Why the Hertfordshire countryside that inspired EM Forster is under threat

PUBLISHED: 08:57 09 June 2020

View towards St Nicholas Church

View towards St Nicholas Church

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At the end of EM Forster’s Howards End, suburbia is looming on the idyllic spot. Now, 50 years after the author’s death, the childhood home that inspired it looks finally to be engulfed

The 'gently undulating fields and hedges' of the last area of farmland in the borough, the site of a plan for 800 homes approved by the councilThe 'gently undulating fields and hedges' of the last area of farmland in the borough, the site of a plan for 800 homes approved by the council

The garden, the overhanging wych-elm, the sloping meadow, the great view to the west, the cliff of fir trees to the north, the adjacent farm through the high tangled hedge of wild roses were all utilized by me in Howards End, and the interior is in the novel too. The actual inmates were my mother, myself, two maids, two or more cats, an occasional dog; outside were a pony and trap with a garden boy to look after them.

‘From the time I entered the house at the age of four and nearly fell from its top to its bottom through a hole ascribed to the mice, I took it to my heart and hoped, as Marianne had of Battersea Rise, that I should live and die there. We were out of it in ten years. The impressions received there remained and still glow – not always distinguishably, always inextinguishably.’

So wrote EM Forster in a biography of his aunt about his childhood home, Rooks Nest, a red brick country house dating to Tudor times and formerly known as ‘Howards’, on the north-eastern edge of Stevenage.

The celebrated author, who died 50 years ago this month, also described the wider area in a radio programme in 1946 as ‘a district which I still think the loveliest in England... hedges full of clematis, primroses, bluebells, dog roses and nuts’. The broadcast was part of a campaign to save the area from new town development. 

Rook's Nest House, StevenageRook's Nest House, Stevenage

Stevenage new town did encroach on the area. The remnant of countryside around Rooks Nest House and the church of St Nicholas which has its roots in the Saxon period, retains the last agricultural fields in the borough, separating it from the neighbouring village of Graveley. Sadly, that will not be for long it seems. It will now be developed for 800 homes, saving a ministerial intervention.

That intervention – or the promise of one – is in no small way down to The Friends of Forster Country, a small, dedicated campaign group which counts the likes of Sir Andrew Motion and Barbara Follett among its members with a stated aim of preserving the area ‘for all time’.

Its chairman, John Spiers, a retired chartered engineer who lives a few stout steps away, said, ‘For quite a number of people a development like this would be a total disaster, not just because of what it would do to his legacy, but the fact that it would mean the loss of such a valued amenity.

‘He lived here during his childhood, from the age of four to 14, which was quite an impressionable age so, at the time he was writing, he had a lot of memories rooted there.

Coreys Mill in 1903, on the road out of Stevenage to Hitchin, near Rooks Nest. The building, a restaurant, still stands, opposite a superstore and with Lister Hospital behind it (c) The Francis Frith Collection/Alamy Stock PhotoCoreys Mill in 1903, on the road out of Stevenage to Hitchin, near Rooks Nest. The building, a restaurant, still stands, opposite a superstore and with Lister Hospital behind it (c) The Francis Frith Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

‘Sadly, Stevenage council appears obsessed with expanding the population of the town, and if this does go ahead, quite apart from what it would do to his legacy, there would be virtually no Green Belt left at all.’

For anyone who has never visited, the area to which he refers, the ‘little piece of England [that] provides vital breathing space, both physical and spiritual’ can be accessed best by parking in Stevenage Old Town then walking from the Bowling Green at the north end of the High Street, along the tree-lined Avenue to St Nicholas Church where a V-shaped route extends beyond the village of Graveley with North Road to the west and Chesfield to the east.

A few yards further on, the view opens up to reveal ‘gently undulating fields and hedges’, the last remaining farmland in the borough.

Along the way, there’s a quarry-stone memorial, commissioned by the Friends from the sculptor Angela Godfrey in 1994. It’s known as Only Connect, a title taken from Howards End:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.

Scientist-turned biographer John Alabaster, an authority on the composer and broadcaster Elizabeth Poston, who lived at Rooks Nest from 1914 until her death in 1987 and who was friends with Forster, explained the significance of Only Connect.

‘Howards End was an extraordinary book and demonstrated in many ways just how ahead of his time Forster was. Connections were key. It was a book of so many important connections – connections between right and wrong, rich and poor, people from near and far – and people connect with him when they come to see the house which has always been such a strong point of contact with him. That’s palpable when you go there. It’s a very special place.’

Forster was born in Dorset Square, London, on New Year’s Day, 1879, an only child who never knew his architect father who died when he was only one.

The initials EM were the result of an accident at his christening. Registered as Henry Morgan Forster, he was mistakenly baptised Edward Morgan. 

He and his mother, Lily, moved to Stevenage in 1883 and he spent a lot of time at Rooks Nest, being home educated and forming deep roots with the local area, influences that emerged in his earliest writings, particularly the house itself which represented the security he craved when sent to school in Kent 10 years later.

He decided to devote his life to writing after leaving Cambridge, penning stories redolent of an age of post-Victorian liberalism, full of observational comment about middle class life and adopting what was to become his trademark colloquial style.

He went on to become one of Britain’s most significant literary figures, achieving global fame for the likes of Room with a View, A Passage to India and, posthumously, Maurice, where he touched on the homosexuality he kept discreetly from view throughout his life.

But it was his 1910 novel Howards End which most strongly cemented his connection with Hertfordshire, not just in terms of the countryside he loved but the local characters so vividly reflected in those he created.

Such links have for years brought academics and students to north Herts, looking for a flavour of what inspired this most modest and retiring of men.

Many of them will have met local historian, author and one of the founders of the Friends, Margaret Ashby and, perhaps, even accompanied her on walks through Forster Country, just as a film crew did when they were on location scouting for the 1992 film of the book.

I asked her why there was such an enduring legacy attached to the book. She replied, ‘What’s significant is the fact that he deals with questions and situations that are timeless. In fact, I’d say there’s as much interest now as there was when he wrote it.

‘His name is known worldwide, but one of the interesting things I find is just how many young people are taken by him and his work.

‘We had a study weekend a few years ago which brought people from all over Europe and America. There were about 40 or 50 of them. We met in Friends Meeting House in Stevenage. Many were very familiar with his work but they were over here looking for nuggets.’

And the threat to that heritage? ‘He’s a very important figure in the world of literature so it’s important that we recognise what a privilege it is to have access to his home and countryside and we should be looking after it.’

Alabaster was more direct in his view: ‘Stevenage isn’t exactly noted for it’s culture,’ he said. ‘The council was very supportive of its Green Belt designation in the past but for the past five years seems to have shown little interest. These days it’s more about racing drivers.’

The house has changed hands several times, after Elizabeth Poston for a while it was the home of the Australian composer Dr Malcom Williamson. The current owner still gets requests to look around the three-storey Grade I listed house, one which in Forster’s time had no running water or power.

The house has three reception rooms, all with fireplaces, five bedrooms and three further attic rooms which would have then been servants’ quarters.

Outside, there is a large garden and four and a half acres of land that includes several outbuildings.

Part of its appeal is the fact that, besides being quintessentially idyllic, it’s one visitors can relate to; one they could see themselves living in, much like Thomas Hardy’s Dorset cottage and Haworth Parsonage, home of the Brontë sisters, rather than Byron’s Newstead Abbey or Agatha Christie’s Greenway.

Forster died of a stroke on June 7, 1970, aged 91. He was at the home of a longtime friend in Coventry, 70 miles from Rooks Nest, of which he once wrote: ‘I took it to my heart and hoped... that I should live and die there.’

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