I have a fascination with Lawrence that grew from reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom and was cemented with a visit to Clouds Hill cottage, his bolthole in Dorset, near Bovington. Seven Pillars of Wisdom is not for the fainthearted reader. It's hefty (over 800 pages), literary and genre-defying, blending truth and (a little) fiction in his accounts, memoir, military history, geography, topography and politics. As I wrote on Facebook when I finally finished it: 'I feel like I've been through the entire Arab campaign with Lawrence. Plus, I now know a lot about camels'. Lawrence is the scholar turned spy, commanded to infiltrate Arab communities during World War I to foment rebellion against the Ottoman Empire on promises of a fair division of land at the conclusion. Of course, Lawrence knew early on that the promises were not going to be kept, and, as I read between the lines, the strain that came from living intimately with the people he knew were going to be betrayed was one of the factors in his later behaviour, as, of course, was the deaths of his two younger brothers in 1915.
Lawrence lived long before PTSD was a recognised mental illness, but it's pretty clear that he returned from the war with just that. Shunning publicity, he took false names and bounced between various army positions before retiring from the military to Clouds Hill. The cottage is a shock: no electricity or running water, no kitchen. Apart from the downstairs room with a huge leather bed and lined with bookshelves, the place is pretty bare. An intelligent, cultured, wounded man was hiding from the world.
His end came all to soon. Riding his motorbike one evening, he had to suddenly swerve to avoid hitting boys belting along on bicycles. He crashed his bike, sustaining a head injury that killed him several days later. He was only forty-six.
The mourners at his funeral at St. Nicolas' church in Moreton read like a who's who of the 1930s: Winston Churchill, Siegfried Sassoon, Augustus John, Lady Astor and E.M. Forster to name just a few. His mother and one of his brothers were travelling in China at his death, and only one brother was able to attend.
The small cemetery is down the road from the church itself. You enter via a stone portico and take a short stroll through unassuming graves to the back, where Lawrence's resting place is, not ostentatious, but still notable for its size compared to the others. There was a steady stream of visitors, some there just because it was a place of note in the tiny village, others, like me, who made a pilgrimage, and who perhaps, also like me, said a silent prayer that he found peace at last.
Lawrence's mother chose that he be remembered as a scholar rather than soldier and statesman, and his headstone bears the motto of Oxford University, and is from Psalm 27: the Lord is my light.
The church at Moreton was bombed in World War II, so I can't claim it is intimately associated with Lawrence, but it is notable in its own right for the etched glass windows chosen to replace the stained glass lost, designed by Sir Laurence Whistler. A traditionalist, the idea of 'plain' glass in the church had me wrinkling my ecclesiastical nose, but I went anyway.
And I was amazed. I could never have predicted how beautiful the glass looks, with the simple background of the countryside, the nave of the church painted a plain sky blue to echo the view. Photos cannot do the church justice - you need to see the windows in situ. But here's a link to the photo gallery on the church website.
One of the most stunning is the Forgiveness window. Nestled at the back of the church, it is behind a screen and can't been seen from the inside. If you step outside and around the church, however, you will see a hanging Judas Iscariot at the moment of death, with the divine light shining down upon him. Apparently the artist designed this window, the thirteenth, early on, but it took many decades for the church to finally agree to install it.
Moreton has a new gem, too: a five-acre walled garden/ nursery that is a secret garden of little rooms. It is run to offer training to students with various special needs. There is a small farm and playground to entertain children, plus a cafe. We loved exploring the grounds, but didn't check out the cafe. Instead, we went to the tea rooms situated in the old school house and had a lovely tea. I discovered later, and wished I had known then, that the tea trolley is the bier that carried Lawrence's coffin. Not sure what I think about that. A shout out to their niceness: Alcuin slipped while climbing onto his chair, and even though it was not the cafe's fault, the proprietor gave him his choice from the ice cream cabinet.
Touristy stuff. The place is tiny, so everything is close together. Summer is better to visit as the tea room at least is shut in winter, and the walled garden won't be at its best, though I bet the church windows would be stunning in a frosty landscape with the winter sun. Also, there was a small field open as a free car park, whereas at other times of the year you would probably be parking on the side of the road. There is a railway station a good walk away and some bus connections. Or, you can have very kind parents who drive you there and mind your child while you take in your fill of the place.
And there's more if you got this far: Lawrence captured my imagination so much that he became the basis for a character in a novel set in the 1930s that, after several years of unexpected upheaval (see the rest of the blog), I am finally getting ready for publication. Here's a little extract. Phoebe Harris has come to Dorset for the summer with her cousin, but a series of chance encounters draw her into a relationship with a reclusive World War I veteran, Alex Milne. Here, they meet again among the barrows of the Dorset hills...
A fly settled on the top edge of my page. As I raised my chin to blow it away, I caught sight of another figure ascending the hill. Quickly, I buried my nose back in my book, not wishing to invite interaction. Hopefully, the person would pass by on the bridle way and not demand the walker’s etiquette of a conversation about the weather or scenery.
In fact, I did such a good job of ignoring the walker that I didn’t see it was Alex until he was close enough to recognize me as well. He was dressed for walking, in his ubiquitous khaki, a tripod under his arm and a stuffed backpack hanging over one shoulder.
I had longed, even dared to pray, for another private encounter. Now it had been granted, I sat frozen in panic. Should I raise my hand, be bold and call out, or simply pretend I had not seen him, and let him choose whether to acknowledge me? There was no path other than the one leading past the foot of the barrow, so if he wanted to avoid me, he didn’t have the excuse of veering off in another direction.
I waited until our eyes met, then nodded. He offered no greeting in return. I retreated behind my book, though the words were now a blur to my racing heart and mind. If he marched by on the bridle path, my chance would be gone. What could I say or do?
Instead of passing by, he strolled up to the barrow until his head was level with my feet. I lowered my book, clutching it tightly so that my hands wouldn’t shake.
‘Miss Harris. You do seem to stray into my path peculiarly often.’ He sounded as though he could not decide whether to deliver this remark as a joke or an insult.
‘I believe this is a public right of way,’ I retorted. The steadiness in my voice surprised me. I found I was less afraid of him now I had been in the lion’s den.
He indicated my seat with his tripod. ‘I used to sit on that rock before you were born.’
‘But you’re not from Dorset,’ I said. ‘Or if you are, you have lost your accent.’
‘We spent every summer in Studland when I was growing up.’ His voice trailed away, and he gazed across the hills. The wind tousled his hair, making the sunlight dance across the shades of gold and copper. My fingers itched to reach out and stroke it.
I yearned to ask whether the painting in his cottage was from his childhood, but sensed I had not yet earned the right to mention it. Instead, I said, ‘I can see why you would return. I think I could sit here until I grew into the rock.’
‘The only reason I’m up here is at the behest of His Majesty’s Armed Forces. My task is to inspect possible sites for firing ranges. I am about to declare this unsuitable.’
I imagined gunfire echoing across the hills, multiplied many times over from yesterday, drowning out the symphony of nature. ‘I’m glad of that. The view is beautiful.’
‘And a firing range would encroach on land belonging to the Stephenson family. At least I can repay the Major with this small favour.’
I wondered what he had to repay him for: an incident from the war? Giving him shelter, or a bolt hole?
‘Is the Stephensons’ estate in danger? I can’t believe the army is permitted to requisition land that has been owned for centuries. It’s not as if there is a war on.’ Indignation and fear welled up in me on behalf of the kindly Major.
Alex planted his tripod in the ground. ‘The army can do what they bloody well like. And even if I save the Major’s land for now, this won’t be the end of it. The dogs of war must have their bones, and no one in the Home Counties cares if people down here lose their ancient rights of way or a few sheep get shot. Ironic, isn’t it: modern democracy is supposed to free the common man from encroachment by the crown or landowners. Now the same, snivelling common men can sit on their backsides in Parliament and decide to knock down your house or take your livelihood if someone wants to widen a road or to rehearse killing his fellow man.’
I think he could have denounced votes for women, or spewed Hindi poetry, and I would have hung on his every word, not for their meaning, but for the simple fact that he spoke them to me.
He swung around. Given our last encounter, I expected him to leave after he’d had his say. Instead, he sat down at the foot of the rock and pulled an apple from his rucksack. ‘Would you care to share with me?’
I stabbed a hole in the page with my pencil before I recovered myself. I could not decide whether the more dangerous—or desirable—option was to react to his political rant or accept his offhand offer. With timid hopes, I chose the latter. ‘Only if you don’t want the whole apple.’
‘I wouldn’t offer otherwise.’ He slipped a penknife from his shorts pocket and flicked it open. He traced the tip of the blade around the apple until he found a spot to pierce its skin, then cut in a slow, deliberate circle. He held a half out to me. I set my book and pencil on the grass and accepted the fruit. The newly-cut flesh glistened. I took a delicate bite from the edge, aware Alex watched me.
‘Still working on Dante?’ he asked when I had swallowed.
‘I’m trying to brush up on my Italian. I hope to save enough money for a trip to Rome next summer.’ I decided it was no use reacting to his mercurial moods. Maybe if I let him be whom he wished, the real Alex would eventually emerge.
‘Is the Casy translation any good?’
‘I’m no Italian scholar. I bought it because it was dual language and cheap.’ I took another bite of the apple. A speck of juice trickled down my thumb. I caught it with the tip of my tongue. The simple action of eating helped ground me.
‘My brother was. An Italian scholar, I mean. I gave him his first copy of Dante when he was in grammar school. He turned out to be a natural polyglot, got a first in Modern Languages at Cambridge.’ A brief smile lit Alex’s face. ‘I thought he might become a professor, even a Dante scholar.’
‘What did he do with his talents instead?’
The smile vanished, his eyes darkened. ‘Sacrificed them to King and Country, like most of us. What god of the mundane do you sacrifice your talents to, Miss Harris?’ He crunched into the apple and chewed, waiting for my answer.
A retort to his barb would be pointless. Conversation with Alex was like trying to tempt a wild animal to eat from my hand. One tiny false move, and he would flee back within himself.
‘I’m a governess,’ I said, and did not ask more about his brother. There were no photographs of middle-aged siblings in Alex’s cottage. That told me enough.
Had he returned to be close to the spirits of their youth, to walk where they had played as boys? Even if his brother’ s body lay overseas, did Alex feel his presence here, receiving comfort as James’s ancestors comforted him? If so, they must have been close, as close as Lavinia and I. Something we shared, then.
And what of the other boy in the painting, surely a sibling or cousin? Was he dead also, or did he live a separate life, as indifferent to Alex as Lavinia’s and my brothers were to us?
Alex nodded. ‘A governess. I suspected as much. You are too smart to be idling your life away, but you would be slaughtered in a classroom full of little savages.’
‘You do have a peculiar way of talking,’ I objected. I preferred the Alex of my fantasies, who had the elegant hauteur of a Mr Darcy.
He tossed the core into the grass below. ‘Do I? I haven’t spoken to a woman for years.’
The strange thing was, I was pretty sure he was not joking.
From: A Dorset Summer (hopefully to be published 2020!)
From: A Dorset Summer (hopefully to be published 2020!)