Last summer we spent our family holiday at Barnhill, where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. In today’s Observer newspaper Robert McCrum has a long piece about George Orwell’s stay on Jura which gives some interesting background on Orwell’s time there. Staying at Barnhill was a rather special experience, though as it happens not really because of Orwell. I’ve been reluctant to write about it until recently, but by chance I have been making some notes about it this week; here are some of my thoughts. For the record I would disagree with McCrum’s point that Barnhill is ‘not large’. I guess it depends on your point of view and on the context, but I wouldn’t want to try to heat anything larger.
There are some experiences so significant it seems wrong to speak of them even if you are four years old and can’t stop talking. We have a secret code for Barnhill, the house on the island of Jura where we stayed for a week in the wet summer of 2008. We call it ‘Cowlick’ because while we were there the car we left by the roadside miles away became an impromptu scratching post and salt lick for a herd of cows. The code was devised by our daughter because hearing the name of the place itself, and not being there any more, made her feel sad.
Sixty years before, in 1948, George Orwell completed Nineteen Eighty-Four at Barnhill. It is a good-sized farmhouse four miles from a road and about a mile from its nearest neighbour. It probably ranks among the most isolated dwellings in the British isles. In the summer, swallows nest illegally under the eaves and sea eagles balance above the bay. As a house Barnhill is no great beauty in itself, but it fits the place perfectly, like a white rock exposed in the landscape by thousands of years of weather.
Orwell’s move to Barnhill in 1946 was partly to do with his health. As it turned out later he was tubercular and the air quality in London in the 1940s was atrocious and making him ill. But the year he chose to move to Jura happened to include one of Britain’s hardest winters. He was also intending to farm the land and establish a degree of self-sufficiency. Living on Jura would put him out of reach of the government spooks he believed were watching him and it was also far enough from London, he thought, to escape the worst effects of an atom bomb. But for the most part he was seeking an escape from the distractions of the city. He wanted to write his novel away from all the noise and the busy-ness of his work as a journalist.
Despite its isolation Barnhill now draws a surprising number of day trippers. Orwell knew that the best spies are recruited from friends and neighbours and he would probably not have been surprised to find that many of Barnhill’s visitors are prepared to slip through the closed gate into the garden to peer in at the windows, invading the private spaces of the house in their search for something of him. In fact not much remains of Orwell at Barnhill now. The house looks much the same from the outside, though it is better maintained than in Orwell’s day. There are traces of the work he did in cultivating the garden: fragments of iron fencing, the faint ghost of a path to the front door, a solitary azalea. Inside it is much more comfortable than he would have remembered.
Writers’ houses are big business now of course. The Beatrix Potter industry, centred on her farmhouse, Hill Top, brings thousands of tourists to the Lake District. Visitors swarm over the houses of Dickens and Wordsworth, Ruskin, James and Woolf, to name only a few. In an age when most people can read and write perhaps they want to know what it is that makes this writer’s work so special, or that writer’s work so celebrated. Maybe the answer is among the bri-a-brac and the antique furniture, if only you look hard enough. Except it isn’t. Writers’ houses promise to tell us something about the writers who lived in them, but it is mostly an illusion. In any case by the time the curators and the tourists get there the writer is long gone.
The connection with Orwell is partly what drew us to Barnhill, but what we took away was not much to do with him. A week at Barnhill is not like a week in the wilderness—far from it—but it is enough for nature to let you to know where you stand in the order of things. It is long enough to fall into a rhythm of light and dark, of what needs to be done not because of the time, but because it needs to be done. Maybe that’s why it appealed so much to a four year-old; that and the claw-foot bath. Barnhill is a very special place and part of its specialness comes from that connection with Orwell and his extraordinary book. But mostly Barnhill is special because of where it is—the sea, the rocks, the deer on the ridge, the seals in the bay—and because of what it lets you see and keep to yourself.
Here’s the link to Robert McCrum’s article again.