George Eliot Country Tour

On the afternoon of Friday 19 July, there will be an opportunity to visit sites associated with George Eliot’s life in a guided tour hosted by the Fellowship. This will include visits to Griff House and Arbury Hall.

The coach will pick-up delegates from College Court at 12.30pm and make two stops on the return journey (at the train station between 6.30pm-7pm and College Court at approximately 7.20pm).

Astley Church interior
Courtesy of the George Eliot Fellowship

Provisional itinerary

Courtesy of John Burton, Chairman of the George Eliot Fellowship

The coach will take the party first to Arbury Hall, a Grade l Listed building belonging to the same family as in George Eliot’s girlhood, the Newdigates, now Lord and Lady Daventry. Lady Daventry is patron of the George Eliot Fellowship and the house has been in the family for over 400 years. It is regarded as the best gothic revival home in the country, rivalled only by Strawberry Hill House in Richmond. The significance for Eliot lovers is that her father, Robert Evans was land agent for the Newdigate family, and the house she was born in, Arbury Farm (now called South Farm) is only half a mile from Arbury Hall. 

The second of her Scenes of Clerical Life, called Mr Gilfil’s Love Story is set largely at Arbury, though Eliot calls it Cheverel Manor. As a girl, Mary Ann accompanied her father around the estate and heard the stories of the great Sir Roger Newdigate, who had completed the gothicising of Arbury but also built five and a half miles of canals in the grounds, partly for creating a superior effect but also for moving coal from the mines on the estate to the Coventry canal. He was an MP for many years for Oxford and founded the Newdigate prize for poetry, as well as having two happy marriages, both of them childless – a clue as to how Robert Evans and his family moved from Derbyshire to Arbury, since his employer, Francis Parker, inherited the estate in 1806.

There are indeed gothic elements to Mr Gilfil’s Love Story which is set in the house and grounds of Arbury. The trip includes a full tour of the house where you will hear sections of the story read in the rooms they take place in – a lovely experience. The two hours at Arbury will start as near to 1.30 as possible and it will also include a visit to South Farm to see Eliot’s birthplace. The farm house is still lived in by the present agent to the estate, Adam Weaver, who generously allows us to walk in the garden underneath the bedroom in which Mary Ann was born early in the morning of 22 November 1819.

From Arbury we will go a short distance to Astley, where there is a wonderful church (one of Simon Jenkins’s 100 Best Parish Churches), once a huge collegiate church for the training on monks, but famous now for its wonderful description in Mr Gilfil’s Love Story of the elderly Gilfil ministering to his congregation and caring for them all in his beneficent way. This is the start of the story and makes the subsequent narrative of his travails as a young chaplain smitten by the young Caterina all the more touching. Whilst at Astley (Knebley in the story) we can see the Stirling Prize winning (2013) restored Astley Castle, now always fully booked as a Landmark Trust holiday accommodation.

We should leave Astley at 4.15 and drive to Griff House, now a Beefeater restaurant and Premier Inn hotel, but George Eliot’s home from 1820 until 1841, and the source of so much of the emotional heart of The Mill on the Floss, despite the Lincolnshire setting for the mill. At the rear of the old farm building is the outbuilding the Fellowship is hoping to reconstruct as a GE Visitor Centre. If time allows you will hear some relevant readings from TMOTF before we leave and drive past the Red Deeps to Chilvers Coton parish church, where Mary Ann was baptised, the family worshipped and her parents and brother are buried; evidence of the fact that three generations of the Evans family made considerable contributions to local life. The church suffered severely from enemy action in 1941 but the tower that Mary Ann remembered, with ‘its intelligent eye, the clock’ remains and has the distinction of featuring in the first paragraph of her first short story, The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton, from which you will also hearing a reading.

We intend to leave Chilvers Coton at 6.15, returning to Leicester as close to 7.00pm as Friday traffic will allow. Participants will be provided with a commemorative programme on the day which will also indicate venues with toilets.

The trip includes a packed lunch; you are advised to bring additional bottled drinks and snacks to munch during the afternoon as there will not be time or opportunity to stop for a longer afternoon tea or coffee break.