I am lucky enough to work in Stevenage. Admittedly, this is not a phrase that you will hear very often but, nevertheless, I consider myself quite lucky. I have previously written about the astounding variety of literary heritage to be found near this Hertfordshire new town and, from time to time, I get to explore. During some recent down time (exams finished, planning for next year in progress, motivation low) I took a walk through the landscape that inspired a writer who is a particular favourite of mine: EM Forster.
Forster and his Mother, recently widowed, moved to Stevenage in 1883. He was four years old and the house, the surrounding countryside and some of the local characters were to influence his writing in years to come. The house was Rook’s Nest: a moderately large red brick house on the very outskirts of the town, on the road that leads to the village of Weston. Today, Rook’s Nest is a private house with no plaque to mark its previous occupants; no indication that this was home to one of the greatest figures in English Literature.
“I took it to my heart and hoped . . . that I would live and die there.”
Forster’s reminiscences of Stevenage make fascinating reading: they are written with such affection for the house and the surrounding countryside; it was clearly hugely important to him. So much so that, during the 1960s and the rapid expansion of the new town, Forster, along with other leading literary figures of the age, campaigned for the area to be saved from the bulldozer. The area is still under threat of development and a society, The friends of Forster Country, tirelessly campaigns for the preservation of this area that is such an important part of our literary and natural history.
Rook’s Nest House was a direct model for the idyllic cottage in Howards End. The house that is beloved by the Schlegel family and closely guarded by the Wilcoxes. Margaret Schlegel’s first visit to the house is a significant moment in the novel. In Chapter 33, Forster writes:
“Walking straight up from the station, she crossed the village green and entered the long chestnut avenue that connects it with the church… At the church the scenery changed. The chestnut avenue opened into a road, smooth but narrow, which led into the untouched country. She followed it for over a mile. Its little hesitations pleased her. Having no urgent destiny, it strolled downhill or up as it wished, taking no trouble about the gradients, or about the view, which nevertheless expanded. The great estates that throttle the south of Hertfordshire were less obtrusive here, and the appearance of the land was neither aristocratic nor suburban. To define it was difficult, but Margaret knew what it was not: it was not snobbish. Though its contours were slight, there was a touch of freedom in their sweep to which Surrey will never attain, and the distant brow of the Chilterns towered like a mountain.”
It is possible to retrace Margaret’s walk from Stevenage: no railway station now, it has moved south to the new town and stands astride the East coast mainline, creating a bridge between a leisure centre and a retail park. The village green is still there, as is the chestnut avenue, though it now includes a concrete footbridge over a dual carriageway. It does, however, still open out into a road by the church. What Margaret says of the countryside is also true, though perhaps for ‘great estates’ we should read ‘housing estates’, because it is difficult to imagine that such a large town is so close: only the pylons and the large, concrete mass of the Lister Hospital give you any clue.
The church is typical Norman, with a flint tower dating from about 1100. Tucked away in the northwest corner, surrounded by ivy and against a chain-link fence, is a memorial to EM Forster. It bears the legend: “Only Connect“, the epigraph of Howards End and an exhortation for people to connect to one another, regardless of race, faith or class. The memorial is dedicated jointly to Forster and to the composer, Elizabeth Poston, whose family moved in to Rook’s Nest in 1914. The Postons were friends of the Forsters, which meant that Edward could continue to visit the house that he continued to hold close to his heart throughout his life.
From here, you can walk out into Forster Country: the fields and woods that Forster knew as a child. Forster, in his reminiscinces writes:
“I was brought up as a boy in a district which I still think the loveliest in England. Hedges full of clematis, primroses, bluebells, dog roses and nuts.”
It was too late in the year for bluebells; it was a blisteringly hot July morning, but there were dog roses and the hazelnuts were ripening in the hedgerows. At once I was plunged into open countryside. Rook’s Nest is visible from the path, nestling in its wooded grounds and occasionally giving a glimpse of a chimney, a window or a gable. I was following a route provided by the Friends of Forster Country, and it was a really pleasant little walk. I took the shortest route and it took me about an hour to get back to the church, having trod the ways young Forster would have walked on his childhood ramblings through the county. The route is quite well-defined and so easy to follow that I only got lost once (quite an achievement for me, as regular readers will know). I was largely alone throughout my trek – I saw two dog walkers (and two dogs, obviously). I was left to myself to enjoy the countryside and reflect on Forster and his writing.
Howards End is a masterpiece of Modernist literature, reasserting the importance of nature in the face of incessant progress. At the close of the novel, Helen Schlegel looks out over the fields from Howards End and, prophetically, sees the progress of industrialisation encroaching upon their rural idyll:
“She pointed over the meadow—over eight or nine meadows, but at the end of them was a red rust.
“You see that in Surrey and even Hampshire now,” she continued. “I can see it from the Purbeck Downs. And London is only part of something else, I’m afraid. Life’s going to be melted down, all over the world.”
Even now, we live in an age when our heritage is under constant threat of development and to be part of what has become known as the heritage ‘industry’ is to be prepared to constantly fight. Developers are given priority, not conservationists.
And places such as this are so important. Every year, I take a bunch of students up here, to see the idyllic countryside on their doorstep and to try to see one of the authors they study as something more than a name on a page. Some of them have lived in Stevenage all their lives and never knew Forster country existed and this is an internationally acclaimed author, not a local oddity. Dickens’s houses are sites of worldwide pilgrimage, as are Austen’s and the Brontes’. There is money to be made from our literary heritage but it requires care, conservation and investment. In our society, only the opportunity to make money quickly from the sale of assets or land for development is considered worthy of our governments’ support. We must do whatever we can to protect our rural heritage and areas of local interest because one day they will be gone and people will be poorer for it.
The epigraph of Howards End is ‘only connect’, describing need for individuals to find some sense of connection to one another. Forster believed there was a need for us to find balance in all things: progress and conservation; rural and urban; town and country. The Schlegels represent the artistic; the Wilcoxes soulless business. When Margaret and Henry marry, the two sides come together in a brief accord and this what the house represents: the point of balance between these two worlds. We need to find a balance between the necessity of progress, housing and development and the need to connect with our history and environment.