Pilgrimage to Orwell
Sunday & Monday, August 15 & 16, 2004
9. ORWELL'S WHITE HORSE
After a wonderful visit to my grandmother's ancestral home - which, aside from forming a bookend to Orwell, is also not far from the city of Colchester which Orwell mentioned in "1984" - we headed southwest to Weymouth on the Dorset coast to visit more of my husband's relatives.
On the way we got lost in northern London which we came into after exiting too soon off the major motorway. That caused a couple of frustrating hours while at the same time providing a glimpse of an area Orwell would have described as "down and out". Finally we got back on the motorway and without further detours arrived in Weymouth after nightfall. Driving down the steep descent into Weymouth felt like being in an airplane because it was pitch black and all we could see were the twinkling lights of the city and harbour panoramically laid out beneath us.
The next day, being Sunday, we were in holiday mood and did touristy things with the relatives including a walk along the seafront and ice-cream on the promenade. There was a quintessentially English Punch and Judy puppet show set up on the beach, with a travelling stage and curtain.
Later in the afternoon we returned home to relax and read the Sunday Times (which miraculously had an amazing article about Orwell's estate) and spent the evening catching up on family happenings in Weymouth since our visit there the previous year.
The next morning, Monday, we were up early as this was our last day in England and we wanted to hit the road to London early. I looked out the front window of the house, which overlooks the harbour, to see if I could spot the White Horse of Dorset that is chalked into the distant hills. But morning mists shrouded it and I wasn't able to see it as I had on previous visits.
After saying our farewells we went for English breakfast at the dockside restaurant right down where the seagulls soar and the boats head out to sea. We decided to take a slow and leisurely drive along the coastal road before heading back north along the motorway. That way we would pass the White Horse of Dorset which is a world-wide attraction but which we had never seen up close.
We asked passers-by for directions to the White Horse and within a few minutes we were out of Weymouth and driving along the coastal highway.
We'd discovered the existence of famous chalk figures etched in hills in a previous visit to Weymouth in 2001. After that visit we'd left by the road that took us to Stonehenge and along the way we'd visited the town where Thomas Hardy lived (Dorchester) and driven to see the chalk figure named the Giant that is etched in the hillside nearby. No one knows for sure how or when these huge chalk figures were etched into the hills and their meaning is also unknown. They wouldn't have been easy to draw up close as their true shape can only be seen from a distance. They're as much a mystery as Stonehenge.
All signs pointed to the White Horse of Osmington as we drove through the beachside communities. Along the way I explained to my husband that we were in George Orwell country because Eric Blair's father was born in a village in Dorset. His grandfather had been the Anglican Vicar of a beautiful old church after returning from ministering in India. I remarked that it was another coincidental thing about my ancestors and Orwell's that my great-grandfather had ALSO been an Anglican Vicar in India (actually the Bishop of Bombay) during the time that Orwell was born there in 1903.
Orwell probably had his grandfather the Vicar in mind when he wrote the poem A HAPPY VICAR I MIGHT HAVE BEEN, two hundred years ago, to preach upon eternal doom, and watch my walnuts grow...".
Orwell's great-grandfather had at one time been a wealthy landowner who married the daughter of an Earl. Orwell inherited a portrait of her and he hung it in every house he lived in.
Above is a photo of Orwell sitting under his great-grandmother's portrait in his apartment in 27b Canonbury Square (which I visited in July 2003) and next to it is a close-up photo of the portrait. Both photos are taken from Orwell biographies I own.
Orwell thinly disguises his own ancestral background in his book Keep the Aspidistra Flying when he describes Gordon Comstock's family. By the time Orwell's father was born, the youngest of ten children or so, the family had lost its aristocratic holdings and the Manor House was no longer in family hands, but it is still there and Blairs are buried in its churchyard. Orwell sometimes contemplated moving to Dorset and living the quiet life and might have done so had he recovered from the ravages of writing "1984" instead of dying in hospital, age 46.
Suddenly, as we came around a corner, a sign said SEE WHITE HORSE HERE and we pulled off the highway and into the parking spot where the best vantage point is.
In the photo above I'm looking at the White Horse from the field across the road. Behind me is the harbour of Weymouth in the distance. As you can see, it was a windy day and slightly overcast. But still the White Horse was clearly discernible in the hill:
While looking at the chalked White Horse I was reminded of the real White Horse we had seen in the field on the road to Barnhill. It was symbolic to me of Orwell's ancestral connections to Dorset. When I got home and developed the film of both pictures it struck me that they are very similiar in size and setting. I also learned, from doing some research, that there are several chalk-etchings of White Horses in England but that the Osmington one is the only one with a rider on its back and is the only one facing that direction. So that provided more significance for it being connected to Orwell. Maybe Orwell was back in Dorset afterall!
go next to 10. LOOKING FOR ORWELL AT ETON or back to index at PILGRIMAGE TO ORWELL
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~