Welcome to Sunny Stevenage

In which I discover some of the literary heritage of a Hertfordshire new town and the origin of Bovril.

My intention when setting out to write this blog, was to visit all the major literary towns in the UK and beyond.  I have already posted articles about Stratford-upon-avon, Haworth and London.  I was fully expecting to write about Edinburgh and Dublin and, who knows, maybe Paris… or New England.  So how do I find myself in a new town in Hertfordshire?  Actually, Stevenage has the most remarkable literary heritage. Before the town planners arrived with their big ideas and their big diggers, Stevenage existed as the small settlement known as the ‘old town’.  This, as a coaching town about thirty miles from London, was about one day’s journey from the capital.  Many people stopped here overnight, in the many taverns that lined the Great North Road.  The diarist, Samuel Pepys overnighted at the White Lion, Daniel Defoe is known to have stayed here and Charles Dickens was a frequent visitor.  Furthermore, the convenient proximity to the capital meant that London literati could have conveniently placed country residences within easy travelling distance of the smoke.  If you travel from London today you will notice, as your train pulls in to Stevenage station, the Gordon Craig Theatre.  Who, you may wonder to yourself, the heck is Gordon Craig?

The Terry family were a hugely prolific acting dynasty (the great Sir John Gielgud was a descendant of the Terrys) and immensely popular among  Victorian theatregoers.  Ellen Terry was at one time regarded as the greatest actress on the British stage.  Along with her business partner, the actor-manager, Sir Henry Irving, she played a plethora of heavyweight dramatic roles at the Lyceum Theatre  (It is rumoured that they were partners in more than just the business sense). In 1864, fifteen years before she met Irving, she was married to the artist, George Fredrick Watts.  She was only sixteen when they wed; he was 46.  Watts was known and admired among a circle of eminent Victorians including Browning and Tennyson.  They were not exactly welcoming towards Watts’s teenage wife and she must have been disillusioned with the artistic lifestyle as, 10 months later, she skedaddled.  She embarked upon a relationship with the architect, William Godwin and, at some point before 1872, they found themselves at Railway Street, Stevenage.  They had two children together: Edith and Edward Gordon.  Terry chose the surname ‘Craig’ to avoid the scandal of illegitimacy.

Gordon Craig birthplace
Birthplace of Edward Gordon Craig

Edward spent a large part of his childhood at various London theatres, where he observed the work of his mother, and Sir Henry, whom he came to greatly admire.  He began to realise what a great deal of influence the director could have over the production of a play, and formulated his idea of a play’s director as a major artist of the stage. He had a short career as an actor but was more interested in art than drama and so became a full-time designer.  He designed sets for some extremely successful performances but made little money from them and yearned to express his art further afield.  He travelled to Russia to work under Konstantin Stanislavsky, where he designed and built elaborate stage sets for the Moscow Arts Theatre, most famously for Hamlet in 1911.  In this year he published “On The Art of the Theatre”, establishing the art of theatre direction.   He worked at theatres throughout Europe, was notoriously difficult to work with. Single-mined and uncompromising, he demanded complete artistic control over any production he worked on.  Eventually, as you might expect, the work dried up completely. He did live a life, though: he was imprisoned by the Nazis during World War 2,  had a series of glamorous lovers (including the dancer, Isadora Duncan, famous for her long flowing scarves and travelling in open-topped sports cars for very short distances) and finally died at his home in France aged 94.

Perhaps a slightly better known Stevenage resident is E.M. Forster.  Shortly after the death of his father, he and his mother moved here from London.  They lived in Rooksnest House on the outskirts of town, towards the village of Weston.  He had very fond memories of his childhood, roaming around the Hertfordshire countryside, foraging in the hedgerows and visiting strapping young IMG_0232agricultural workers in the nearby farm.  Howard’s End, one of his best novels pays homage to his childhood home, which serves as the model for the coveted house in the novel. The house that now occupies the site of Rooksnest is a private home and can’t be visited.  You can visit the nearby St. Nicholas’s Church, where you will find a memorial to to Forster tucked in a quiet corner of the churchyard.  Look East from here and you can see the house quite clearly.   Elsewhere in Forster’s writing you will find many references to the countryside around Stevenage and his affection for it is evident.  The land around here is under threat of development, of course.  Whenever there’s a penny to be made, the developers will move in exploit our land for their own personal gain.  There is a movement to save the countryside: if you visit their website, you can download a map of Forster country, featuring information about the campaign and a very pleasant country walk.

Just north of Stevenage, near the town of Baldock, is the tiny and picturesque village of Wallington, where a cluster of houses nestle round a duck-filled pond. It was surrounded by daffodils when I visited and looked very pretty indeed.  George Orwell married Eileen O’Shaughnessy in St. Mary’s Wallington in 1936 and the couple moved into No. 2 Kitt’s Lane.  Although he moved out in 1940, Orwell continued to hold the lease and used the cottage as a weekend getaway.  It was here that he wrote some of his best known novels, including Animal Farm.  The Manor farm of the novel is based on the Manor Farm in the village, and the farm buildings include a great barn, similar to the one in which the animals meet to plot their revolution.  Eileen died in tragic circumstances in 1945 (heart failure whilst under anaesthetic for hysterectomy) and George abandoned the cottage completely.

Kit’s Lane, Wallington, Herts. Home of George Orwell, 1936 – 1940

Charles Dickens was a frequent visitor to Stevenage, as he had a great friend that lived nearby.  Dickens’s works have never gone out of fashion and modern readers still delight in his caricatures of Victorian society.  The politician, Edward Bulwer-Lytton was no less prolific a writer and, at the time, was immensely popular: at least as popular as his limelight stealing mate.  Dickens was a very keen actor, loved the stage and often stated how he could easily have been a professional actor (he was suffering from a cold and had to miss the audition that could have been his big break).  In 1850, at the height of his literary career, he staged a number of amateur theatrical performances in order to raise money for charity.  Bulwer-Lytton was one of his co-actors and they staged a performance in Knebworth, a couple of miles south of Stevenage.  Knebworth House, the ancestral home of the Lytton family, is a magnificent neo-gothic hall, parts of which date back to 1471.  It is now best known as the venue for major rock concerts.  Oasis played two sell-out nights here in 1996 and it is the location of the Sonisphere festival.  The house is also a location for family outings and it hosts a huge array of activities for young and old alike.  It costs £13 to get in, which, I have to say, is a little steep if you just want to visit the writer’s home, but is fantastic value for a fun-filled family day out.  If it all gets too much, you can always retreat to the Lytton Arms, famous for its huge selection of real ales.

Bulwer-Lytton is now famous for three things:  “It was a dark and stormy night” is the opening line of the novel Paul Clifford; “the pen is mightier than the sword” appears in his play, Richelieu; and ‘Bovril’. In the dystopian science fiction novel The Coming Race, He discusses an energy-rich substance which he names ‘vril’. This became a popular concept at the time and caught the attention of the makers of the unpleasant beefy drink, who adopted the name: bovine vril.  Bulwer-Lytton’s writing is now considered old-fashioned and cliché but that some of his phrases have become part of our language is testament to his past popularity.  Some readers and academics are starting to rediscover his writing: his collected works is available as a free ebook and is definitely worth dipping into if you’re interested in Victorian literature.  I shall leave the last word with his great friend, Charles Dickens, who wrote of Stevenage:

“The village street was like most other village streets: wide for its height, silent for its size, and drowsy in the dullest degree.”

4 thoughts on “Welcome to Sunny Stevenage

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