Did Orwell Visit Buxton?

In February 1936 the writer George Orwell went on a ‘on tour’ to the North of England, on a fact-finding mission to research the living and working conditions of the working classes including miners and the unemployed.

His book the ‘Road to Wigan Pier’ had a profound influence on the way that middle class England viewed the North, and can be compared in its impact and historical significance to Cobbett’s ‘Rural Rides.’

But did he visit Buxton? 

On 1st March 1936, Orwell travelled from Manchester to Sheffield, arriving to stay at 154 Wallace Road, Sheffield on 2 March 1936.

He had been planning to walk some of the way, but ill-health and the weather forced him to change his plans. Instead of going direct he took the train from Manchester to Buxton.

He describes part of his journey in an entry for 2 March;

“Thick snow everywhere on the hills as I came along. Stone boundaries between the fields running across the snow like black piping across a white dress.”

A brief handwritten note buried amongst his papers provides further information.

“Broke the journey in Buxton, a quarry town but once famous for being a spa, or so I am told. Evidence of quarrying everywhere on the surrounding hills. The people friendly and well off by comparison to other towns closer to Manchester. Very cold and damp with much snow even in the town.”

Reference in a letter to his publisher, to staying in an Old Railway cottage, gives a hint of where in Buxton Orwell may have stayed, but what is clear is that he visited Poole’s Cavern on 2 March before continuing his journey to Sheffield.

An unpublished note in the back of his diary describes his trip down the cave. He had previously visited several mines so despite the crammed entrance, found the trip comparatively easy.

The note reads as follows;

“Slept poorly. The sheets were clean but rough and the bed too small. Kept awake by the continual noise from the railway tracks nearby.

The house is bigger and better proportioned than those in Wigan and Manchester.  The row of cottages all had a front garden and a yard at the back. Two rooms downstairs, with an outside W.C. Washing is in the sink and a copper in the living room. Upstairs there are two bedrooms. A further floor has two rooms. Rent with rates 8/6. Husband works for the Railways. Wife earns 6d an hour taking in washing and darning.

Lift to Sheffield was delayed by the poor weather, so walked through the town,which was blanketed in snow.”

Orwell goes on to compare the shops in the town to those in Wigan noting that Buxton seems to be a prosperous middle class town by comparison.

“Stopped to buy tobacco at No 90. [His handwriting is unclear here but possibly Lightwood Road. No 90 used to be a corner shop in the 1930’s so this makes sense.]

The handwritten diary continues.

“The town is famous for among other things a cave known as Poole’s hole. One reaches it after a walk through a leafy well to do area. It was officially closed but a local man Michael Allsopp, who knows the cave well agreed to give me a brief trip.

The attraction has a run down feel to it, having lost its Victorian splendour. The entrance is reached via a short walk ,wooded on one side, with black and white single story buildings on the other. These have in the past housed a museum and a menagerie that included several monkeys.

The entrance to the cave is low and unappealing at first and I had to crouch low as I had to in the mines. But the air is clean and fresh with none of the stale, fetid stench of the coal mine.

The narrow entrance passage soon opens out into a large chamber decorated with stalactites and stalagmites. A river in full spate rushes a few feet below one.  The passage is lit by gas lamps, installed by the Victorians. The walls and roof of the passage are blacked with soot and the yellow light casts strange shadows.

Mr Allsopp, told me that amongst others Mary Queen of Scots was a visitor to the cave in 1584. She stayed at the ‘Old Hall’ which is now a hotel of some merit but then was a four storey tower in which she was held prisoner. I enquired as to the reason for her visit to Buxton. Allsopp told me that she had suffered from rheumatic fever and came to take the waters.

We stopped to look at a particularly impressive formation before…………”

Here the entry ends.

Orwell continued his ‘tour of the North’ staying in Sheffield and then spending a few days in Leeds.

Buxton is never mentioned in his official writings but the image of the tall, gaunt, consumptive and thin old Etonian stumbling through the low entrance passage to ‘Poole’s hole’ cigarette clamped to his lower lip, is an intriguing one.

This article was first published in ‘Le Journal de mille neuf cent quatre-vingt-quatre’ on 1st Avril 1984.

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