“ Address: Ayot St Lawrence / near Welwyn / Hertfordshire / AL6 9BX / Tel: 01438 829221 „
Shaw's Corner is one of the lesser known National Trust properties. Tucked away in a quiet area of Hertfordshire, it is a calm retreat which allows you to step back in time and get an unexpectedly intimate insight into the life of one of Ireland's greatest literary figures: George Bernard Shaw.
Shaw was fifty years old when he bought The Villa at Ayot St Lawrence in 1906. Although he wanted a quiet retreat, he publicised his arrival by naming his new house 'Shaw's Corner', living there until his death in 1950. The house has remained just as he left it at that time, giving visitors the comfortable feeling of walking around a grandfather's house. Ignoring the rather musty smells as you tour the house, you see the house just as it was when GBS made his final exit, with dressing gown and slippers in the bedroom, and reading glasses lying casually on his desk.
The rather unattractive Edwardian Arts & Crafts house relies on the beautiful location and its quintessentially English garden to attract visitors. Perhaps only the most enthusiastic fans will spend long in the dark and cluttered interior, and most visitors welcome the chance to get out into the fresh air of the sloping landscaped garden.
Walking down the gravelled drive, the visitor walks straight into the unexceptional entrance hall with no sense of awe or of touching greatness. A National Trust Guide sits at a small table and issues tickets, as the overwhelming sense of visiting an elderly relative starts to take over. Stained glass windows and chintz curtains give the hall a gloomy, old fashioned feel. A collection of Shaw's hats inside the front door, demonstrates his love of wool in the winter and the straw hats which are often seen in photos during the summer. A Bechstein piano is placed casually in the corner, adding to the cluttered feel. It was in the exact same location during Shaw's time, when he played and sung old Italian operas. A satchel on the stool, and music book open, you start to understand the charm of a place that feels as if the great man has just walked out of the front door.
The study has the quiet air of academia. Framed cartoons and photos adorn the wall, with a large, gleaming wooden desk and chair showing visitors where Shaw did most of his business work; writing letters, checking proofs and doing other day to day tasks. typewriter, pens, pocket dictionaries and correspondence lie on the desktop, exactly as they were left decades ago.
The eye is drawn to the framed cartoon of Shaw that hangs centrally on the wall; this was drawn by Bernard Partridge, and is surrounded by photos of Shaw's friends and acquaintances; James Barrie, Sydney Webb and W.B. Yeats, with Gene Tunney and Sean O'Casey.
~~The Drawing Room~~
Light, airy and full of chintz, the drawing room is the antithesis of the study, and was a place for Charlotte Shaw to receive guests. A portrait of Mrs Shaw, painted by G.A. Sartorio in Rome hangs amongst the comfortable armchairs.
~~The Dining Room~~
This room is more evocative of Shaw, with a portrait painted by Augustus John emphasising Shaw's wild hair and eccentric look. One of the nicest photos of Shaw is in this room, portraying him standing on the doorstep of his home, waving his walking stick with a mixture of humour and aggression at some unknown visitor. The calendar shows the day he died, and Shaw's wheelchair and crutches remind us that a very frail and elderly man lived in the house towards the end.
A door leads out on to the terrace, which was nicknamed Shaw's 'Riviera', where he would sit with friends enjoying the view.
Walking up the stairs gives us a far more intimate picture of the great man. The layout of Shaw's bedroom is as it was when he was alive; his shoes and clothes still hang in the wardrobe, and his dressing gown and slippers are evident close to his bed. Photos of Gandhi sit alongside volumes of Shakespeare and the Bible.
The bathroom is sparse and a little depressing in its ordinariness, but it is important to remember that Shaw's first flat in the Aldwych had neither bathroom nor hot running water, so the large bath at Shaw's Corner was a luxury in its time.
As Bernard and Charlotte had separate bedrooms: her room has now been made into a Museum Room. The Museum Room has exhibitions that focus on the history of the house, and albums giving information on aspects of Shaw's life An endearing photo of the Shaws on their honeymoon hangs on the wall, alongside a photo of Shaw as a young man in a hat.
~~Kitchen, Scullery and Wellhouse ~~
The final part of the visit is the servant's domain of the kitchen and scullery. The kitchen is an interesting recreation of what it would have been like before the war, containing a 1921 Eagle Gold Star Range and all of the traditional kitchen equipment.
Walking out of the kitchen, you come to the beautiful garden, tantalisingly glimpsed from the windows as you walk round. The lawn rolls downwards to a small wooded area, and it is here, along the meandering paths, that most visitors head.
At the very bottom of the garden is Shaw's famous revolving hut; originally a summer house for Charlotte Shaw, it was soon appropriated by Shaw as a place of peace and creativity. The hut can be revolved so that it follows the sun, and most visitors give it a secret little push to confirm that it is still operational.
Peering through the large windows, every childhood hideaway dream is recognised as you look at the tiny square hut with a cosy bed, old fashioned black telephone, wicker chair, plain painted desk and an old typewriter. It is easy to recall the black and white photographs of the playwright sitting inside. It was here that Shaw found his inspiration and wrote many of his greatest works, finding solace as he looked out onto the three and a half acres of rambling garden with its views across the open countryside of Hertfordshire.
Shaw's Corner is a venue for other activities. One of the most exciting of these is the open air performances of Shaw's plays in the garden during the summer months. Other events include poetry and conservation days, music evenings and family activity days. Details of these events can be found on the website.
Although Shaw's Corner is by no means breathtaking in its beauty, it is a quirky little place that inspires great affection both in its regular visitors and in the many followers of GBS. It gives a great insight into the everyday life and inspiration of one of the greatest playwrights of the century, and the little memorabilia that lie almost casually around the house make it unforgettable. Shaw's wit and humour shine through in the quotes and verses. After his death, his ashes were scattered around the garden
~~Costs and Opening times~~
The house and garden are open from March to October, but closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Prices are £5.50 per adult, £2.75 per child. Cyclists and taxi users get in half price!