Eastwood in Nottinghamshire

David Ellis visits Eastwood in Nottinghamshire, the birthplace of D.H. Lawrence.

Eastwood is not difficult to find.  If you’re coming from the London area, you drive up the M1 until junction 26 and then, instead of turning right into the sprawling megalopolis which is now Nottingham, turn instead left onto the A 610 towards Ripley, Matlock and the Derbyshire Peak District.  Don’t be surprised to find a lot of cars going that way.  Some of them may be visiting the birthplace of D. H. Lawrence, which is then only a couple of miles away, but the majority are probably heading for the Ikea store, which is also nearby.  The contiguity reminds me that there was at least one great 20th-century writer who would not have had any trouble putting together those flat packs that can drive the rest of us up the wall.

The dual carriageway takes you around the south side of Eastwood only intersecting with the town near the bottom of the hill on its extreme Western side.  To see what Lawrence described so well in his late journal article `Nottingham and the Mining Countryside’, you need to take the old road into Eastwood that slopes gently up towards this hilltop.  When he talked about it in 1929, his home town was far from being wealthy and full of what he calls `scrappy, ugly mid-Victorian shops’.  He inveighed against `the moneyed classes and promoters of industry’ who condemned their workers to ugliness, claiming that `the human soul needs actual beauty even more than bread’.  Today the shops are not all of course mid-Victorian, although the most interesting of them look like survivors from the 1950s, but they are almost uniformly suggestive of a community with very little cash to spare.  Supermarkets provide the current shorthand for estimating the wealth of an area and there is no sign of a Sainsbury’s here, let alone a Waitrose.  Most of the buildings are for need not show, the one exception being a pub on the right as you come into the centre of Eastwood which has been brightly refurbished by Wetherspoons and is called The Lady Chatterley.  I rather like the evident intention to create palaces for the people which inspires this firm.  Only recently I happened to stop in Harrogate and had a drink in the truly magnificent Winter Gardens, all columns, stuccoed ceilings and Edwardian splendour.  The name of its present owner was hardly visible but evident enough in the very reasonable price of the beer, and the day-long availability of the full English breakfast.

It is if you turn right down quite a steep incline, shortly before you reach the top of the hill in Eastwood, that you come across the house where Lawrence was born.  That is now a museum and part of a whole network of small terraced houses.  Some time ago the Council did up the area, with `European’ money, and made it look quite smart.  When this gentrification has been attempted with similar areas in parts of Oxford and Cambridge, the result has been the transformation of the old two up and two downs into desirable dwellings worth half a million.  But that’s because those who bought them had well-paid jobs nearby.  The run-down look which the streets around the birthplace are once again beginning to acquire is one sign among many of a Council under financial pressure.  It has been a tactic of the central government to devolve a few spending powers to local councils so that someone else can be blamed for austerity cuts.  The latest problem to preoccupy those in and around Eastwood who take an interest in these matters is the Council’s closure of Durban House.

This is a solid, late nineteenth-century building which stands on its own grounds to the right of the road just as you are leaving Eastwood and heading down the hill towards Ripley.  It used to be known as the `D. H. Lawrence Heritage Centre’ but, despite a vigorous campaign from locals, was closed down in March.  The last time I was there the museum upstairs had an exhibition celebrating the once dominant mining industry, and on the ground floor, there was a café and rooms for meetings and talks.  It was a great facility but too costly to maintain, apparently.  What linked it to Lawrence was that Durban House was the headquarters of the coal-mining firm which employed his father and one of the many memorable episodes in Sons and Lovers has the young Paul Morel being sent to collect his father’s wages from there.  Confused with self-consciousness at having to push forward from behind the burly miners when Mr Morel’s name is called out, he is too bewildered to count the money properly and see that the `stoppages’ have been correctly calculated so that the clerk has the opportunity to ask him sarcastically what they teach him at school and someone else to call out `Nowt but algibbra and French’.  When he gets home he says he will never go there again and complains about what the clerk has said.  `They never taught him much’, Mrs Morel observes to comfort him and in a tone which is characteristic of her as it also was (I imagine) of Mrs Lawrence, goes on, `that is a fact — neither manners nor wit — and his cunning he was born with’.

The latest news about Durban House is that a local businesswoman has put in an application to transform it into a boutique beauty spa and salon.  She is anxious to keep the connection to Lawrence with an exhibition of his works throughout the building.  Interviewed about the idea on Nottingham radio, a stalwart of the D. H. Lawrence society agreed that this was better than having the building empty and deteriorating, and then wryly reminded his interviewer that Lawrence was after all a proponent of life in the flesh rather than the mind.  Part of the proposal was for a hot tub in the garden and I was reminded that Lawrence was a practitioner of this kind of relaxation well before it became fashionable.  When he was living in Taos he would go with friends to sit in some hot springs nearby (the same Manby hot springs in which Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda can be watched skinny dipping with two girls in that 1970s cult classic Easy Rider).  Perhaps, then, it won’t be long before a shapely bare arm will be seen waving to passers-by as they take leave of Eastwood, although it has to be said that the number of days when the heat might tempt you to take all your clothes off is rather less frequent in Nottinghamshire than they are in New Mexico.

For more information on David Ellis’s work, go to dellis-author.co.uk.