Island living is unsustainable, and sometimes those of us on London Island must take a boat to the mainland to forage for firewood, check out cultural activities and brace ourselves for the heather and bluebells of the counties. The London Bluebird is a hybrid breed, who was raised in the country and is now nesting in the city, and has a great fondness for both.
So, there we were, me and my University Friend, rippling up the A1 in the Bluebirdmobile, a joyously-filled picnic basket on the back seat and my friend monitoring the hot flask of coffee. We had an incident last year. Enroute to Blenheim Palace to sample the delights of a Palladian pad Oxfordshire-style, my flask of coffee managed to empty over the Bluebirdmobile, University Friend and University Friend’s handbag. We then got caught in a four hour traffic jam. Twas not a very satisfying afternoon. But this time, it couldn’t have been more delightful; the weather was gloriously warm and once we had turned off at Welwyn we were plunged into the 18th century. University Friend was most excited by the appearance of horses. This area, she pointed out, was Forster country, being where ‘Howard’s End’ was set.
I do love wheedling around country lanes. It’s the only part of motoring where you really get to go hellbent for leather on your horn. Many country dwellers think city people are derisive of the country; but we are not. We have so romantic a vision of England, fuelled by childhoods of watching Miss Marple and adulthoods watching Midsomer Murders, that we think the English countryside a thing of inestimable beauty punctuated by the occasional corpse. It is reality, with its crestfallen new towns, 1980s Tescos and brash industrial parks we find so disappointing. But here, in an unspoilt pocket of northeast Hertfordshire, it was breathtaking. We rocked on up to the hood known at Ayot St Lawrence, home of Bernard Shaw, to check out his gaff. Ayot St Lawrence – and its sister village – Ayot St Peter, have not just not gone forward from the Edwardian times, but they have actually gone backwards. Since Bernard Shaw tottered along Ayot’s lanes penning a new play in his head, Ayot St Lawrence has lost its village shop and its village Post Office. This happened at least 40 years ago. The village is therefore just another kind of Island Living. Horses clip along the margins of unpainted, one track village lanes and are eventually tied up in the sunlight of the 14th century pub. Fields roll out towards the horizon. Occasionally modern life makes an ugly appearance; chaps in sports cars speed round the corners with their 1980s haircuts like extras from Ashes to Ashes.
At Shaw’s gaff the house was locked up as we were early. The National Trust runs this place with its formidable iron hand. A lady in a pearl choker gave us permission to eat our sandwiches in his garden, though. I once did a play in this garden and I was a hysterical housemaid – typecast again – problem was the house had to be used for entrances and exits. The door handles and doors had been repainted so many times that the handles were thick with paint and wouldn’t turn easily. Everyone was late on their cues, whilst “Arthur”, “Beatrice”, “Gwendolyn” or whoever was adrift on the open-air stage making up bits of scenes whilst the doorhandle from the drawing room on to the lawn was rattled aggressively and kicked from the other side by an actor in period dress. I had to emerge in tears and then exit into a hedge that stank of cats piss. It was one of my first acting jobs and also one of the most glamourous, which should tell you something about the others. Ayot St Lawrence also now stands in the flight path from Luton airport, which is 25 miles away, so marriage proposals in Edwardian drawing rooms would be soundtracked by the heinous drone of an EasyJet plane hovering overhead on it’s way to Paphos.
The house of George “They call him Bernie” Shaw.
After sandwiches and Pringles my University Friend and I headed up to the house. Barely were we over the threshold than we were accosted by a volunteer chap wanting to tell us about Shaw’s bees and Mrs Shaw’s taste in furnishings (I’ve seen the house – she didn’t have any). Small, Arts & Crafts National Trust houses like this one give little possibility for padding round the house in your own space and on your own terms. It was only a four up and four down. Presumably a larger house would have been inappropriate for Hertfordshire’s leading (only?) socialist. We were never alone. The National Trust drones followed us everywhere, reprimanding me at one point for wiping my hands “on a national treasure” when I deigned to use Bernard Shaw’s tea towel. At least in some palatial pad like Blenheim you can wonder off-piste and have a moment of reflection amongst the housemaid’s boot polish cupboard, and abuse the facilities. No such luck at Shaw’s Corner.
We went into the kitchen. Another National Trust volunteer was there, clipboard aloft, telling us about the department stores of Welwyn in the 1930s. University Friend and I struggled with well-meaning grins on our faces. We see a copy of Shaw’s daily vegetarian menu lying on the wooden kitchen table. Reading the list of this buffet of protein-rich roughage was enough to make my colon spasm. Then there was a recorded message from Shaw’s maid, about how Mrs Shaw was a right bitch if her bath wasn’t hot enough. The volunteer continued, asking whether we knew about the Shaws’ postal arrangements. Slowly, we backed off towards the jelly moulds in the regulation 1940s brown cupboard. But the volunteer wouldn’t stop, and was talking about what the Shaws’ housemaids used to squeeze lemons. When we tried a quick getaway towards the scullery, she followed us.
A quick chat, then it’s off to found the LSE and complete a swashbuckling play. That’s life as GBS, folks.
Upstairs, in the room next to Shaw’s single bed of celibacy, there was a range of spectacles, pens, telegrams, writing paper and a image of Vivien Leigh standing on the front lawn of Shaw’s Corner guffawing loudly at the camera. Other exhibits included reports of the suspicions of the villagers when Shaw first appeared amongst them and his flagrant, somewhat stupid, refusal to obey “lights out” policies in the First World War. By the time the Second World War rolled around, he had become an active member of the local community and was the Air Raid Warden for the area (we saw the hat). He was in his eighties by this stage. The sight of a eighty-something year old Dubliner in a ARP hat pottering slowly towards them with a walking stick urging everyone to take cover must have reassured locals.
The volunteers were not up in the exhibition rooms. There was just a few hippies gazing at Shaw’s rude letters to fans in which he refused to enter into correspondence (too busy building an Anderson shelter?). After gazing fearfully at the bee hives in the garden and wondering what the Cornish Tin Miners hat could possibly have been used for, we decamped to the pub. Presumably, the abstemious playwright never came in here. He should have done, for they have excellent, excellent home made coffee and walnut cake. All hail to the landlady, I say.
We went in search of Forster’s bluebell fields of Howard’s End but came only face to face with a lame horse. It started to rain. We were asked to leave a winding road as it turned out to belong to somebody else and we didn’t know. Our coffee flask had got cold. Island Living here was beginning to lose its charm. We headed back to the 21st century, where our day of Shavian splendour dispersed at the first roundabout to Welwyn Garden City. Relaxed, yet with batteries fully recharged with much-needed country air, we pushed back through the A1 to drop back into our places on our city island.
Next week: Bernard Shaw on Ice.
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