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Archive - Wednesday, 19 May 1999
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BY GEORGE, HAS THE ANIMAL FARM LAND BEEN FOUND?
Evidence is forming that a sleepy quarter of East Sussex could well be the inspiration for one of the 20th century's greatest political novels.
There is a growing belief that Chalk Farm, on Coopers Hill, Willingdon, was the inspiration for George Orwell's classic novel Animal Farm.
Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, attended St Cyprian's School in Eastbourne between 1911 and 1916. Old maps show a track used to run from the village to the school, passing right by the old farmhouse.
Until now, no one had seriously investigated the claims. But when the farm's current owners needed to raise money to save the building they realised the Eric Blair connection could be a godsend.
Now run as a hotel and garden centre, Chalk Farm is owned by Downland Farm Project, a charity which provides work experience at the site for 60 young adults with learning difficulties.
Three years ago the roof of the farmhouse became infested with deathwatch beetles and £150,000 had to be found to restore the roof and save the building.
The project's founder, Jill Parker, turned to English Heritage for help, and was told that, although the farmhouse enjoyed listed status, funding depended on the site having a famous connection.
It was at this point that Jill's mother, Sylvia Westley, who works as a volunteer at the hotel, decided to look into the Animal Farm claims in the hope it would lead to financial backing.
She spent the next two years researching all of Orwell's books, essays, letters, and biographies to search for clues.
Her investigation culminated in the publishing of a booklet titled The Search for the George Orwell Connection.
Its findings have caused a literary sensation and dismay among those other farms around the country which also claim to be the site of the novel.
Mrs Westley, 79, said: "There were quite a lot of descriptions in the book which are similar to our farm."
Among the similarities are the knoll which the animals run up and look out on the countryside below and the red roofs of the farmhouse - just like those at Chalk Farm.
Orwell also describes Mr Jones going out one night to the village of Willingdon and getting drunk at the Red Lion. Willingdon - the only village of that name in England - also has a Red Lion pub.
Despite all of Mrs Westley's efforts she is the first to concede there is not enough hard evidence to prove without doubt the Orwell connection.
She said: "I have given up all hope of gaining a blue plaque and money from English Heritage. I cannot prove this farm house is what he had in mind. It's more likely he was influenced by several places rather than basing it on just one location."
Fortunately, thanks to an incredible fund-raising effort and the kindness of people in the Eastbourne area, the project has been able to restore the roof without the help of English Heritage.
Mrs Westley added: "Before this I was not the least bit interested in George Orwell. It was just a way of saving the roof. Now I think he's one of the greatest writers of the 20th century."
VVILLAGE LIKENESS: Chalk Farm Hotel, Willingdon, which may have been the inspiration for Orwell's novel
Converted for the new archive on 30 June 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.