Over the road from Animal Farm

George Orwell wrote some of his best books while he lived in Hertfordshire. He also found inspiration for a satire of Stalinism - and sold sweets to children. Penny Jackson visits his former cottage

Wednesday 15 October 2003 00:00 BST

It was to a cottage in the Hertfordshire countryside that George Orwell returned wounded from the Spanish civil war. Under a makeshift roof, with no electricity or hot water, he began to write about his recent experiences in Spain - recollections that would appear as Homage to Catalonia.

That cottage, No 2 Kits Lane in the hamlet of Wallington, has a robust thatched roof and bears little resemblance to the rudimentary interior of Orwell's time there between 1936 and 1940. Indeed, it is too smart for the National Trust, who might otherwise have been interested in buying the house that knew Orwell as both shopkeeper and writer. The outside lavatory that he complained about is long gone.

Orwell moved to the cottage in 1936 before marrying Eileen O'Shaughnessy, his first wife, in the town's church. Their reception was held at the Plough Inn next door - a private house these days - which became a favourite haunt of Orwell's and, before it closed, a useful fund of stories for tourists on the author's trail. He rented the house for 7s 6d a week and reopened part of it as a shop, which he named The Stores. The would-be shopkeeper set himself up with a bacon slicer, some scales, a few shelves and some containers for sugar, flour and other essentials. His best customers were the village children; in order to keep an eye on the sweet jars, Orwell drilled peepholes in a door that is still there today.

By the end of his first month in business he was satisfied to be selling about 30 shillings of merchandise a week, according to Michael Shelden, Orwell's biographer. "His profit from that was just enough to cover the rent. When there was no one in the shop, he retired to his study."

In a 1937 directory, Orwell is listed under his birth name "E Blair, shopkeeper", and in the church register in full, as Eric Arthur Blair. By all accounts, he remained an outsider and only ran the shop until he left to fight in Spain in December 1936. A villager, now in her 80s, recalls buying sweets in the shop and the clatter of the author's typewriter. "They were a nice couple but kept themselves to themselves. They were only here for a few years and didn't mix much."

This was a fruitful period for Orwell who along with Homage to Catalonia wrote The Road to Wigan Pier and Coming up for Air, among others. His years in the cottage were also among his happiest as Eileen was to die at the age of 39 during a routine operation in 1945.

But the particular fascination of Wallington and its surrounding countryside is the likelihood that Orwell used them as the model for the fictional Willingdon in Animal Farm. Although the real Manor Farm is just across the road from Kits Lane, Brian Edwards, a historian, believes that Orwell's literary creation is Bury Farm which sits on the top of hill from where, in the book, the dogs kept watch for intruders.

Like Animal Farm, it has a farmstead layout and a pond, pit and old orchard as well as other descriptive similarities. Orwell scholars also believe that the writer extended his observational skills as a journalist to his novels and many of his neighbours may have spotted uncanny similarities to characters in the book. Orwell himself kept hens in Wallington, perhaps inspiring the opening lines: "Mr Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes."

Wallington today has lost its pubs and there is no village shop. Residents are unlikely to have to rely solely, as Orwell did, on a bicyle to get into Baldock, three miles away. It is a busy commuter route into London with a rail journey of 35 minutes.

The cottage has not been improved at the cost of its character. More space is provided with a self-contained office-cum-guest room in the rear garden - ideal for a writer, in fact.

No 2 Kits Lane is on the market for £395,000 through Country Properties, 01462 895061

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