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Athenian Influence at Ayot House and Shaw Corner

A walk from Ayot St Lawrence to Ayot St Peter and back, via the last home of George Bernard Shaw.

Distance 5 miles (8km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 120ft (37m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Bridleways, former railway line and field paths, 2 stiles

Landscape Gently rolling arable countryside with woodland stretches

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 182 St Albans & Hatfield

Start/finish TL 195168

Dog friendliness On lead through pasture around Ayot St Lawrence with horses and sheep

Parking Roadside parking in Ayot St Lawrence near Brocket Arms

Public toilets None on route

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1 From the roadside near the Brocket Arms, head west past the ruined medieval Church of St Lawrence and, at the bend, go to the right of a telephone box through a kissing gate. The portico of the old church should be straight ahead of you. Now in pasture, take the right-hand fork path, with a post-and-wire fence to your right. Go through another kissing gate and cross pasture grazed by sheep to St Lawrence's 'new' church, entering the churchyard via a third kissing gate.

2 Leave the churchyard from behind the church, along a metalled access drive. At the lane go right, signposted 'Hertfordshire Way', then go left past Priors Holt at a stile and footpath sign into pasture. At another stile descend some steps to a path along the edge of a wood. Turn left to follow it, passing the leafy grounds of Shaw Corner, to reach a road.

3 Turn right and in a short while, where the road swings to the right, go straight on at the public bridleway sign. Follow the bridleway, which is a narrow, high-hedged and often muddy green lane for much of its length. At the summit a bypass footpath through scrub avoids the muddiest sections of the bridleway. Go through a wooded kissing gate and follow the path as it winds amid a belt of beautiful oak and hornbeam trees to a road via a kissing gate.

4 At the road, jink left then right to a public bridleway sign. Walk alongside oak and hornbeam coppiced woodland. Through a conifer copse the path emerges, now in an arable field, with a hedge to your left. Ahead of you is the embankment of the old Hatters Line railway.

5 Go right at the railway bridge to climb the embankment and then left, back across the bridge. Follow the old trackbed until just before the start of some woods. Here go left over a stile. Bear right, ignoring the left hand path, and skirt the woods, later entering them on an old holloway track.

6 At the road go right to visit Ayot St Peter church. Retrace your steps past the former school and continue along the lane until it turns sharp left at a cemetery. You go straight on to a grassy track to the left of Tamarisk Cottage. Follow the bridleway, much of it a hedgeless track between arable fields, cross a road and continue on the bridleway.

7 Pass through a hedge to a lane opposite Stocking Lane Cottage and turn right uphill to a road junction. At Lord Mead Lane go left, signposted 'Shaw Corner' and bear left back to the Brocket Arms pub and the start.

Ayot St Lawrence is only accessible by winding country lanes, and yet it is immensely popular with visitors and walkers. Notwithstanding the two churches and the Brocket Arms pub, the main draw is Shaw Corner. This Edwardian villa, built as a rectory, was George Bernard Shaw's home from 1906 until his death in 1950.

In the village stands the ruined old church of St Lawrence. Sir Lionel Lyde, the lord of the manor, decided to rebuild the church in a different location and set his men to pull the church down, apparently without informing the Bishop of Lincoln, in whose diocese it stood. The bishop ordered the work to stop; Lyde obeyed, but made no effort to make good the damage. Instead he just continued with his project, the remarkable Greek-style new church which he wanted as an eye-catcher for his mansion, Ayot House. You can see the effect by standing in Lyde's sheep-cropped park with its oaks, pines and sycamores. Look across to the early 18th century, three-storey brick façade of Ayot House with its parapet and box sash windows. Sir Lionel Lyde was a tobacco merchant and a director of the Bank of England and he, of course, looked west to the new church, built in what was then a very advanced style of architecture. He used the architect Nicholas Revett, who with James 'Athenian' Stuart had published Antiquities of Athens, the first volume arriving in 1762. Revett designed a Greek temple with side colonnades linking it to pedimented pavilions. The main portico copied that of the Temple of Apollo at Delos and, designed in 1778, it was consecrated in July 1779.

At one end pavilion is an urn under which Sir Lionel is buried and at the other end pavilion, under another urn, his wife is buried. Apparently their marriage was unhappy and the knight took the view that the church, having united them in holy matrimony, should physically keep them apart in death. Certainly it is a remarkable design for the 1770s and a telling demonstration of the dictatorial powers of Georgian land-owning gentry. Ayot St Peter's parish church is a complete contrast. A muscular Victorian church in red and blue brick with stone dressings, Earl Cowper laid its foundation stone in April 1875. It was the fourth church to be built in the parish. The first three were in the present cemetery north of the tiny village (by Tamarisk Cottage) where the lane goes sharply left. The third church, built in 1751, was octagonal with a separate bell tower. Although it mostly burnt down in 1874, its chancel survived and it now serves as a mortuary chapel.

What to look for

Before Ayot St Peter you walk along part of the old Hertford, Luton and Dunstable Railway, opened in 1858 and closed in 1965. It was called 'the Hatters Line' because much of its freight traffic was straw hats made in and around Luton, the centre of the straw-plaiting industry. Today the trackbed serves as a footpath between Welwyn Garden City and Wheathampstead.

While you're there

Shaw Corner was presented to the National Trust by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) in his lifetime and he died here after falling from an apple tree he was pruning at the ripe old age of 94. His country home from 1906, it is preserved much as he left it and his writing summerhouse survives. Here he worked on many of his most well-known plays such as Pygmalion and Saint Joan.

Where to eat and drink

The Brocket Arms in Ayot St Lawrence is an immensely popular pub with good food and has been a pub since at least 1694, although called the Three Horseshoes until 1937. Part timber-framed with a mellow old tile roof concealing in part a 15th-century king post roof, it has 18th-century alterations and additions.

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