Did the West Midlands inspire a sci-fi writer’s sinister villages?
Pub ghosts, a children’s asylum and nobody to be seen
By Sophie Atkinson
The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) is perhaps the easiest of sci-fi author John Wyndham’s novels to love. You might ascribe this to its neat elevator pitch of a plot: one day, every woman in a village becomes pregnant simultaneously, regardless of whether they’re sexually active or not, and give birth to a group of increasingly menacing children.
The book zips along at a gorgeous speed — there’s not a single passage that doesn’t move it forwards. But the part that stays with you, long after reading, isn’t so much plot as the atmosphere of the place it’s set in. Wyndham anticipates David Lynch’s whole thing in depicting Midwich as a village that’s sinister in its ordinariness. We know it is a drowsy village only a few miles away from neighbouring villages; at its heart is a green, five elms, a pond. “Midwich was, almost notoriously, a place where things did not happen. Janet and I…found this to be almost its leading feature,” the narrator explains.
There are clues to suggest that Wyndham’s novel The Chrysalids (1955) is set in a future version of North America — yet the rural village it takes place in, Waknuk, feels like Midwich, only more so. Waknuk is eerily quiet. It’s structured around a sort of religious fundamentalism which brutally rejects “deviations” of any kind, whether misshapen tomatoes or a child with an extra toe. It is as ideologically closed off from the nearby villages as Midwich is supernaturally bordered off. Similarities accrue as you make your way through the novels: a group of telepathic children; an isolated rural community; a mistrust of outsiders.
The sense of place in these claustrophobic villages is so vivid in both novels that a curious reader may wonder if Wyndham was drawing from life. I knew from Amy Binns’ excellent biography, Hidden Wyndham, that from an early age, the author was sent to boarding school, and from that point on he “found himself in an institutionalised, genteel state of homelessness that would last almost his entire life.” But what of before that? Did Wyndham’s time in the Solihull village of Dorridge and the suburb of Edgbaston play a part in shaping his vision of village life that we would see in books like The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids? I resolved to find this out for myself.
In the Uber, as we move further and further away from Birmingham, the landscape contorts: the buildings thin, trees and shrubs surge. It’s fun to think about the way real places may shape novels, but half the time such theories don’t work out. But this time, on stepping out of the car, I receive a full body shock. This is it — a double for Midwich.
It’s ten to four in the afternoon, the sun is starting to go down and there isn’t another person in sight. I decide to start at the village hall. Cars pass, but nobody on foot. I weave my way through great thickets of trees and slide on slicks of mud, but I don’t fall. The reason a village is frightening, I think, is that you’re less safe than in the city. Not so much from crime, admittedly, but moving through a country village alone, mobile battery leaking at several percent per minute (god bless my centuries-old iPhone), I’m struck by the fact there’s no one to intervene if something were to happen. In the spirit of the assignment, I am not imagining an act of violence, theft, or what have you, but something supernatural. Perhaps I would suddenly become telepathic, or have a run-in with an extraterrestrial. In the bluing light, anything seems possible.
Through the trees, the sight of the village hall — squat, gingerbread-hued — is reassuring. All the lights are on, and when I push the front door open, I can hear singing and waves of laughter. To my astonishment, some sort of Christmas musical is being performed. Never mind that it is only the last day of November, and only 4pm — there is an improbably large audience for one hour before the end of the work day. The entirety of the village seems to be watching, and suddenly all eyes are on me trying to scope out a spare seat. Abashed at all the attention, I retreat back outside.
There’s a pub nearby, the Railway Inn, where I find three of the villagers: Ewan, Rob and Shaun. Ewan, the sweetly polite bartender, is 22. Rob, bearded and gruff but friendly, is 58. There’s a black hole where Shaun should be — he’s the most intriguing (we’ll get there), but the most privacy conscious, and he refuses to be photographed. He doesn’t like that I’m waving a voice recorder under everyone’s noses while they talk to me (and honestly, who can blame him?). Fortunately, he has a lot of opinions, and keeps getting drawn back in despite himself.
Do you know John Wyndham? No, no idea. But they all know Village of the Damned, the two films based on The Midwich Cuckoos. You need to meet Jeff, they all tell me, over and over. Jeff is a local legend — a man in his eighties who comes to the pub every day, at five at the dot (“Ten past five, sometimes”). He grew up round here, what he doesn’t know about Dorridge doesn’t bear repeating. Et cetera. They claim Jeff will definitely have known John Wyndham and are so convincing, so relentless, in their campaign for me to cross-question this poor man that I completely overlook the fact that the maths doesn’t add up. Wyndham was born in 1903; he would have been in his forties, long gone from here, when Jeff first took his first breath. I’ll make sure I’m here then, I tell them.
Halfway through my Merlot, I’ve had enough chit chat. Is Dorridge Midwich, or is it Waknuk? Does everyone know everyone, I press them? Rob says gnomically that local people know local people. What does that mean? “If you don't know someone, you'll know somebody who knows them.” Both of Wyndham’s fictional villages are geographically close to other villages, but they have an uncanny, self-contained quality — whether literally in The Midwich Cuckoos or ideologically in The Chrysalids. I wonder if the very fact of Dorridge being Wyndham’s birthplace has undermined that — do they get a lot of literary tourists? “You’re the first in my lifetime,” says Ewan smilingly, at which point I must point out that he is not even a quarter of a century old. “Same for me,” says Rob, which forces me to concede the point.
On asking them where in Dorridge they’re based, something unexpected emerges: not only does Shaun live above the pub that we are standing in, but he cohabits with a ghost. I would think he was pulling my leg, but he is so taciturn and pale on the subject of his spectral squatter that he truly seems to be trying not to enrage it (or her, as it turned out) with confidences to journalists. The ghost is a friendly one and he knows exactly who she is: Babe Watson, the former owner of the Railway Inn, who he describes as looking exactly like Dot Cotton. She used to visit him a fair bit when he first moved in, but it's got better recently. He will not tell me much more, except that he thinks the pub building is probably very haunted — it is hundreds of years old, various people have hanged themselves here and so on.
I pull my coat on, wind my scarf round twice. My plan is to walk over to Dorridge Grove before it gets too dark, not that I feel too enthusiastic about heading there alone after all this ghost chat. While researching Dorridge, I was arrested by one detail: in 1866, a small private asylum had been established in the village for 20 female patients. In 1886, this became the Midlands Counties Idiot Asylum — ‘idiots’ being the outdated term used describe those with learning difficulties from birth, rather than ‘lunatics’ who developed mental illnesses later in life — and it held 20 children (12 girls, eight boys), none of whom were older than 12 years old. In 1901, the name was changed to ‘Midland Counties Asylum’ and once again in 1911 to the ‘Midland Counties Institution’. On the Wikipedia page for Dorridge, there's a picture of the house. I mean to go and find it for myself.
It’s hard to tell whether in the early 1900s, it was used to house children specifically. But its history seems too similar to the plot of The Midwich Cuckoos to be a coincidence. In the novel, the uncanny telepathic children are not mentally slow but the opposite: as soon as one learns something, the entire group does. Given how strange and different they are to the other children, an administrative decision is made to educate them together, separately from the ‘normal’ children. Since these children end up living at the school, it becomes a key part of the novel's geography — initially their safe place, their nest, but closer to the end, more like a stronghold. In The Chrysalids, we don’t have that same geographical space, but a mental one. A group of children are all telepathic, and fear their secret will be discovered. After all, if a sixth toe is considered an abomination, worthy of killing a child, how would the gift of telepathy be interpreted? The Chrysalids is like The Midwich Cuckoos turned inside out — what if the children were right to be scared of those who didn’t share their powers?
The lamps on Knowle Wood Road are dim, casting a dirty glow more than any useful illumination. All of the houses on this street are sprawling and gated, and figures keep looming out of the darkness and giving me a fright. Maybe I shouldn’t have read Cuckoos before coming here. There’s something eerie about this village, with its manicured surfaces and dark seams of ghosts and asylums. Eventually, I strike upon the house. It's got a gate, and the gate is locked. There's a bell, which I try, heart thudding in my chest. Happily or unhappily — it’s hard to say, now, which outcome I hoped for — there’s no answer.
I head back to the pub but Shaun and Rob and even the bartender are gone. In quite a Midwichly turn, the new bartender seems mistrustful of me as an outsider. She keeps trying to find ways to stop me from interviewing Jeff, as if anxious I am preying on a vulnerable pensioner for a story. “You can’t do that here, it’s too loud,” she says when I speak to Jeff at a normal volume. “You’d have to relocate to the restaurant part of the pub. Is that okay for you, Jeff?” It doesn't matter anyway. Given the aforementioned maths, Jeff has obviously never met John Wyndham.
It’s important to know when to give up. The village hall is now empty and I don’t have any more leads to follow. Later, the dead ends duplicate. Re-reading a passage of Hidden Wyndham, I notice a detail I’d missed before: yes, Wyndham was born in Dorridge, but despite how perfectly these novels seem shaped by the Solihull village, he didn’t necessarily spend a long time there. The family relocated to Edgbaston shortly after. Back to Birmingham it is.
239 Hagley Road, Edgbaston. This is where Wyndham lived from 1908 to 1911, when his parents separated. After this, John, his mother Gertrude and his brother Vivian lived in an unidentified smaller property in Edgbaston, according to research by Dr. David Ketterer, Emeritus Professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal. In 1915, John attended his first boarding school, Shardlow Hall in Derbyshire — the building itself seems too grand to be an influence, but Shardlow, the village it’s based in, seems as though it could have been a fit for Midwich and Waknuk. I take the train into the city centre and sit on a bus that inches down the road. The rain streaks the windows and blurs the lights of the cars sitting in gridlock.
Exiting the bus, I get a sinking feeling: it’s the inverse sensation to my Dorridge trip. Not only can I not see any obvious influence on his novels, it’s hard to conceive of Wyndham ever having lived here. Hagley Road is now an A-road, and surveying my surroundings, it feels like one of the most anonymous places I’ve ever been to. As lorries slug past, I’m opposite a Premier Inn and a TGI Fridays. The place where the house should be is bookended by Tesco Express and a hotel that’s seen better days. The house itself is just an empty lot, gated off with a warning to would-be intruders that the premises are protected by a security company. I’ve come here for nothing, it seems.
In Binns’ book, she describes the road much as I do: “Now demolished, the site of that Hagley Road house is a waste ground of overgrown trees, surrounded by low budget restaurant chains.” However, on her visit (the book was published in 2019, so perhaps things have changed in the last four years), she argues the remaining house next door gives an idea “of how it would have been before this road became an artery to newer suburbs.”
When I visit, there’s no house next door. But when I sift through Google Street views of the location from 2018 and earlier, I find a striking three-storeyed grey house with three pointed roofs which gives a good sense of what the architecture might have been at the time.
She continues: “It was three storeys, brick above and rendered below with an assortment of gables and chimneys. It faced the main road across a front garden, with a curving path to a gate flanked by stone pillars. The top storey gave spacious accommodation for Edith Winter, the 23-year-old cook; Louise Hatton, nurse, aged 20; and Lily Beresford, parlour maid, aged 25. The garden had a pond: one of Viv [John’s younger brother]’s earliest memories was of falling in and Jack [John] holding him up by his hair until Nurse Hatton rushed up to rescue him.”
Browsing past the Google Street View shots, it’s easy to see just how much one stretch of a road can change from one year to the next. While Dorridge might have been insulated by the surrounding countryside from quite so much change as this neighbourhood, Edgbaston lies just outside of the city centre of England's second largest city. How could it fail to have been entirely transformed?
For example, in 1837, Birmingham Daily Mail journalist Eliezer Edwards described Edgbaston in the following:
Beyond Five Ways there were no street lamps. The Hagley Road had a few houses dotted here and there, and had, at no distant time, been altered in direction… All along the straightened part there was on the left a wide open ditch, filled, generally, with dirty water, across which brick arches carried roads to the private dwellings…Beyond this spot, with the exception of Hazelwood House, where the father of Rowland Hill, the postal reformer, kept his school, and some half-dozen red brick houses on the right, all was open country…There were some houses in the Church Road and at Wheeleys Hill, but the greater portion of Edgbaston was agricultural land.
While this would be some sixty-odd years before Wyndham set foot there, it depicts a suburb which skews considerably closer to the Dorridge I visited than it does to contemporary Edgbaston.
All of which suggests one of the key problems with trying to link novels to a place. Books are static: if I find a paragraph to illustrate my point, it’s not going to dissolve or move to a different location or be demolished. But England never stops changing, and neither do its villages. While I was in the Railway Inn, Rob told me that even just in his lifetime Dorridge has altered beyond recognition: when he was a child, it was complete freedom, he said. You could run about in the streets because there were barely any cars. I suspect Rob’s childhood memories aren’t an anomaly: the sleepiness of somewhere like 1960s Dorridge is harder and harder to find. Which raises the question: are Wyndham’s eerily isolated village settings the sort of places that can even exist in today’s world? Or, increasingly, are they edging towards a level of improbability that’s somewhat closer to psychic children and extraterrestrial pregnancy — something that can only exist as an idea?
In today’s England, the dominant tone is a sort of uniformity: a high street in Wigan might boast exactly the same café chains and shops as one in Ipswich. Dorridge may not be what the legendary sci-fi author based Midwich or Waknuk on, but it’s more improbable than this: a destination which offers something unique. Namely, the same isolation; the same quiet menace as the villages in Wyndham’s novels.