We have a wealth of heritage in Herts, Julie Lucas discovers a small corner of it

‘For me, it’s seeing how things happened in the past, how people lived. It’s walking into history and brings the history alive.’

I am sitting on the veranda at Shaw’s Corner talking to its house manger Rebecca Whitmore, who has been overseeing its conservation for the past five years.

Great British Life: The entrance to Shaw's Corner. Photo Mike SelbyThe entrance to Shaw's Corner. Photo Mike Selby

The property is one of Hertfordshire’s ‘hidden gems’. And ‘hidden’ it certainly is travelling down some of the small country lanes to get to it, I feel like I am in deepest Hertfordshire. However, the journey is worth it and I am now looking out over the gardens where playwright George Bernard Shaw, a literary titan in his time and the creator of the iconic Eliza Dolittle, lived for 40 years, entertaining eminent friends including Edward Elgar, Vivien Leigh and TE Lawrence.

‘In historic houses you're not looking at anything on its own, you're seeing it as a whole,’ explains Rebecca. ‘It is a great introduction to history. There's something a little clinical about museums where you have just one object. When you enter Shaw's Corner, the place has a soul, you can feel it. It’s almost as if someone left this morning and will return this afternoon; it feels lived in.’

Ensuring our heritage is preserved is a never-ending cycle of conservation and cleaning. This entails everything from normal day-to-day dusting and vacuuming to the more delicate work of conserving the 3000 historic books at the property, which are cleaned every five years. ‘With books you have to be careful not to crack the spine,’ explains Rebecca. ‘We use a very low powered vacuum cleaner and a soft bristle brush. Damage is mainly caused by humidity; if you leave it too long, the dust fuses to whatever it has settled on and then it’s too late. It’s a process called cementation. Sometimes you will find white marks in the in the crevices of old dark furniture, it’s cemented dust. Light is another issue, there is always that balance of giving people enough light to see the rooms and having less light to preserve the objects.’

Great British Life: Shaw's writing shed, he was a prolific writer. Photo Mike SelbyShaw's writing shed, he was a prolific writer. Photo Mike Selby

Shaw’s Corner is not a typical National Trust property like its bigger brother across the border in Cambridgeshire, Wimpole Hall. ‘There are quite a few of us ‘small properties’ as we are known as in the trust and we are looking towards how we can adapt to ensure our survival,’ explains Rebecca. She describes Shaw’s Corner as an ‘estate in miniature’. ‘I certainly think we are just as important as the bigger houses.’

Taking a tour of the property, I am amazed at the wealth of interesting artefacts, including a Rodin sculpture. Shaw’s House is also the only National Trust property that’s home to an Oscar (awarded to the writer in 1939 for his adapted screenplay of Pygmalion) and a Nobel Prize (awarded in 1925) - Shaw was the first person ever to be awarded both. This only changed in 2016 when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Having lived in Hertfordshire my entire life and also a fan of My Fair Lady, the film based on Shaw’s Pygmalion, I am reluctant to admit I have not visited the house before.

Great British Life: 'We don't stop playing because we grow old, we grow old as we stop playing' - George Bernard Shaw. Picture: Alan Davies'We don't stop playing because we grow old, we grow old as we stop playing' - George Bernard Shaw. Picture: Alan Davies

The tour of 45 minutes, led by knowledgeable husband and wife team Janet and Andy Picken, is the perfect length. ‘The tours of the house allow people to go further into the rooms for a more immersive experience,’ says Rebecca. ‘It's an introduction to Shaw, as many visitors haven't heard of him before and volunteers can be engaging in their storytelling.

‘We want visitors to go away feeling that they have learned something - even something inconsequential like the fact that we've got two sets of Shaw’s upper teeth’ ‘We had always assumed the false teeth on his bedside table were a full set, but one of our conservation assistants sent his girlfriend a picture of him cleaning them recently. An anthropologist, she asked, “why have you got two uppers?” We have no clue, and don't know what's happened to the bottom set!’

It is not necessary to book on a tour of the house, visitors can just turn up, enjoy the gardens, perhaps enjoy a takeaway tea or coffee, and take a peek into Shaw’s famous writing shed. He named it London so any unwanted visitors would be told, 'Sorry he is in London.'

Great British Life: Rebecca with the sculpture of George Bernard Shaw by RodinRebecca with the sculpture of George Bernard Shaw by Rodin

Community engagement is big on Rebecca’s list. ‘We are always looking for new opportunities. We are quite isolated, you have to be able to drive to get here, which does cut off some communities.’

The property is completely reliant on volunteers and at the time we meet the house team is embarking on a recruitment event. The house needs around 38-40 people to open, with seven volunteers a day assisting with the tours, conservation work or in the garden.

Unfortunately, Shaw’s plays are not on the school curriculum anymore, so they don't tend to work with schools – possibly that’s just as well as there’s the added problem with facilities: 'We have one historic toilet, imagine 39 eight-year-olds all wanting to go - the queue would be longer than anything else,’ laughs Rebecca. However, they have outdoor theatre performances each summer, and this year they offered something slightly different instead of the usual Shaw play: a production of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and a family play Alice in Wonderland to encourage younger audiences to the property.

At Easter the team organised Easter egg hunts for youngsters and a children's trail is planned over the summer holidays. There's also a seven mile circular walk from Wheathampstead which follows in the footsteps of the playwright. The aim is to create activities that will encourage visitors to return, but which will also reach out to new sectors of the population.

How are they remaining relevant in today's changing world? ‘We are quite lucky in that Shaw had a wide variety of opinions on a huge amount of topics - some of them were very much of their time but some were quite progressive. He was anti-war and a conscientious objector during the First World War. His popularity took a massive hit because of this but he was not frightened in stepping out the norm. He also wrote multiple letters to get a pardon for Oscar Wilde [after he was imprisoned as a gay man] he was very much an advocate for people whose voices were forgotten at the time.

Great British Life: The garden of Shaw's Corner where the playwright entertained his eminent friends. Photo Mike SelbyThe garden of Shaw's Corner where the playwright entertained his eminent friends. Photo Mike Selby

‘Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything,’ said the playwright and this remains as relevant today as it was in Shaw’s day.

The National Trust portfolio includes 192 historic houses; it also includes 47 industrial monuments and mills, 11 lighthouses, 39 pubs, 41 castles and chapels, 56 villages and 37 medieval barns. Each property has its own budget, but can bid for pools of money from a central pot for additional upkeep such as building works. In addition to the £281m a year it costs to open properties to visitors, over the next three years the organisation will be investing £360m in the conservation of its historic houses, collections and gardens and to help do this, it has a pool of trusted traditional craftsman at their disposal. ‘We are constantly looking for ways to improve the house and make sure we keep that authenticity. This winter will be removing a fitted carpet in our entrance and reinstating floorboards and a historic rug. It takes a lot of work to keep going and each property has its own individual challenges, but we have got a huge wealth of experience within the National Trust that is there to be utilised.’

In October Rebecca will be responsible for putting the property ‘to bed’, as it closes for the winter. This involves cleaning each room from floor to ceiling, inspecting all the objects and furniture, and covering with dust sheets. It’s a chance for staff to check for any deterioration or damage and Rebecca loves the quietness of the house after a summer of visitors.

Surrounded by so much history does she have a favourite artefact? ‘I really like some of the photographs that we have on display. I have a soft spot for old photography. We have 15,000 negatives in our collection that Shaw took throughout his lifetime, all stored in a freezer. I enjoy sharing them on social media, showing what Shaw was up to on a particular day. We have ‘Throwback Thursday’ on Facebook and when any big events come up we try to use his photographs to accompany them so there's some visual representation.'

We both agree the veranda is the best spot. ‘The Shaws utilised it in the exactly the same way that we're doing now, they used to call it the Riviera and it's where they did the majority of their socialising.’ As Rebecca and I share tea and chat, I resolve to return to this fascinating home and certainly leave wishing I’d visited it sooner.’