The Staffordshire village of Ellastone has a surprising history – with close links to the author George Eliot, Bohemian French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, musician Handel and even a couple of Hollywood stars.
2019 will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Eliot; and while the Nuneaton-Coventry area is the undisputed centre of “George Eliot Country”, her connections with Staffordshire are not too far behind – thanks, in part, to Adam Bede, her first full-length novel, which was published in 1859.
The book tells the story of a morally-upright carpenter named Adam Bede who is in love with Hetty Sorrel, a pretty and self-absorbed dairymaid. When Hetty falls pregnant by the young squire of the village, she runs away, gives birth in secret and kills her baby. She is sent to prison and sentenced to death, and it falls to her cousin, the Methodist preacher Dinah Morris, to impress upon her the gravity of her situation and turn her mind to repentance. Meanwhile Adam, shocked by Hetty’s crime and by the discovery of her relationship with the squire, has to reassess his rigid views of morality. Hetty’s sentence is commuted to deportation, and Adam and Dinah eventually marry. Eliot said she was inspired to write the novel by recalling her Methodist aunt, who similarly prayed with a woman convicted for infanticide.
Set in a beautiful stretch of the Dove Valley, its focus is Ellastone (“Hayslope”, in the book), where Eliot’s father lived in his youth, and is Adam Bede’s home in the novel, which also sees Dinah Morris preach on the Green, and Mr Irwine in the Church. Eliot’s father, Robert Evans, was the model for Adam Bede and her grandparents were models for Matthias and Lisbeth Bede.
The home of her paternal grandparents, George and Mary Evans, still stands in Upper Ellastone and has long been called Adam Bede’s Cottage, although now a private home.
Elsewhere in the village, Calwich Abbey, founded in 1130 but now derelict, was taken from the monks in the 1530s during the Dissolution, with the buildings acquired by John Fleetwood and turned into a private house.
While Richard Fleetwood subsequently left the Abbey, and built a magnificent country house – Wootton Lodge – two miles away, the Abbey passed in the early 18th century to Bernard Granville, an eccentric and semi-recluse who doted on his house and garden. It marked the beginning of a new chapter in Ellastone’s surprising hidden history.
The curious, rich and famous visited the Abbey, including Handel, who played the organ there for Granville. Local tradition has it Handel composed some of his Water Music here.
Rousseau, meanwhile, spent a year at Wootton Lodge, and visited Granville at the Abbey before being subsequently inspired to write his Confessions here. In the 1930s it became the home of the British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley and his wife Diana Mitford for four years. In 1950 the house was purchased by the then-famous war poet Major Alan Rook; and more recently the estate was purchased and much improved by local businessman J.C.Bamford (of JCB fame), whose HQ is situated nearby.
To add to this walk of fame, Ellastone was also used as the location for the movie Blanche Fury starring Stewart Grainger and Valerie Hobson, in 1948, with the exterior of Wootton Hall also taking a starring role.
For visitors heading to Ellastone, there is a chance to enjoy brand new country-chic boutique accommodation after the much-acclaimed Duncombe Arms expanded by adding a new 10-bedroom development at the end of December 2018.
The pub is owned by descendants of the Greenall gin family, Johnny and Laura Greenall, who bought the pub some years ago, aiming to reinstate it as the hub of the village.
Dating from the 1850s, the Duncombe Arms reopened following major renovations in March 2012, and is today run by the Greenalls alongside general manager James Oddy and head chef Chris Gallagher.
The new bedrooms have opened in the Walnut House, a new-build development next to the pub. They are individually designed by Laura Greenall in “countryside chic style”, with fabrics by Mulberry and wallpaper by Colefax & Fowle and views over Dove Valley.
Prices start at £160 per room, including breakfast.
In addition to The Duncombe Arms, accommodation can also be found at Ellastone at Dove Farm in three award-winning holiday cottages on a working farm. This is situated close to the former site of Calwich Abbey.
The Parlour at Greenacres in nearby Denstone, meanwhile, offers accommodation in a secluded Shepherd’s Hut, where it’s possible to stay from around £75 per night.
Denstone itself is home to the nation’s “Best Large Farm Shop” for 2018. Having achieved that status in the 2018 Farm Shop & Deli Awards, Denstone Hall Farm Shop has since gone on to win the Farm Shop of the Year & Judges Choice Award in the annual Taste of Staffordshire award run by EnjoyStaffordshire.
For all tourist information relating to Staffordshire visit http://www.enjoystaffordshire.com.