Saturday, 22 September 2018

Orwell visitor centre finally set to open

A VISITOR centre dedicated to author George Orwell could open in Henley in September.

A VISITOR centre dedicated to author George Orwell could open in Henley in September.

Art publisher Peter Burness-Smith hopes to finalise a deal to lease the disused chapel at Fair Mile cemetery with Henley Town Council this week.

The centre will be called George Orwell’s Henley and will document what the town was like when he was a resident in the early 1900s.

The author, who was then called Eric Arthur Blair, arrived with his mother in 1904 and stayed until 1921, when he was 18.

Mr Burness-Smith, 59, said: “The centre will portray Henley at that time so that people can get a feel for what it was like for him during his most formative years.

“We also want to use it as a venue, where we can have talks and recitals and events which are appropriate to its position.”

The chapel was built by Sir Frank Crisp in 1881 for non-conformists at the same time that he built the Fair Mile Chapel, which is still in use.

However, the chapel was not consecrated and has never been used.

Plans include the conversion of the chapel’s anteroom into a replica of Orwell’s study at Eton College, a free book exchange, the installation of stained glass windows by illustrator Gerald Scarfe and a Saturday morning club for children. The new centre will also have an oak “1984 board” named after Orwell’s famous novel, on which people can pay up to £100 to have their names put against a year.

A third of the years have already been sold and an American man has bought seven. A few of the years, including 1984, will be auctioned.

There will also be maps of the town so visitors can follow in Blair’s footsteps and see his former homes in St Mark’s Road and Vicarage Road in Henley and Station Road, Wargrave.

Mr Burness Smith, who lives in St Mark’s Road, said the centre would be a visitor attraction all year round. Initially, it will be open only at weekends and entry will be free, although one-off events, such as celebrity readings, will incur a small charge.

Mr Burness-Smith said: “I want to make it as easy as possible for everybody to come. If we can prove there is a demand in high season for people to come during the week then we will consider that.”

He will pay a peppercorn rent of £1 a year to the town council under the terms of the 30-year lease. The upkeep of the chapel’s interior will be his responsibility and the exterior will be the responsibility of the council, following English Heritage guidelines.

Mr Burness-Smith will make only minor changes to the chapel, including whitewashing the walls. The cost of creating the Eton study is expected to be met from donations.

He says he has the support of Orwell’s son, Richard Blair, and culture minister Ed Vaizey. Mr Burness-Smith first approached the town council with his idea more than two years ago but it took a year to be passed through various sub-committees before being approved by the full council.

He was given the go-ahead around Christmas last year but had to put the project on hold after he suffered a heart attack.

He was admitted to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford where he underwent a triple heart by-pass operation followed by months of recuperation.

He has since been diagnosed with hereditary cholesterol but says he returned to the Orwell project as soon as he could. Mr Burness-Smith said: “It doesn’t really matter that it has taken this time to get here, the fact is that we are where we are. It’s something special for one of Henley’s most famous residents so I think it’s very exciting.”

He first became interested in Orwell when he read his novels 1984 and Animal Farm when he was at school in Dorchester. Mr Burness-Smith said: “I was a Henley boy and I suddenly realised that Henley had also been home to Eric Arthur Blair, as he was then, and I think I was exactly the right age to be reading them.

“It’s not so much that I have an obsession with him, so much as I have a lot in common with him.”

Blair was just 11 when his first published piece of work, Awake Young Men Of England, appeared in the Henley and South Oxfordshire Standard on October 2, 1914.

His second poem, Kitchener, was published by the paper on July 21, 1916. Copies of both poems will figure prominently in the chapel.

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