Victorian novelist George Eliot’s Nuneaton home is now a Premier Inn — The Dispatch visited
Heading to North Warwickshire for literary inspiration and beer-battered onion rings
Dear readers — welcome to Wednesday’s Dispatch. I wanted to start 2024 as we mean to go on: with deep dives into local news and culture you won’t find anywhere else.
So where better to begin than with a bemusing fact: did you know that George Eliot — one of the most celebrated novelists of all of British literary history — grew up in Nuneaton? And did you know that her childhood home is not a cherished tourist attraction nor a shrine to her memory, but a Premier Inn and outpost of the steak chain restaurant Beefeater?
On discovering this, I had to know more. The steaks couldn’t be higher.
Before we get there, your Brum in Brief awaits below. But first, here is a lovely message from a new member, Steve Doswell. If you want to join The Dispatch and support quality local journalism, you can do so by hitting that green button there. Welcome.
Brum in Brief
⚠️ More flood warnings have been issued for the West Midlands following heavy rainfall due to Storm Henk. The Environment Agency has said there could be a further peak today if the wet weather continues.
🚲 Several improvements to Birmingham’s cycling infrastructure are coming in 2024 including 30 cycle hangars for safely storing bikes on residential streets; some new cycle lanes; and more low traffic neighbourhoods.
🐕 The government has published guidance on the new restrictions on XL Bully dogs. All such dogs should be muzzled and kept on a lead when in public. It is also illegal to breed, sell, advertise, gift, exchange, abandon, or let them stray.
🥃 Tickets are running low for The Idiot’s Guide to Whisky Tasting at Grain and Grass next week. £20 gets you six whiskies and an informal introduction to the wonderful world of malts and blends.
☕ Urban community builder City Girl Network is hosting a coffee gathering tomorrow for women living in Birmingham who want to meet new people and make friends, find travel buddies, or even housemates. Tickets are £2 and the event starts at 5.30pm.
By Kate Knowles
On 7 June 2020, protesters in Bristol marched against the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman in Minneapolis. The demonstrators’ anger in the face of this injustice reached a climax when they toppled a statue of slave owner Edward Colston and pushed it into the harbour. A week later, during a protest in the Midlands town of Nuneaton, staunch statue defenders came out to shield monuments in case they too were brought down. Five brave souls, one of whom was clad in a military beret adorned with a red and white plume, stood guard in front of one historic luminary. In this case, she wasn’t a slave trader, a war hero, or even a politician — she was the Victorian novelist George Eliot.
Although much fun was had online at the expense of the guard which probably overestimated the fury protestors might unleash on a local writer — even Piers Morgan joined in the ribbing by tweeting “all statues matter” — the interview the men gave with the Coventry Telegraph was revealing. Corry Bates, a veteran of the first battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, explained he wasn’t against the protest per se. It was simply that he had heard what had happened to statues elsewhere and wanted to make sure nothing happened to this one. “I’m purely here to protect our history,” he said.
I find this declaration fascinating because you could be forgiven for thinking Nuneaton, and the West Midlands in general, doesn’t actually care all that much about Eliot. The author’s childhood home, Griff House, is still standing; these days it’s nestled in between the Coventry Road and the A444. But it isn’t a museum celebrating Eliot’s life and works, or a library named after her. It’s not a cherished tourist attraction like Jane Austen’s Hampshire cottage or Beatrix Potter’s National Trust-maintained farmhouse. It’s a Premier Inn with a Beefeater restaurant attached, complete with two-for-£10 cocktails every day from the hours of five till nine.
I first learned about Griff House when I rang up Nuneaton-born historical novelist and researcher Natalie Marlow for a chat about Birmingham pride for a Dispatch article. In it, we discussed the curious tendency endemic to the West Midlands of keeping schtum about all the wonderful art that has been created by people from here. Even those who are widely recognised are only just now getting memorials like the Black Sabbath Bench and Bridge, and we are still awaiting a permanent heavy metal museum. While it might be churlish to suggest Eliot isn’t remembered at all (after all, there is a statue, a local hospital is named after her, and local museums and archives hold items from a George Eliot collection) Marlow and I both wondered what it says about us that this giant of Victorian literature’s childhood home is now a motorway hotel?
And we’re not the only ones. A long Trip Advisor review of the Premier Inn by a baffled American visitor says the very reason they travelled over was to come to this otherwise unexceptional spot. “Literary tourism is taking off,” they exclaim, imploring the hotel to capitalise on the connection. “I know at least a dozen scholars who have come from all parts of the world” to see where George Eliot spent her childhood, they add.
Craving a Beefeater Signature Berrytini, I dragged my boyfriend along for a romantic night at the roadside inn on the company’s dime. I was keen to get inside the building which had inspired the setting for The Mill on the Floss, to see literary history rub up against mixed grill platters and beer-battered onion rings. The novel, which was published in 1860, tells the story of headstrong siblings Maggie and Tom Tulliver growing up in the Warwickshire countryside. The characters are thought to be heavily inspired by Mary Anne Evans — Eliot’s birth name, which she changed several times during her life — and her brother Isaac, who were close as children. Maggie is driven by her emotions, while Tom’s inner compass is his sense of duty, and despite their love for one another, their differences regularly bring them into conflict.
As we drive down the motorway towards Nuneaton through torrential rain, I remark that the conditions are similar to those at the end of the novel, when a lonely Maggie listens to the downpour “beating heavily against the window, driven with fitful force by the rushing, loud-moaning wind”. “Sure!” my boyfriend says, uncharacteristically concise. I suspect he is more preoccupied with making sure our little Vauxhall Corsa doesn’t swerve off the road in the storm than engaging in a literary analysis of the landscape. On arriving, I collar a man smoking a cigarette under a canopy outside. Does he know anything about Eliot and her life here? The man regards me with an expression pitched somewhere between confusion and fear. No, he says, in the carefully measured tones a person might use to soothe a maniac. He’s just travelling from Newcastle to go to a wedding down south and is waiting for his daughter to pick him up, he explains. I turn on my heel and head to reception.