A pilgrimage down leafy English laneways

The English country road curves at Shaw’s corner, a location that warrants no more than a small dot on the map of rural Hertfordshire.

And, the house that stands there – among well-maintained gardens – gives no indication that it’s considered a British treasure.

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This house was one of the reasons why we found our way off the motorways to the English village of Ayot St Lawrence, a tiny community in picturesque surroundings well away from the tourist trail.

The story of Shaw’s Corner had caught our attention, as part of our series of reviews on traditional villages.

Built as a Church of England rectory in 1902, this house was designed in the Arts and Crafts style, with stained glass windows and hearts cut into the banisters.

But, today, it resembles a time capsule – with some particularly intriguing aspects.

Take, for example, the replica Nobel Prize in Literature and Academy Award that stand side-by-side on the mantlepiece, alongside photographs of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.

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Or the small garden shed that was once able to rotate in time with the English sunlight.

These are the relics of remarkable people: artefacts of fascinating lives.

The man at Shaw’s Corner

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Photo courtesy National Trust

The man at Shaw’s Corner was influential Irish playwright, novelist and political activist, George Bernard Shaw, regularly rated as second only to Sharkespeare among British dramatists.

He wrote about 60 plays, over 250,000 letters, many novels and untold numbers of articles and pamphlets – many of them penned during more than 40 years at Shaw’s Corner.

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Along with his Anglo-Irish wife, Charlotte, he started renting the Ayot St Lawrence house in 1906.

They bought Shaw’s Corner in 1920 and lived there until it was handed to the National Trust after Charlotte’s death in 1944.

Shaw died in the dining room of the house on November 2 in 1950.

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My Fair Lady

During his prolific career, Shaw produced major works such as ‘Man and Superman’, ‘Pygmalion’ (he later wrote the screenplay when it was made into the movie, My Fair Lady), and ‘Saint Joan’.

Ranging from history to contemporary satire, Shaw became the leading dramatist of his generation – and in 1925 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. As of now, Shaw and legendary musician, Bob Dylan, are the only people to have won both a Nobel Prize and an Academy Award.

But, entering the stately brick home is definitely unnerving.

Just popped out

Shaw’s well-polished boots sit by the hearth and his manual typewriter stands at the ready, as if the owner is expected back at any minute.

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And Shaw’s fingerprints are everywhere, from photographs by close friend, TE Lawrence of Arabia, to the William Morris fabrics and a striking bust of Shaw sculpted by another colleague, Auguste Rodin.

During our visit, the National Trust was staging an exhibition to mark the centenary of Rodin’s death.

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For the first time Rodin’s bust of Shaw was displayed shown alongside the rarely seen plaster original, created in Rodin’s studio in 1906.

The display featured striking images documenting Shaw’s creative relationship with Rodin.

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Elsewhere in Shaw’s Corner, the library contains a rich and varied collection that ranges from the Bible to H.G.Wells, socialism and Eastern religions.

There are some 4,000 books.

Shaw’s presence extends to the colourful and ivy-entangled gardens which, fittingly, are often the scene of open-air productions.

Rotating while writing

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His writing hut stands in a bottom end of Shaw’s Corner, equipped with bed, typewriter and rotating mechanism for turning to catch the sunlight.

Although humble in its interior facilities, Shaw’s Corner is one of the many imposing houses that line the roads and laneways of beautiful and historic Ayot St Lawrence.

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See our separate report on stunning Ayot St Lawrence.

According to local knowledge, Shaw was hardly impressed by the isolated rural atmosphere on arrival, but later embraced the area.

This would seem to be supported by this later verse:

“No dwelling place can rival Ayot
So there I labor at my job
And boil the kettle on the hob
Seemingly I have the best of reasons
For staying there through all the seasons”.

Shaw’s Corner can be found at Ayot St Lawrence, near Welwyn, Hertfordshire, UK. Unfortunately, there is no public transport to Ayot St Lawrence.

The nearest bus stops are in Wheathampstead and Blackmore End, both of which are at least two miles away.

Nearest big centres

By road, the closest bigger centres are Welwyn Garden City, which is about 15 minutes away and St Albans which is about 20-25 minutes away.

The nearest railway stations at Welwyn North four-and-a-half miles; Welwyn Garden City six miles; and Harpenden, which is about five miles.

For detailed directions, see the National Trust website.

We used a local courier called Point to Point Car Services, from nearby Codicote.

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And we stayed for a few delightful days at the historic Brocket Arms inn at Ayot St Lawrence.

See the review of The Brocket Arms on this site.

Note; The writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot Airlines.

Ayot St Lawrence

A village experience with an added history lesson

What do leafy country lanes, the musical ‘My Fair Lady’ and England’s King Henry VIII have in common with a charming 14th Century pub, Lawrence of Arabia and a man who hated his local church?

The answer to that riddle lies in a romantic vale nestling in the southern English county of Hertfordshire


We discovered Ayot St Lawrence, as part of our review series on traditional village life.

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Do I hear a chorus of “where”?

Nestled among quintessentially English estates, narrow roads bounded by tall hedges and a maze of walking footpaths, Ayot St Lawrence is about 25 miles from central London.

However, it is  a world away in reality – an area of jaw-dropping beauty and stately houses.

All the over-worked but time-honoured phrases like ‘quaint, picture-postcard village’, ‘chocolate box scenery’ and ‘frozen in time’ certainly apply to this area.

But, there’s a lot more to Ayot St Lawrence than just the vision of the sunshine seeping through the undergrowth along its roadsides – as beautiful as that is.

Atmosphere plus at the Brocket Arms.

Take, for example, the Brocket Arms – a wonderful country inn that dates to 1378 and was originally the monastic quarters for the Norman church. Legend has it that a priest was hanged there and that it has been haunted ever since.

With low ceilings, oak beams and a 17th Century fireplace that features a priest’s hiding hole, the Brocket Arms provides high standard accommodation in a rustic inn that is literally the centre of the community.

Friendly locals – often accompanied by numerous dogs – mingle easily with travellers like us; wonderful hotel staff; and day-trippers up from London to soak up the atmosphere.

Watch for our upcoming review specifically about the Brocket Arms.

As well as the pub, Ayot St Lawrence boasts ancient and well preserved homes, including an old Rectory that dates to 1291 and is now divided into three.

There’s also the Tudor ‘Manor House, that was owned, at one stage, by Sir Richard Parr,     whose daughter, Catherine, was the sixth wife of Henry VIII.

According to local folklore, Henry courted Catherine at the manor

Shaw’s Corner

Another reason for our visit to Ayot St Lawrence was the George Bernard Shaw factor.

The famous writer and dramatist, who won an Oscar for Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady) lived in the village for more than 40 years from 1906.


‘Shaw’s Corner’, the Edwardian villa he shared with his wife, Charlotte is now a National Trust property and is open for inspection from mid-March to November.

The house features sweeping lawns and a small, rotating writing hut, where Shaw created many plays.

It is preserved like a time capsule – with hats, walking sticks, toothbrush, photographs, books, typewriter, Oscar, Nobel Prize – giving the impression that George has just stepped out for a while.

When Lawrence visited George

Shaw had many VIP visitors to the area and locals still like to tell a story about Lawrence of Arabia roaring around Ayot St Lawrence on his motorcycle.

The old St Lawrence church

 

Ayot St Lawrence is also known as a photographer’s dream, largely because of the partially demolished Old Lawrence Church.

Dating back to the 12th century, the church met an awkward fate, because Sir Lyonel Lyle, the Lord of the local manor took a dislike to the building in the late 1700’s.

Claiming that the stone church blocked the view from his house, Lord Lyle decided to pull down the building and erect another resembling a Greek Theatre.

The new church

 

Today, the old church is a much-sought backdrop – and the new one has two separate pavilions – one containing Sir Lyonel’s tomb and the other for his wife.

According to local folklore, the Lord of the manor declared that the church made him live with his wife when he was alive – but it sure wasn’t going to make him stay with her after death!

True or not, he certainly made his mark on the district – and the ruined church has a starkness and beauty that it may not have achieved if left intact.

Ayot St Lawrence, with its striking buildings and fabulous Brocket Arms inn is yet another gem of a village – with an intriguing story or two.

We loved our time mingling with the locals and, for a few days, becoming part of their community. Once again we were able to join in village life, not just observe.

Not the sheep!

Within hours of arriving, we were invited to a special surprise birthday party for Kelly, the charming owner of the Brocket Arms. The pub’s staff took us under their wing and we had a wonderful time at the party / although neither of us tried our hand at riding the mechanical bucking sheep

Ayot St Lawrence has village history in spades; beautiful scenery; wonderful, warm people and probably the most comfortable and friendly village pub we have encountered.

It is ideal for a village experience – but the real secret is that Ayot St Lawrence is only about 40 minutes drive from Heathrow Airport.

We used a local cab company called Point to Point Car Services, from nearby Codicote. The owner, Nick Payne, treated us well.

Note; The writer flew to Europe courtesy of Scoot. Why not take Scoot to Athens and then journey from there into other parts of Europe and the UK.

Ayot St Lawrence