Victorian society was astonished by the first novel of a well-known journalist. Its stylistic departure from the popular Romanticist writers such as Jane Austen, Walter Scott and the Romantic poets, plus the background of the initially anonymous author, made Adam Bede a bestseller. It propelled George Eliot, the nom de plume of magazine journalist and social reformer Marian Evans, to literary fame.
Evans spent time in a bucolic, hidden corner of Staffordshire where the rural life of the 19th century delivered a magnificent palette of characters, locations and situations for her plots. Her immediate family provided the spur for some of the protagonists in this Victorian novel, which astounded the literary world when published in 1859. This everyday story of country folk and society, set against the endless ructions of religious and moral ferment that characterised the century, remains one of English literature’s most loved novels.
It is famed for the vivid descriptions of the countryside before the Industrial Revolution took hold, and is strongly linked to the Staffordshire village of Ellastone. Located in the peaceful Dove Valley outside Ashbourne, the village surveys haymeadows, copses, wooded valleys, old farms and looming hills that are little-altered since Evans’ time.
She absorbed such rural largesse while visiting her father Robert (a youthful model for Adam Bede), who was a carpenter in Ellastone. He lived at the house now called Adam Bede’s Cottage, not far from Old Hall, which features in the book as the Donnithorne Arms. This is unspoilt England wrote large, a charming rural outland where the countryside is as fresh and recognisable as if the novelist’s ink had barely dried on the page.
It’s a place best explored on foot, following ancient paths and lanes Evans herself surely walked while musing on her nascent novel. Self-guided, waymarked walks explore the environs of the village, filtering into the wider landscapes that inspired her. Particular highlights include the Weaver Hills, north of the village, from which elegant views lap both to the stark horizons of the White Peak and the dimpled countryside of Derbyshire.
Another option is to study the local OS Explorer map and indulge in a three-mile circuit west to the hidden mansion of Wootton Lodge. No roads pass it, but by following footpaths, a loop walk from Ellastone allows fine views of this Elizabethan house and its parkland. This is a contender for Donnithorne Chase in the book, home to Squire Donnithorne and his grandson Arthur, lover of the novel’s femme fatale Hetty Sorrel.
However you explore, remind yourself that this countryside inspired not only Evans, but perhaps also George Frideric Handel, who is said to have drafted both Water Music and Messiah while staying with friends at Calwich Abbey (now demolished), beside the Dove just outside Ellastone.
HOW TO GET THERE
Ellastone is in the Dove Valley about half-way between Uttoxeter and Ashbourne on the B5030/5032 road network. Car park at the village hall opposite the church. Buses between Uttoxeter, Ashbourne and Derby (TrentBarton ‘Swift’ route) call at Ellastone.
FIND OUT MORE
The Duncombe Arms
Ellastone DE6 2GZ
Manor House Farm & Keepers Cottage