My old, old home

Nuneaton! The very name is redolent of exotic holidays on sun kissed beaches, laying on fine white coral sand and sipping cocktails beneath tropical sunsets. It is actually quite a pleasant little Midlands town, complete with quirky local museum in a lovely town centre park and a love, bordering on obsession, for their best-known novelist. Mary Ann Evans, who presented herself to the world as George Eliot, was born in Nuneaton in 1819.

We arrived at Griff House after having tried to locate Eliot’s birthplace. Alas, it is on a private estate behind locked gates. I stopped at the threshold, wondering wether to charge the gates and make a run for the little farmhouse before the police arrived, but thought better of it. There would be other days to visit the house. Arbury estate, where Eliot was born – her father, Robert Evans, was estate manager – is open to the public on most bank holidays. This being the covidian age, however, we found the gates firmly fastened against visitors. The family moved to Griff House in 1820 when Mary Ann was a year old. Apart from time away at school, she lived in this house until she was 21, when she moved to Coventry to act as her father’s housekeeper.

Griff House is now home to a Premier Inn and Beefeater restaurant. We checked in (a frustratingly lengthy process in a Premier) and sought our room: cheap and comfortable with everything you need for a night away. There was a bathroom, a telly and a kettle. Not enough teabags, of course, but then, there’s never enough teabags. (for any B&B owners out there: 3 per person; absolute minimum). Mrs. P, exhausted from the retail efforts of the day, settled down in front of The Chase and opted to skip dinner and have a few z’s. So I went out for a walk. I feel I ought to explain here. Mrs. P suffers from ME, which, while not a life-threatening condition, makes it difficult for her to engage in most activities without becoming extremely tired. She has to skip most museum and house visits, which she used to enjoy as much as me, and save her energy.

Griff Farm: site of the George Eliot Visitor Centre?

The hotel is not actually based in the house but in a modern block to the rear. So I walked around to see if I could find the original house. The large bay window with the attic above, that Eliot talks about in her letters, is still clearly visible although the main part of the house is unrecognisable from within. Despite the vast amount of development, the original building is still there and what used to be the front is unspoilt. The doorway is a bit grubby and the brickwork bears the scars of several renovations but it is clean enough, white paint shining in the evening light, and the plaque above the door is still clearly visible.

Adjoining the site is a group of farm buildings that Eliot would have known as a child. Now abandoned, I have read that they are scheduled for development into a visitor centre. I don’t know what has happened to this idea – I guess Covid scuppered these plans just as it has everyone else’s – but the buildings are there, waiting for renovation and its new lease of life telling visitors all about a literary great. I walked through the yard, past the old, abandoned barns and overgrown remains of what was once a thriving farm. “Mad dog” barked a sign hastily scrawled on a barn door. But I encountered no dog, nor any other living thing.

Dear old Griff still smiles at me . . . and I seem to feel the air through the window of the attic above the dining room

George Eliot

Back inside Griff House, I stopped for dinner. It was the usual steakhouse fare and I toyed with the idea of a mixed grill but rejected it as being too decadent. I had a passable sirloin, washed down with a couple of pints of Doom Bar. Why they have to ship beer in from Cornwall is a mystery to me. There are several breweries in the West Midlands, any one of which would be happy to supply the Beefeater chain. I feel the decision is more to do with business than quality or authenticity. Like the Premier Inn that adjoins it, it is not a place I would usually choose, preferring to experience some of the local flavour, but places such as these fulfil a purpose for the hungry traveller or family on a budget. The whole meal, beer and all, was fine and hot and enjoyable. I rounded it off with an Eton mess, which I took back to the room for Mrs. P, who was delighted.

All Saints’ Church, Nuneaton

In the morning, after a very good breakfast, we drove into Nuneaton. Our first stop, unusually, was a hospital. The George Eliot Hospital was opened in 1948 and was home to the only publicly accessible hospital museum in the country. Until is was forced to close due to budget cuts, that is. Outside is a fine statue of George Eliot herself. An exact copy, in fact, of the statue that takes pride of place in the town centre. We had a brief look at the statue and left for the town. It looked very busy and we didn’t want to get in the way. We stopped at All Saints’ Church, locked up at the moment, due to covid restrictions. This was the family church: she was baptised here in 1819 and her father, Robert, is buried in the churchyard.

The town itself seems gripped in George Eliot fever: her name, and her image, is everywhere. The local museum has a specialist exhibit to the writer, her effigy is in the centre of the town, not far from the George Eliot Hotel. The library houses the George Eliot collection. I half expected to see a café called ‘Middlemunch’ or the ‘Grill on the Floss’. No such luck. I began my journey at the Nuneaton museum. A lovely little museum, set in the beautifully laid out Riversley park. Full of joggers and cyclists, happy families with children running around in the way that small children do and old people having a nice sit down. I love to see public spaces playing such a central role in the life of the town.

The George Eliot exhibit takes a large room at the heart of the museum and seems to spill over into the adjoining room too. The centre of the display is a recreated living room, populated by some very ropey looking, yet charming, mannequins. The tableau features Ms. Eliot with George Henry Lewes, a philosopher who was to have a profound effect on her life. They lived together without marrying: something that would have scandalised Victorian society, particularly as Lewes was already married with four children. Arranged around this Victorian drawing room scene are some of Ms. Eliot’s personal belongings: a mirror, a lace mantilla, a sewing box. Simple, everyday objects, mostly and, in an adjoining room, one of her dresses.

Outside the museum was bright sunshine. I crossed the road and went through the ‘George Eliot Gardens’ to see the ‘George Eliot Obelisk’: a simple stone memorial bearing her birth date and also tells you that she died in Cheyne Walk in London, the wife of John Cross, in 1880. George Lewes died in 1878 and, after spending 2 years editing his work, she married John Cross, a friend she had met 10 years previously who was 20 years her junior. Their marriage was short and tempestuous: they honeymooned in Venice, where John, suffering a mental breakdown, attempted suicide by jumping in the Grand Canal. They returned to England, bought a house in Chelsea where Mary Ann contracted a throat infection, and died, in November 1880.

The memorial garden is a short walk from the town library, which houses one of the foremost collections of George Eliot literature in the country. Now, I have been quite harsh with libraries in past blogs: I haven’t found the staff to be particularly enthusiastic about their jobs and some have seemed rather keener to get rid of me than to tell me about their star attractions. Here, however, things were very different. I asked about the collection at the front desk “oh, you’ll want to see Margaret!” said the receptionist. She directed me to the back of the library where I was greeted by a very cheerful lady who was only too happy to tell be about the collection.

The George Eliot Collection at Nuneaton Public Library

A large amount of it is out on shelves, with a note that there is more in storage, including letters, photographs and scrapbooks full of press clippings. All available for a member of staff to collect for you. Good old Margaret. There were information boards and portraits of Eliot displayed about and some valuable items in glass cases. I perused the collection for half an hour, thanked Margaret kindly and went on my way.

In the town centre is the very famous statue of Eliot by John Letts. the one that is recreated in the hospital grounds. It is a fine statue and captures her beautifully. it also seems to be a meeting place for local young people with cans of lager. I don’t mind this at all. I am glad opeople include great art in their everyday lives and would much rather they chose to sit by a statue than in an underpass.

I liked Nuneaton. It has taken George Eliot to its heart and celebrates her in many ways. She is such an important writer: detailed, complex and highly readable. If you’d like to try one of her novels, Middlemarch is an undoubted masterpiece but it is rather long. Silas Marner or The Mill on the Floss are more accessible. I rather like Adam Bede. I do urge you to read her if you haven’t before. You won’t be disappointed.

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