On Wednesday, 22 July, forty-five of us embarked on our visit to Hertfordshire, our first stop being Shaw's Corner in Ayot St Lawrence, home of George Bernard Shaw. There we were divided into three groups visiting the village, house and grounds at half hourly intervals.
During that time we marvelled at the old church, partly demolished by Sir Lionel Lyle until prevented by his bishop. In contrast the 'new' St Lawrence's Palladian church was designed in 1778-9, a mixture of external Grecian style, with a Greek temple portico and fluted columns, and an internal Roman classicism.
However, the purpose of our visit was Shaw's Corner, the writer's home from 1906 till his death in 1950 (the result of a tree climbing accident) at the age of 94. The house of dark red brick with an Arts and Crafts influence, built in 1898, was a former rectory, and is a living shrine to a man of genius. Being not only a playwright, author, wit and political activist, he was also a pacifist and atheist, a vegetarian and teetotaller, and called irreverently 'Old Hair and Teeth' by the village children.
The house reflects his love of invention and contrivance, the front door bearing a knocker in his own image, entitled 'Man and Superman'. After deciding to give the house to the National Trust he transferred all his 'Shaviana' from his Whitehall Court flat in London in order "to titivate Shaw's Corner as a showplace" (his own words). So it holds his collections of hats, walking sticks, pens, spectacles, utilitarian woollen underwear, as well as a piano, two cameras, a bicycle and a cycling machine. As well as numerous photographs on the walls, there's a splendid album of photos of Shaw and his friends and famous visitors. Of particular interest to me was the Oscar awarded to him in 1938 for his screenplay for the film 'Pygmalion'.
In the garden covering three acres of lawns, flowerbeds and trees, is his Hut, designed to be turned at certain times of the day in order to give him maximum light for writing. Linked to the house by telephone, he would be summoned by his wife for meals and important visitors. Also in the garden tucked away in 'The Dell' is a serene statue of Saint Joan.
At 12.20 pm we reluctantly left for Hitchin where we would spend the rest of our day. After a suitable time for lunch, shopping and sight-seeing in the environs of St Mary's parish church by the river, we all met in the playground of the British Schools Museum in Queen Street. Opened in 1810 as the first school in Hertfordshire "for the sons of the labouring poor" and founded by Joseph Lancaster who believed that all children had the right to be educated, it is now a museum of education in a unique historic elementary school. After an introductory talk in which we were told of the monitorial system of teaching whereby the Master would teach bright boys (monitors) who would in turn take groups of boys elsewhere in the room in order to pass on the information, we were divided into groups ourselves. We in turn visited the Master's House, the Edwardian and wartime classrooms, the Lancasterian schoolroom, which could accommodate 300 boys, and the 1853 Galleried Classroom, built on the advice of Victorian poet and school inspector, Matthew Arnold.
A highlight of the visit was a session in a Victorian classroom, where we received tuition in the three Rs, using slates, pencils and dip-in pens with 'real' ink from 'real' ink-wells! Seated at wooden desks with lift-up lids (those were the days) we were drilled in our knowledge of pounds, shillings and pence, and one unfortunate having fluffed her sums (oh, Margaret) was forced to sit in the corner on a stool, wearing a dunce's cap. After being released, we had a welcome refreshment break, before visiting the shop, but a shop with a difference, selling as it did educational toys, eagerly purchased by dutiful grannies. At 4.30 pm we boarded our coach for our return to Ipswich, with thanks to Caroline for organising another splendid, interesting and educational day out.