The Outbuildings at Griff House
Progress Towards a George Eliot Visitor Centre
A progress report on the attempt to save an outbuilding at Griff House and convert it to a George Eliot Visitor Centre
We had known of the poor state of some of the outbuildings at Griff House, George Eliot's childhood home, for a long time. One only had to look at them to see the dreadful state they were in. However, matters came to a head last year, early 2012, when Whitbread, who own the building and run it as a Beefeater Restaurant and Premier Inn Hotel, put in a planning application to the local authority for permission to demolish the derelict outbuilding.
Alarm bells started ringing and the Fellowship rallied support from some of our academic members and from local civic amenity societies in the Nuneaton and Bedworth area. The first task was to lodge enough objections to ensure that the decision would be made by the full planning committee rather than by a single officer. That was successfully achieved and we prepared our three minute speech to the Planning Committee. It is surprising how long it takes when you only have three minutes! In the background there was more support from Eliot scholars who wrote to Whitbread to explain how important Griff House is in the story of George Eliot. Kathryn Hughes wrote a Comment piece for the Guardian and Rebecca Mead had a front page story on the New Yorker blog.
For a number of reasons, the decision was deferred but eventually we presented our case - that had the building been, for instance, in Stratford with a clear link to Shakespeare then it would have been saved; so why not do the same for the great 19th century writer. We proposed a deferred decision to give the Committee a chance for a site visit, which also gave us more time to mount our defence.This was agreed and there seemed to be a clear preference by the Committee to listen to our objections, though the Conservation Officer for the local authority had recommended demolition (yes, read that again!) We argued that the building would have been there in Mary Anne's time, she would have known it, and that it appears in the first biography by J W Cross as an engraving which calls the group of buildings the farm offices.
Eventually, in the autumn of last year the planning committee met to make their decision, which was to refuse permission for demolition. Meanwhile, English Heritage had refused to add it the main Listing of Griff House, despite new advice to regional panels by English Heritage to take particular care of vernacular pre -1840 agricultural buildings, which this clearly was. We appealed to DCMS and they also turned down our appeal.
The future looked bleak. The building is in a terrible state but Whitbread could not pull it down. Leave it long enough and it will fall down. At this point we were invited to a meeting with Whitbread in early December 2012, where Whitbread seem to have had a complete volte-face. They have offered to help us to convert the outbuilding into a George Eliot Visitor Centre and will pay £85,000 towards it. All the details of that, and of how much else we might need to raise are still for discussion, but we have made some progress.
We have a committee, chaired by our own Fellowship vice-chair Vivienne Wood, with representatives from the two local civic amenity societies, an author and a Borough Councillor. We have an architect who has now completed a full survey of the building and drawn up ideas which we have discussed and will be discussing with Whitbread and the Planners shortly.
Essentially what Keith Corrigan, our architect, is suggesting is that we pull the building down, and rebuild, possibly with a wooden frame, so that the frontage looks like the original, using the original bricks, but raise the roof slightly to allow a staircase to reach the first floor of the 'stable' end, and extend the building back to link to the other existing outbuilding on the same site, thus adding about a third to the potential space for our Visitor Centre.
When complete we would thus have a first floor area to store the Fellowship archive, much of which is at present in Kathleen and Bill Adams's spare bedroom, and exhibition area which will concentrate on the agriculture interest in some of George Eliot's novels and a multi-functional meeting space for workshops, meetings and seminars, along with a small sales area.
The building is behind the wall on the left of the old postcard. On the colour picture it is shown from the attic of Griff. The building with the chimney is not in our plan, but we hope to include the space behind our building in an enlarged building. One of the pictures below shows that passageway. The other show the poor state of repair, indeed the near collapse of the building.
The passageway above would give us more space if incorporated into the rebuild. The other pictures show how close to collapsthe building is, after several decades of neglect.
We will keep members informed through their Newsletters of the progress of the plans, and we will add more details as they emerge on to this News item on the website. In future we may need to appeal for money, artefacts, volunteers and guides but we do think it will be an opportunity to put George Eliot a bit more firmly on the map.
Published on 04 August 2013