Ayot St Lawrence in rural Hertfordshire
The village of Ayot St Lawrence near St Albans in Hertfordshire is much visited because of one of its former residents, the writer George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950).Some of its lesser-known former inhabitants are not devoid of interest!
From 1906 until his death, Shaw lived at ‘Shaw Corner’ in what had been the rectory (built 1902) for the village church of St Lawrence. I have only visited the gardens of this rather ugly house, but their beauty easily compensates the exterior of house’s lack of it. Of interest at the bottom of the garden, there is a garden shed that is mounted on bearings that allow it to be rotated so that its windows always catch the best of the sunlight (when available!).
It was to this shed that Shaw used to retire to write especially when he wished to avoid having to meet unwanted visitors. Incidentally, Shaw was a keen gardener. He died whilst tending a tree in this garden.
I am sorry that I did not have sufficient time to visit the house’s interior. Amongst the many items on display relating to Shaw’s life, there are photographs of some of the Soviet Union’s less savoury hierarchy, including: Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinskii, and Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin. Whatever one might think about his views in the light of history, Shaw expressed sympathy for the ideals that these men and others, including Benito Mussolini, were supposed to have been working towards, but never achieved. After visiting the USSR in 1931, Shaw proclaimed that he was a ‘Communist’. Like so many highly intelligent intellectuals who visited the USSR in the years between the two World Wars, Shaw came away impressed by the flattery of his hots and what they had led him to believe.
The manor of Ayot St Lawrence, which has also been called ‘Great Ayot’, dates back to the 11th century if not before. The construction of the old village church of St Lawrence began in the 12th century. The church is now in ruins, having been superseded by the construction of a newer one, now the current parish church, in 1779.
The ‘new’ church is close to Shaw Corner, within easy walking distance, but can be approached by car via a rough track that leads off Bibbs Hall Lane, a few hundred yards west of Shaw’s house. Although the ruins of the old church are both romantic and full of architectural historical interest, the new church is like a breath of fresh air.
Built in 1779 by the baronet Sir Lionel Lyde (died 1791), it was designed in a neo-classical style by the architect Nicholas Revett (1721-1804), who is now best remembered for his work in documenting the ruins of ancient Athens.
Sir Lionel Lyde made his money as a slave trader and in the tobacco trade, and should not be confused with the geographer Lionel William Lyde (1863-1947), who taught both at University College London and at the London School of Economics.
Sir Lionel acquired the lordship of the manor of Ayot St Lawrence in the 1770s. He built himself a new Georgian manor house close to the old Tudor one, which he abandoned. It is said that he demolished the tower of the old parish church because it obstructed views from his new house. As a result, he was obliged to erect a new parish church, and this is the one that Revett designed. According to one source (see: http://www.visitoruk.com/Hatfield/ayot-st-lawrence-C592-V10930.html):
“It is said that the portico of this new palladian church was a copy of the Temple of Apollo at Delos. Sir Lionel certainly did not want anyone to spoil his view of this famous portico, and therefore the villagers had to approach the church from behind, and enter by a side door …”
There is a fine view of the manor house from the front of the church. During WW2, it became the home of the exiled King Michael of Rumania. Before leaving England for Switzerland, the exiled royal family ran a market garden somewhere in Hertfordshire. After WW2, the house was owned by Lady Zoe Harte-Dyke, who made the property:
“… famous as a working silk farm responsible for producing the silk robes for Prince Charles investiture and previously the coronation and wedding robes of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.” (See: http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-for-sale/property-42413533.html).
The new church is in wonderful condition. It is a perfect example of a ‘Palladian’ or ‘Greek revival’ style church. Two pavilions to the north and south of the church, connected to it by colonnades, contain the remains of Sir Lionel and his wife.
Two monuments inside the church, whose main altar is unusually at tits west end, caught my attention. Both of them are in an alcove on the south side of the church. One of them is to Lieutenant Colonel Gerard Vivian Ames, Lord of the Manors of The Hyde and Ayot St Lawrence, who died aged 44 in1899 in Paris. The other is to members of the Williams family, Monier and his son Alfred.
Gerard Ames was a brother of Lionel Frederick Ames-Lyde. Like the Lyde family, the Ames (from Bristol) made their money in the slave trade. They were both closely related to the builder of the church Sir Lionel Lyde (died 1791). In his brief life, Gerard became a Justice of the Peace for Bedfordshire and a Lieutenant Colonel of the First Royal Dragoons. In 1889, he married Alice Katherine Miles in the British Embassy in Paris.
Close to Gerard’s memorial, there is one to the two Williams family members. Both of them were connected to the history of British India. The older, Lieutenant Colonel Monier Williams (1780-1825) served the East India Company as Surveyor General of Bombay. He died in Naples. Beneath his memorial inscription, there is one for his youngest son Alfred Williams, who died in 1840, aged 19 years. He died:
“… whilst gallantly leading the storm of the pass of Nufoosk, in the attempt to relieve the Fort of Kahun in Scinde…”
This occurred during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). By the way, ‘Scinde’ is now known as ‘Sindh’, and ‘Nufoosk’ as ‘Naffusak’.
Alfred was the youngest son of Monier, the Surveyor General. One of his older brothers, Monier Monier Williams (1819-1899), was born in Bombay and lived to become a famous orientalist. After having been sent to England to be educated, and having just passed the East India Company’s examinations he prepared to set out for India. But on learning of his brother Alfred’s death, his mother persuaded him to remain in England. He became proficient in Asian languages, and in 1843 he was appointed professor of Sanskrit, Persian, and Hindustani at Haileybury. He became a leading British scholar of Indian languages, culture, and religion. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography lists his many wonderful achievements including:
“… his advocacy of increased British understanding of Eastern religions, which was inspired by his enthusiasm for missionary work in India. … he devoted almost all his energies to classical Sanskrit, publishing editions of Kalidasa’s plays … He also produced An Elementary Grammar of the Sanskrit Language (1846), … A Dictionary, English and Sanskrit (1851), a Sanskrit Manual (1862), and a large Sanskrit–English Dictionary (1872; 2nd edn, 1899). His Sakuntala went through many editions, as did his Indian Wisdom (1875), a collection of Sanskrit translations. In addition, he wrote several Hindustani manuals and grammars. He is now remembered solely for his Sanskrit–English Dictionary, in essence a translation and abridged reworking of the Sanskrit Wörterbuch of O. Böhtlingk and R. Roth. The revised edition by E. Leumann and C. Cappeller (1899) is still reprinted and widely used by students of Sanskrit.”
Had his brother not fallen whilst on duty in Sindh, the world might have been deprived of the fruits of this man’s great intellect.
After my visit to Ayot St Lawrence, I wondered whether history would have been different had great intellectuals such as Ayot’s best known former inhabitant had seen through the ploys of tyrants such as Stalin and Mussolini instead of becoming their admirers.