Sitting in the pretty walled garden of Montague House on Southwold High Street, it’s as if the clock has stopped. There is the same slope of pretty 19th-century roofs and tiles over the wall, the same languor and stillness. There are the same ancient bells ringing out from St Edmund’s church around the corner. All under the same low-slung gloomy Suffolk sky. No sounds of traffic, no distractions. Modern life is held at bay. In other words, the perfect place to write your novel. Or in George Orwell’s case his second.
It was here, at the top of the high street, that Orwell completed A Clergyman’s Daughter, set in the town of Knype Hill, the fictional name for Southwold. Orwell’s parents, Richard and Ida Blair, had lived in the town for more than a decade before they bought Montague House in 1932. Richard was one of the town’s many Anglo-Indian civil service retirees, while Ida ran the flourishing Copper Kettle tea room on Queen Street, along with her daughter Avril – today it’s the RNLI charity shop. For Orwell it was a handy bolthole and he returned many times to stay with his parents – while railing against the town’s stuffy character. Years later he was remembered in the East Anglian Times as a “rather dishevelled, unshaven figure, dressed in suits handmade by a local tailor that needed a good iron, a long scarf, and no hat … People felt rather sorry for his parents.”
What, one wonders, would irk him more now? Shops such as Joules and Oscar & Rose proliferating on the high street, the rise in second-home ownership or the fact that his parental home is a holiday rental, a bourgeois dream with a Shaker-style kitchen, nautical themes and four cosy bedrooms?
All this is part of the pleasure of staying in Grade II-listed Montague House, reflecting on the irony that our greatest socialist essayist and novelist lived in such a gentrified setting, venting about the middle-class pretensions around him. Still, it is perfect for a leisurely week of genteel pottering. If you can suppress your socialist indignation, there are shopping opportunities galore and fabulous pubs for long afternoon lunches.
We idle away two of them in the Lord Nelson, take the ferry (ie the local rowing boat) to Walberswick for lunch at the Angel, make a trip up the lighthouse and enjoy the commodified glories of Adnams brewing heritage in its cavernous store on Victoria Street. There’s also the Harbour Inn, rumoured to be the inspiration for Orwell’s classic 1946 essay, The Moon Under Water, defining the perfect pub. The rest of the time, we play cards in the dining room while I try to work out where Orwell finished A Clergyman’s Daughter.
Montague House got a new commemorative plaque earlier this year because the old one was crumbling away but, apart from a cabinet full of his novels, there are no other clues to the man who lived here: the only landmark in town is a mural of him near the pier. Southwold seriously downplays Orwell’s presence. A small Orwell museum would be a gem among the many delis and gastropubs.
The afternoon before we leave I take a last stroll along Southwold beach, where Orwell was photographed in 1932, according to a writer for the Orwell Society, dressed in one of his locally made suits. That stretch is now full of much-prized, brightly painted beach huts. Outside one a holidaymaker reclines in a deckchair, a glass of prosecco in one hand and a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the other. Orwell would not have approved.
Holiday reading: other great writers’ retreats
Greta Hall, near Keswick, Cumbria, was built around 1800 and it’s where poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey lived. Many other literary personalities hung out here too: the Wordsworths, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Shelley, Sir Walter Scott. You can too; the Coleridge wing sleeps six.
Roald Dahl used to stay at The Cabin (from £537 a week, sleeps six), an architectural gem at the end of Pier Hill in Tenby. He visited each Easter during his childhood, up until the second world war. Stay here and be inspired by sea views across the bay with stunning sunsets.
Agatha Christie once described her holiday home on the River Dart in Devon as “the loveliest place in the world” before she turned it into a crime scene for Dead Man’s Folly. Spend the night at Greenway Apartment (three nights from £547, sleeps eight) and enjoy views across the Dart estuary from its large Georgian windows and explore the rest of the house and gardens for free.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” wrote Daphne du Maurier. You can do the next best thing and stay at Menabilly, the Cornish estate near Fowey where du Maurier lived and on which she based Rebecca’s Manderley. Choose one of two cottages (menabilly.com; Polridmouth Cottage from £739, sleep eight; Keepers Cottage from £419 a week, sleeps five).
Follow in the footsteps of John Keats and stay at the Old Mill House (from £1,400 a week, sleeps up to 15), on the edge of Old Bedhampton in Hampshire, where he finished The Eve of St Agnes in 1819 and spent his last night in England in 1820. It has a large garden with a lake and tidal stream, as well as an outdoor heated pool.
Charles Dickens is the most famous resident of Broadstairs; after lodging at 12 High Street, where he worked on The Pickwick Papers, he took a house, now part of the Royal Albion Hotel (doubles from £81, room only), a creamy white Georgian hotel on the seafront.
From his writing room at Belmont (four nights from £735, sleeps eight) – the grand candy-coloured Georgian house in Lyme Regis – John Fowles enjoyed a stunning coastal view. His biographer, Eileen Warburton, writes: “French doors opened on to a south-facing balcony where vines eventually twined and birds alighted. The pounding of keys on his small portable typewriter thudded audibly through the house.” Thanks to Landmark Trust, who raised £1.8m to renovate it, you can stay, or write, too.
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s home for a year, 1812-1813, was the delightful whitewashed Victorian villa Plas Tan-yr-allt in Gwynedd, Wales, set in 47 acres on the edge of Snowdonia national park. You can choose from six en suite bedrooms, including Shelley’s Theatre (from £115 B&B), reputedly where he used to recite his poetry.
James Barrie is thought to have written a screenplay of Peter Pan while on Eilean Shona, the private island off the west coast of Scotland. “A wild rocky romantic island it is too”, he wrote. Choose from 11 cottages (sleeping from two to eight) and the grand house that sleeps up to 20.
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