Sir Walter Scott, AE Housman, Mary Webb, EM Forester… The Clun Valley in Shropshire is a very confluence of writers and their inspiration, and it was where John Osborne and his wife Helen chose to spend their retiring years.
His plays Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer, his screenplays, but above all his share in the profits of Woodfall Films, made him very rich. They escaped the noise of the south-east for the grand-if-neglected rural estate of The Hurst, a twenty-room 1812 house set in rich agricultural landscape. Surrounded by the Shropshire hills, the soft fertile valleys, their own fruit cages, the orchard and the still-partially-walled kitchen garden, John had chosen one of Housman’s ”quietest places under the sun.”
They arrived in Shropshire with a menagerie, two horses, two donkeys and three dogs. These dogs were the children they never had. Sometimes they joined in uninvited. Taking a pre-dinner drink in the drawing room, you might be greeted by Helen head-in-hands announcing that the dogs had ‘’tried your dinner.’’ You could hear the sound of plates being licked. Everything could be solved with a glass and a good meal. There were hours spent together in the womb of the kitchen, their acerbic wit writhing in the smoke of their cigarettes and cigars. In his last play Dejà Vu John draws upon The Hurst kitchen for his inspiration. The curtain rises on Jimmy Porter and a very different set of characters, but this lovingly detailed domestic scene is The Hurst.
If John had chosen The Hurst as a place of withdrawal to complete the second volume of his autobiography, Helen loved people and having ”a Shropshire do” was an important part of her life. The house was a perfect place for their lavish entertaining of old friends, actors, writers and artists. Sue Mercer, the housekeeper recalls Eileen Atkins, Edward Fox, Emily Mortimer, Dame Maggie Smith, Sylvia Simms, Anthony Howard and Peter Bowles.
Ed Collier, one of the first Arvon Centre Directors at The Hurst, remembers her as ”a wonderful and generous…host.’’ The Reverend Prebendary Richard Shaw – vicar of Clun – recalls: ”My one memory of John Osborne’s hospitality is of champagne being always available in the kitchen – John would give me a tour of the gardens – they were wonderful – then it was into the kitchen for champagne – it did not seem to matter what time of the day it was – generous hospitality was always on offer!’’
Osborne died in 1994 deeply in debt, leaving Helen alone in the large house. Amongst the guests at their dinner parties had been ‘Grey Gowrie’, Earl of Gowrie. After politics and Minister of the Arts, he was Chairman of the Arts Council of England and responsible for allocating funds from the National Lottery. This fund was to solve Helen’s financial problems and to provide Arvon with a third base. An Arts Council Capital Lottery Grant provided the means to acquire The Hurst whilst guaranteeing Helen’s continued residence there.
The new venture was opened by Dame Maggie Smith in March 2003. Helen died January 2004 and was buried next to her beloved husband in St George’s churchyard, Clun.
An edited extract from John Osborne Entertains: Food and Drink in the Shropshire Hills, published by M&K Pybus, priced £12.95, to raise funds for Arvon.