NATIONAL TRUST:Shaw's Corner Location: Ayot St Lawrence, near Welwyn, Hertfordshire, AL6 9BX [map] Open: noon-5pm (closed Monday, Tuesday) Admission: £8.00 Website:nationaltrust.org.uk/shaws-corner Four word summary: George Bernard's Herts hideaway Time to allow: about an hour
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was one of the celebrities of the first half of the 20th century. He hated it. People loved his scripts, admired his principles and clamoured for his philosophies, but George would rather have been left alone. So in 1906 he and his wife found themselves a former rectory in the deepest wilds of Hertfordshire and hunkered down. After all, in Hertford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen.
Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856, the youngest child of an awkward marriage. He hated school but adored education, soaking up ideas from a wide range of books, and left to become an office clerk at the earliest opportunity. At the age of 20 he followed his mother to London, where she hoped to become a music teacher, and established himself as a theatre critic. An increasing interest in politics brought him to greater prominence, sealed in 1902 by his first super-successful play, Man and Superman.
1902 was also the year Shaw's Corner was built, then the rectory for the tiny parish of Ayot St Lawrence, lost amid the fields between Harpenden and Welwyn. The C of E soon decided the property was too large for a vicar, and let it out, and so began GBS's 46-year stay. George and Charlotte took separate bedrooms, and five members of staff kept an eye on housework, cooking and the garden. Trips to London or beyond were undertaken as required, but most of the time the garden gate provided perfect privacy, aided and abetted by the relatively remote location. [8 photos]
Shaw's Corner is a lovely Edwardian villa, decked out in Arts and Crafts styles, opposite what passes for Ayot St Lawrence's busiest road junction. A National Trust guide will greet you out front and deliver a potted biography, while another waits in the hall to point you in the right direction. Each room has been left as it was when George died in 1950, indeed the deal with the National Trust was agreed in advance, and he spent his last years leaving all his accoutrements precisely where he wanted to cultivate the right image for posterity.
You'll see his parlour and his study, his bedroom and his capacious bath. You'll see writings and paintings, plus a shaggy-bearded bust by Rodin (although it's nowhere near as red as the real thing). Charlotte removed all her stuff before she died, so her bedroom has become a museum room. The current exhibition is suffragette-related - George was a huge supporter - but the cabinet beside the window merits closer inspection. George Bernard Shaw is the only person (thus far) to have been awarded an Oscar and a Nobel Prize. Lift the drape to see his statuette and his signed certificate, then covet both.
The garden's charming too, with its stripy lawn and swathe of daffodils. Hidden behind the shrubbery is George's writing shed, a tiny hut which swivelled to face the sun (presumably when the trees opposite were somewhat shorter). You can't go in but you can peer inside to see an ornament-topped desk, a wall-mounted telephone and a comfy looking bed. Eliza Doolittle and Professor Henry Higgins sprang forth right here. George was independent to the end, but at the age of 94 he fell off a ladder while pruning a tree in the adjacent orchard, and the injuries sadly led to his death. For an ardent vegetarian, it's ironic that an apple finished him off.
Don't come for the tea room, there isn't one, although there is an honesty fridge near the back door. Instead you might want to avail yourself of refreshment at The Brocket Arms, the 14th century inn a few steps away at the other end of the village. Opposite are the remains of a 12th century church, part-demolished in 1775 when the new owner of the manor house demanded a prettier view from his garden. The tower and a lot of the walls remain, the end result being possibly moreromantic than the original. But not as impressive as its replacement...
Ayot St Lawrence's temple-like 18th century church is all the more amazing for popping up in a field. It's loosely modelled on something the architect saw in the Greek Islands, and unusually has its main door at the eastern end because that way the portico faced the landowner's mansion. Step inside (you probably can) to be further wowed by the loftyinterior, the cruciform tiled floor and the altar in the coffered apse. Despite no longer having any parish to speak of, services are still held here on the second Sunday in the month, and I don't know who arranges the flowers but they do a dazzling job.
The rest of the fun comes in getting to Ayot St Lawrence in the first place. Even by car it involves a series of increasingly narrow lanes, so perfectly did George Bernard Shaw select his hideaway. Buses refuse to venture this far, and even the nearest station is five miles distant. I hiked in from Welwyn North and back to Welwyn Garden City, to make a day of it, eyeing up the early bluebells and that luscious shade of green you only see in spring. I can recommend following the disused railway, then bearing off up the boundary track across the Codicote Road. You could follow in my footsteps. Wouldn't it be loverly?