The villagers of Ayot St Lawrence, a tiny hamlet hidden away in a maze of narrow country lanes near Welwyn, in Hertfordshire, were more than a little mystified when the famous author, playwright and philosopher, George Bernard Shaw, came to live in their midst in 1906.
He was everything they mistrusted: a tall, bearded, Irish-born socialist and intellectual who strode around the streets in plus-fours and, as often as not, a tin-miner’s helmet. “The villagers all thought he was a rum one, a very rum one,” recorded one neighbour.
True, Shaw had chosen the village as his home for a pretty eccentric reason. He and his wife, Charlotte, had already rented a house in Welwyn but found it too large for them. They wanted a place within easy reach of London but with the peace and quiet Shaw needed to write. On a visit to Ayot St Lawrence, Shaw spotted a tomb-stone dedicated to a 70-year-old local whose epitaph read: “Her time was short”. A village where septuagenarians were considered young was, Shaw decided, just the place for him. He and Charlotte promptly rented the house – then known as the New Rectory – from the Church, buying it in 1920 for £6220.
By then, the villagers had christened the house Shaw’s Corner – a name which eventually stuck. And Shaw himself had won acceptance during a tremendous blizzard in 1915, when the village was cut off. Shaw joined the other menfolk to work for days clearing roads and sawing up fallen trees. But, oddly, neither Shaw nor his wife ever really liked their house.
Perhaps Shaw didn’t like anything, other than his ideals and his writing. Of Charlotte herself he once wrote: “Of all the women I have known, and I have known many, I knew Charlotte least of all.” But the house certainly suited them, fulfilling Shaw’s ambition for his home to become a sort of literary shrine and place of pilgrimage for his many admirers.
If this ambition was at odds with his need for peace and quiet, Shaw could at least escape to the simple wooden summer-house at the bottom of the garden to do his writing. When he was there, the housekeeper could truthfully tell callers that he was out.
The summer-house was originally Charlotte’s, but Shaw took it over and called it “The Retreat”. There he wrote several of his most popular works, including “St Joan” and “Pygmalion”.
Shaw hated what he called the “GBS publicity machine,” so it is odd that he made his home a shrine and, by bequeathing it to the National Trust, ensured that it would retain that role. But his will did modestly insist that, if the public ever forgot about him, the trust should sell his house. It is a condition which seems unlikely ever to be filled.
For a lover of Shaw’s works, or for anyone interested in his early, trendsetting beliefs, a visit to Shaw’s Corner is still a pilgrimage. Although not all the contents are original, they have been carefully selected to match both the style of the house (which reflects the arts and crafts movement) and the style of Shaw himself. The gardens, replanted with many trees, shrubs and flowers which GBS and Charlotte would recognise, have been restored according to original plans and old photographs. And “The Retreat,” where an ancient portable typewriter still sits on a rickety wooden table awaiting the master’s touch, is an emotive spot.
Charlotte died in 1943, aged 86, and GBS grew old at Shaw’s Corner. But he continued to work for as long as he could, ably served by his secretary, Blanch Patch, whom he had christened “Cross Patch” and a Scottish housekeeper-cum-cook known as “the Aberdonian dragon”.
In September 1950, while his housekeeper was on holiday, Shaw decided to do some pruning in the orchard, fell and fractured his thigh. Complications set in, and he was brought home to Shaw’s Corner where a bed was set up in the dining-room so that he could look over his beloved garden. There, he prophesied: “I am going to die,” and duly fulfilled the prophecy on November 2, 1950.
After more than half a century, however, at Shaw’s Corner a literary giant lives on.
Shaw’s Corner is in the village of Ayot St Lawrence, near Welwyn, Hertfordshire AL6 9BX. Open until 26 October this year. 1-5pm Wednesday to Sunday (gardens open an hour earlier.) Phone 01438 829221 for details of performances of Shaw’s plays in the grounds, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org