Shaw’s Corner

In which I discover literary history on my doorstep…

When researching this beautifully written and wildly entertaining blog for my adoring public, it’s always tricky to think of where to travel to next. Mrs. P and I tour throughout the country hoping to find some undiscovered gems but, sometimes, they can be found closer to home. We bought our first house in Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire and, in all the time we lived there, never ventured to Ayot St. Lawrence, just a short drive away. My friend, colleague and occasional Literary Britain contributor, Ms. E, has lived all her life in the county and has, likewise, never visited this tiny, remote Hertfordshire village.  This is remarkable as it contains the home of the greatest playwrights of all time. So it was that one glorious summer afternoon, I collected E and we went for a look around. Ayot St. Lawrence is nestled in the Hertfordshire countryside, midway between Welwyn and Harpenden. It is reached through country lanes that wind through some delightful wooded countryside that are a pleasure to drive through on a beautiful summer afternoon.

Brocket Arms, Ayot St. Lawrence

Our first stop was the Brocket Arms: a picture book country inn dating from the 14th Century with low ceilings, wooden beams and open fireplaces. The pub is named after the Brocket family: the Elizabethan owners of nearby Brocket Hall. More recently this has had a succession of notorious owners: the 2nd Baron Brocket was interned during the second World War for holding Nazi sympathies and the 3rd Baron was detained for insurance fraud, after which he enjoyed a brief celebrity career. A previous famous occupant was Victorian Prime Minister, William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, who was in Downing Street from 1835 to 1841. His wife, Lady Caroline, had a rather torrid affair with Byron, most famously bestowing him with the epithet “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” It seems that the Lambs had enjoyed a blissfully happy marriage for a number of years. Lady Caroline then met Byron and all hell broke loose.

Brocket Hall hosted some pretty wild parties. At one of Byron’s birthdays, Lady Caroline hid herself, naked, inside a massive soup tureen, which was placed before the dissolute lord. When she and Byron later parted, Caroline did nothing to hide her broken heart. This was the last straw for her husband and Melbourne had her taken away to Ireland to escape the scandal at home, where she continued to try to communicate with the poet. When she finally returned to Hertfordshire, she made a bonfire of all the gifts and letters she had received from him on the lawn in front of the hall and attempted to erase him from her life. She later, by chance, witnessed his funeral cortege as it passed by the hall en route to Nottingham.  Lady Caroline has earned her own place in literary history through writing a number of gothic novels, the best known of which, Glenarvon, satirises her relationship with Byron, giving the world its first ‘Byronic’ hero in the process.

Brocket Hall is (unfortunately) not generally open to the public. It is available for corporate events and weddings and there is a golf course or two and a restaurant on the grounds, along with somewhere to park your helicopter. They do open once a month for afternoon tea but, at around forty quid each, it’s still a bit on the steep side for most of us. The Brocket arms is not only open and freely accesible to the public but is also extremely welcoming and cosy. E and I ordered up a freshener or two, and got around some lunch.  They do a decent pint and an excellent sandwich but don’t order one expecting a light lunch: great wedges of rustic bread on a plate piled high with salad and chips. It was excellent value and we needed the short walk to Shaw’s Corner to work it off.

“There is no love sincerer than the love of food”

Shaw’s Corner is run by the National Trust so you know what to expect: well informed and friendly staff (perhaps a little pushy if you’re not a member) and an inexpensive and informative guidebook. I usually do without a guidebook, preferring to take in the building and wander around freely. If I have a book, I find I have my nose wedged in that instead of taking in the house. On this occasion, however, I forked out the couple of quid to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of this engaging and genial man. The house itself is not the most attractive: built of red brick with green-painted woodwork, it looks as if it would be more at home in the suburbs, rather than a sleepy, country village. In fact, neither George nor Charlotte were particularly enamoured of it when they first saw it but chose location and practicality over design.

The entrance hall, Shaw’s Corner

Inside, the house is decorated in the Arts and Crafts style and features fabrics and wall-coverings with intricate floral designs. The house also features a wonderful array of art, including works by Laura Knight and Aubrey Beardsley, as well as a bust of Shaw by Rodin. I particularly liked the portrait of Shaw by Augustus John and the portrait of Charlotte Payne-Townshend (later Mrs. Shaw) by Sartorio. Ms. E, an artist herself, was particularly impressed with the quality and range of artwork on display.

Upstairs, alongside Shaw’s bedroom, complete with his trademark tweed suits hanging in the wardrobe, there is a small exhibition space, in which you can see his Nobel prize and the Oscar he won for the screenplay of Pygmalion. Until very recently, he was the only ever recipient of both awards. (If you want to know who the second was, the answer is blowin’ in the wind). There is also a beautifully preserved little bathroom, complete with a large Victorian bathtub in which Shaw bathed daily, this being the first house he ever owned with its own bathroom.

Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856, to a middle-class household but, as his father, also George, was an alcoholic. They had little income and lived in “shabby-genteel poverty.” His mother, Elizabeth, started to resent her husband’s drunken behaviour and sought solace through music. She engaged a music teacher, George Lee, for her and her children, though she enjoyed a particularly close relationship him. As it was the name of both his absent father and his mother’s lover, GBS came to despise the name ‘George’, and preferred to be called Bernard. He never forgot his humble beginnings and kept a photograph of his birthplace on his desk his whole life. You can still see it on his mantelpiece. There are also a number of photographs of his acquaintances and those he admired. JM Barrie, William Morris and WB Yeats are here, as well as political figures: Lenin, Stalin and Gandhi. It is worth remembering that, however much we admire his sentiments about social reform and changing the lives of poor people, in later life he came to admire the great European Dictators as ‘men of action’.

The family moved to London in 1876 and GBS got a job writing musical reviews for a newspaper. While in London, he became a member of the British Library and spent most of his days there reading and writing: it was there that he began to write drama.  Although he wanted his plays to address the inequalities in society, he realised that the English would only accept criticism if it was presented with humour. His work perfectly presents a serious message with satire and subtle humour. A good example of this is Pygmalion, in which a poor member of society is treated abominably by her social superiors. It is by far the best known of Shaw’s plays (even if that is through Lerner and Loewe’s musical version, My Fair Lady). Shaw’s plays scandalised Victorian audiences, constantly challenging them to reexamine society, their place within it and their ability to change it.

“The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated”

Shaw's Corner
Shaw’s Corner, Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire

Shaw was an activist as well as a radical writer: a founding member of the Labour party, he established the New Statesman and espoused vegetarianism, feminism and naturism, at a time when this behaviour would have been considered wildly extreme. Despite his unusual ways, he fitted in well with village life, presenting prizes to local schools and opening village fetes. Local children liked to spy on Shaw as he chopped wood in the garden, dressed in tweeds and tin miner’s helmet. He enjoyed the practical aspects of working outdoors but didn’t much care for gardening and left most of the planning to his gardener. The garden is beautiful. It contains a mixture of planting and wild flowers, and sculpture. On summer evenings, performances of Shaw plays are held on the lawn. On the day we visited, a company was rehearsing Fanny’s First Play for a performance that weekend. It must be a wonderful experience to see one of Shaw’s plays performed in his own garden and one which I hope we’ll enjoy in future.

“The best place to find God is in a garden. You can dig for him there”

Shaw's Corner
Shaw’s writing shed

At the bottom of his garden, a path winds through woodland and it is here that you will find Shaw’s writing shed. It sits on top of a turntable, which he used to track the sun during its daily journey in order to make the most of the light. His desk, and one of his typewriters, is here but it was as much refuge as workshop; for such a witty, sparkling and gregarious man, he enjoyed his own company and solitude. He nicknamed his shed ‘London’ so that, if any callers came by asking if George was at home, the servants could quite honestly reply “he’s in London” and they would leave him in peace. The whole house feels hidden away and I suppose that’s why GBS bought it: close enough to London to be able to travel up for the theatres; far enough away to be left in peace.

After the house we went for a walk through the pleasant, cool woodland that surrounds the village. We were seeking an avenue of limes, along which GBS would walk when visiting his friend, the wonderfully named arctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard at the nearby Lamer Hall. Cherry-Garrard was a member of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill fated antarctic expedition. Encouraged by Shaw, he wrote an account, ‘The Worst Journey in the World‘ which has become a classic of travel writing and been praised for its depiction of human suffering under extreme conditions.

Today, conditions were far from arctic: glorious sunshine and exceedingly hot. We walked through sun-dappled woodland discussing Shaw and Forster and other Hertfordshire writers. It was not far to Lamer Hall: a pleasant distance for an afternoon stroll. Back to the village for a quick freshener at the Brocket Arms (too hot for tea) but E was keen to get going. Her boyfriend lives in Cambridge and she was going to stay with him for a couple of days. So we drove back through leafy Hertfordshire lanes to the hustle and bustle of modern life.

I dropped Ms E at her house and, as I watched her walk away, remembered what it was like to be young and in love. Cambridge, I thought to myself; now, there’s an idea….

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