.

After leaving it, there is practically nothing, save for a solitary house about every three miles. Otherwise there is just desolation and two lines of wooden poles carrying the electricity cable and telephone wires. Compounding the sense of desolation these surroundings gave me as I went north was the rain; it was pouring down.

The image of Orwell's Hebridean idyll soon began dissipating with every sodden furlong I cycled northwards. Increasingly, I began wondering whatever had possessed the author to live in such a wilderness. Craighouse would have been Spartan enough, but by living further north Orwell was adding mile after mile of bleakness between himself and whatever comfort that tiny village might have been able to offer. I don't think there can be another road in the British Isles that leads the traveller into a greater sense of isolation.

Seventeen miles from Craighouse, the road arrives at a large estate house called Ardlussa. From here on the road's central vegetation, which had been fairly spasmodic, became quite luxuriant. Four miles from Ardlussa, the road lost its surface completely and became a rocky, potholed trackway. The cycling was almost impossible, and still I had not reached Barnhill.

Eventually, reaching a curve in the road and looking a few hundred feet below me, I saw a large, white house next to the sea. At long last I had arrived at Barnhill.

The small valley there, with its scattering of deciduous trees, gives Barnhill a far less austere setting than the landscape I had passed through. Immediately I saw it: I could see how Orwell had been drawn to the place. It was, indeed, very close to being the idyllic Hebridean retreat I had imagined, save for the fact that it was much larger than I had expected - being more the size of a large farmhouse than a croft.

Orwell himself described Barnhill as "an extremely ungetable place". Initially he must also have found the journey from Craighouse to Barnhill almost as difficult as I had; he had only had a motorised bicycle to depend on, which was constantly breaking down.

Before moving there he had written to a friend to say: "I want to write another book - which is impossible unless I can get six months' quiet." He certainly must have found that at Barnhill. In his day, the only telephone on the island was in Craighouse and there were no newspapers. The wireless reception was poor, and the post came only twice a week. There was no mains electricity, either.

Orwell lived at Barnhill from April 1946 to early January 1949, though he spent the winter of 1946/47 in London, and for the first half of 1948 he was ill in hospital in Glasgow. Though he intended making Jura his permanent home, he lived there for little more than a year and a half in all, but it was during that period that he completed his first, and also his final draft, of Nineteen Eighty-four.

The difficulties of living at Barnhill certainly seem to have exacerbated his chronic ill-health - he suffered from tuberculosis, which eventually killed him. His problems must especially have been added to by his determination to complete Nineteen Eighty-four. Unable to obtain the help of a secretary because of Barnhill's isolation, Orwell had to type out the novel himself at a time when he found just sitting at a table exhausting.

After completing the novel he spent the next six weeks confined to bed. He finally left Barnhill in early January, to stay in the Cotswolds. He never returned to Jura. The following January he died, in a London hospital, at the age of 46.

Today, inevitably, the house has become a holiday home. There is no sign on or near it to say that George Orwell lived there, or that it was here that he wrote Nineteen Eighty-four. Wandering round the outside of house, it was extraordinary to think that Orwell's nightmarish vision of the future could have been conceived in such a peaceful setting.