My friends Lucia and David bought a house in Welwyn Garden City a little while ago and now, having done some work on it and turned it into a beautiful home, they decided to have a lunchtime party over the bank holiday weekend and invite friends and family. Welwyn Garden City was built in the 1920s as part of an experiment to build new towns that combined the benefits of both the city and the countryside. Garden cities were defined as those that offered ‘healthy living and industry of a size that makes possible a full measure of social life’ and the land to be ‘held in trust for the whole community’. Such good social ideals would have appealed to George Bernard Shaw, though he actually moved to Ayot St Lawrence – a small village just outside Welwyn Garden City – in 1906, well before the town was built. He and his wife, Charlotte, rented a rectory (in photo above), which would later become known as Shaw’s Corner. They had a large flat in London but wanted somewhere to escape their busy and demanding life in the city where Shaw had made a big name for himself as critic, playwright, novelist and social commentator.
Lucia had suggested we explore the area a bit in the afternoon and gave us some choices of what to do. In the end, just four of us set off to Ayot after the barbecue and before dessert. Lucia drove us through narrow winding lanes and I was reminded how lovely Hertfordshire is. For me it was a bit of a trip back in time for I once spent a lot of time in the area and in fact regularly ate cream teas in Ayot St Lawrence on Sunday afternoons! I’d never gone into Shaw’s Corner though and was delighted by it and although I felt I knew a reasonable amount about one of our greatest playwrights, learned so much more from the enthusiastic National Trust staff who, as we moved around the house from room to room, were full of information to share with us.
The house was built in 1902 at the time of the Arts and Crafts movement and signs of this connection greet you immediately with the stained-glass windows, an original William Morris (a friend) curtain to cover the front door and little hearts carved into the spindles on the staircase. The entrance hall is quite large with fireplace and chairs and Shaw’s piano, music being important to him (a great friend was Edgar Elgar).
We were told that when Charlotte later became ill with Paget’s disease and was confined to her bedroom, he would play for her and the music would rise up through the house.
Apart from the William Morris curtain, other art treasures are found throughout the house: a bust of Shaw by Rodin, a portrait of Charlotte by G.A. Sartorio, a Dürer print and portrait drawing of Lawrence of Arabia, who frequently visited, a painting by Peter Scott.
In the study, we saw the large desk where Shaw worked. He wanted to present a new realism in his plays and used them as a vehicle to get over his socialist and religious ideas. He joined the Fabian Society which sought to promote social democracy and with other members, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, he founded the London School of Economics to study poverty issues and analyse inequalities in society. Another place Shaw worked was in the garden in a specially built ‘writing hut’. The hut contains a desk and small cot bed. It revolves so that Shaw could turn it according to where the sun was shining. Here he could escape any intrusion in the house and concentrate on his writing.
Upstairs in the house there is an enormous bath in the small bathroom.
Shaw took a bath every day which was very unusual at the time. He was meticulous about hygiene, health and his weight. He was a vegetarian, didn’t drink alcohol and always drank mineral water; he took plenty of exercise, even if it was just walking round his garden. Since he lived to the ripe old age of 94, he was obviously doing something right! His bike and exercise bike were in the ‘museum’ room upstairs in the house.
Also in the room were his Oscar and Noble Prize certificate. Until Bob Dylan recently won the Nobel Prize, Shaw had been the only person to ever win both Oscar and Nobel Prize.
There was a wonderful view across the surrounding countryside from this room, although not a great quality photo through a window!
Shaw’s bedroom is a clear demonstration of the rather austere life he led with its narrow bed and complete lack of luxuries.
Shaw and his wife had separate bedrooms. This wasn’t unusual for well-off people at the time but in the Shaws’ case it was also to do with their marriage being to a large extent one of convenience to work together to advance their political and literary goals and, one of the guides suggested, was likely celibate. Shaw though did have mistresses.
We made our way down to the garden via the kitchen and scullery.
Shaw had a housekeeper, cook and gardener, but he treated them with such respect that he never used the bell system – common in the day – to summon servants but would always seek them out personally to ask for something. After a big blizzard in 1915 he worked hard with the villagers clearing up fallen trees etc. and won their approval.
Outside in the garden other visitors were enjoying the glorious sunny day. It had been a great visit: informative and fascinating. We all enjoyed it … but then it was time to return to Lucia’s house for dessert!