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The genius of George Bernard Shaw - visit Ayot St Lawrence

PUBLISHED: 10:03 09 May 2016 | UPDATED: 11:57 02 June 2016

The rear garden and house (National Trust Images/James Dobson)

The rear garden and house (National Trust Images/James Dobson)

©National Trust Images/James Dobson

Playwright, socialist, photographer, vegetarian, pacifist, boxing fan and tango dancer, George Bernard Shaw donated his Ayot St Lawrence home to the National Trust before he died there in 1950. Sandra Deeble pays a visit

A Shaw play on the front lawn. The venue will host two this summer (National Trust Images/David Levenson)A Shaw play on the front lawn. The venue will host two this summer (National Trust Images/David Levenson)

‘I’m a bit of a Shaw bore,’ admits Sue Morgan, resident custodian of the National Trust property Shaw’s Corner, the Ayot St Lawrence home of George Bernard Shaw for 44 years. ‘I would have loved to know him. I find him so inspirational. He wrote 56 plays, five novels and a quarter of a million letters. His output was phenomenal.’

Having lived at Shaw’s Corner now for seven years, and working in an office that was once Lawrence of Arabia’s bedroom, Morgan is excited by the resurgence of interest in Shaw. Last year, Ralph Fiennes starred in Man and Superman at the National, directed by Simon Godwin, who grew up in St Albans. Godwin and Fiennes were so exhilarated by Shaw’s work that they are planning to work on further productions together.

‘It was incredible,’ says Morgan, who saw the play several times. ‘Each time we left the theatre the audience was uplifted. Shaw’s wit and humour ran through it all.’

Hearing Shaw’s words read out loud is the best way of keeping him alive, Morgan says. On the day of my visit, volunteers James and Pat Steadman were in the woodcutting area reading from Mrs Warren’s Profession. It’s a part of the garden where Shaw and his wife Charlotte kept fit by chopping wood. Listening to the words, I appreciate the author’s rapier wit, and that his writings are still relevant today.

‘He wouldn’t back Brexit. He would definitely want to stay in the EU,’ says Morgan, when I ask her what Shaw would think about the European referendum. ‘And he would be campaigning against wars. He saw war as a massive waste of life and resources.’

Shaw was hugely influenced by contemporary and Arts and Crafts luminary William Morris. ‘It was a line of thought about working very hard in our lifetimes because we’ll be judged retrospectively on what we have achieved. Shaw was interested in how we can use our life to make change. He believed in being useful.’

Shaw was a supporter of the Garden City movement, seeing it as a way of transforming lives for the better. ‘We have photographs of him out with (Frederic) Osborn looking for the land for Welwyn Garden City,’ says Morgan. ‘And I think he must have been instrumental in bringing Shredded Wheat to Welwyn Garden City. He knew Kellogg in America.’

Shaw left his home to the National Trust before he died, and his wish was for the house to be a living record of his work.

Someone who promises to keep the house alive is PhD student Alice McEwan. Working in collaboration with the University of Hertfordshire, she is looking at Shaw archives world-wide and one objectives is to furnish the guides with more insights and stories. One example is looking at Charlotte’s household records that are part of a collection at the University of Texas. It’s a case of every object in the house having an interesting tale. The more you look, the more you’ll learn about the man.

Everyone should visit Shaw’s Corner. Even if you don’t want to become a Shavian scholar, you can still enjoy an ice-cream in the gardens and inevitably you’ll find yourself being drawn in to the writer’s life. Some people say that when you go to the house, it’s as if he’s just popped out.

I ask Sue Morgan what she thinks Shaw might say to her today if he were to come out of writing hut and walk across the lawn. She is quick to answer: ‘I think he’d tell me to stop cleaning and to start doing something more useful.’

The room guide

John Harlow is a room guide, now in his third season as a volunteer. He has recently developed his own introductory talks for visitors. His fascination lies in the famous people who walked up the gravel path through the front garden, which in summer becomes a stage for outdoor performances of Shaw’s plays.

‘Danny Kaye walked across here. The Astors walked across here. Lawrence of Arabia parked his Brough Superior here. On this very bit of path where we’re walking now.

‘It has been total immersion therapy. I love it here. The story of George Bernard Shaw and his hinterland is absolutely fascinating. He was there at the beginnings of socialism. And he was around at the beginnings of photography. He had one of the first telephones. He was gadget man himself, let alone an amazing political thinker and philosopher. If he were around now he would have been an early adopter of iPhones and digital photography.

‘You get people coming here from all over the world. But sometimes when I ask people where they have come from, so many will say Welwyn Garden City, Hatfield, or St Albans. They know about the place but they’ve never been here. What makes it for me is meeting all these people and bringing the house alive for them.’

Revolving writing

Central to Shaw’s writing life was his revolving shed at the bottom of the garden, designed to follow the sun. He called it ‘London’ and would escape from visitors to the hut where he wrote Pygmalion, St Joan, Man and Superman and Major Barbara. Made by Norwich manufacturer Boulton & Paul, you can still buy a refurbished one today - if you have a spare £13,000 - from architectural antique company UKAA. Last year, the hut was featured in Channel 4’s Amazing Spaces Shed of the Year.

Shed enthusiast Alex Johnson features footage of Shaw and his shed, together with Danny Kaye, on his website shedworking.co.uk. ‘I’m fascinated by the rotating mechanism. Revolving summer houses were also used for people recovering in hospital.’

Visitors to ‘London’ included Vivien Leigh and Stewart Granger. According to their wishes, Shaw’s and Charlotte’s ashes were mixed together and scattered around the hut.

What to look out for

An Oscar – won in 1938 for Pygmalion, Best Screenplay

The 1926 Nobel Prize for Literature

Jaeger clothes in Shaw’s wardrobe – he was obsessed with health, loved Jaeger, and thought that wool was best for its ‘breathability’.

Bed designed by Ambrose Heal

Walking stick in the entrance hall. A gift from William Morris, it is inscribed with a Norse proverb that Shaw took to heart: ‘One thing never dies: the reputation of a dead man’.

Shaw’s copy of Pygmalion and a marked-up copy he adapted for My Fair Lady.

Shaw’s own photographs, including: polar explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who lived next door. Gene Tunney. Tunney a boxer who became a great friend (his son, Jay Tunney, is involved with the International Shaw Society). Charlotte on their honeymoon. It is said that they were companions rather than lovers. She was a great supporter of their biggest joint project, The Fabian Society.

Sidney and Beatrice Webb with Charlotte – founders of the London School of Economics.

Summer evening performances

Bring a picnic, set up on the lawn. If it rains, the show goes on.

Pygmalion, June 24-26

You Never Can Tell, July 22-24

Booking via 01438 820 307 or sue.morgan@nationaltrust.org.uk

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