Slow moves the hour that sucks our life,
slow drops the late wasp from the pear,
the rose tree’s thread of scent draws thin –
and snaps upon the air.
‘Field of Autumn’, Laurie Lee Selected Poems, 2014
I begin with a health warning: there is not a great deal to do in the Cotswolds. The strong farming tradition – predominately of livestock which are, in many places, granted the right to roam freely across its rolling hills – and local cider, which slows minds as well as afternoons, have carved a culture into these soft, stone hills. This culture, though vibrant and proud, holds the rough stereotype of the provincial: its people (despite housing Ecotricity, one of Europe’s largest green energy providers) have not historically been thought of as innovative. Yet, one thing for which this area is known, remembered and cherished is its beauty and its status as a geological muse.
I moved to Stroud for work last year – though small, Stroud actually boasts a lion’s share of publishing opportunities across the board, four companies that cover trade non-fiction, fiction and academic. In that time, I’ve been to The Woolpack, the favourite pub of poet and novelist Laurie Lee, just a weak-armed stone’s throw away from his grave, and I’d heard much about him – but I had never read his work.
In an effort to understand him and the area better, I set about reading Cider With Rosie and arranged a walk with a local friend, Martin, who is proud to be Stroud. We resolved to meet on the road to Slad (nearby the location of a brutal murder in the book) and walk in the footprints of the great flâneur and chat about the book and the man.
Laurie Lee was child of the cider-rich West Country and his most famous work is an autobiographic trilogy that depicted his life from boy to man. A self-confirmed wanderer, Lee was a man for whom travel was an integral part of life. He writes that, as a child, his days were filled with a rush to expand the borders of a map kept safe in his mind: his evocative description of ‘measuring that first growing year by the widening fields that were visible’ to him captures a sense of a wanderlust soul on a quest to broaden his worldview. Indeed, he famously arrived in Spain at the age of twenty, with little notion of the path ahead and less still of the path behind. Born of modest means in the town of Stroud – a quintessentially English town nestled within five valleys in the heart of the Cotswolds – he was brought to the village by a carrier’s cart, which dumped him (wrapped in a Union Jack, as the tale goes) in the long grass of these ‘slow hills’. He had a rare talent for capturing the essence of a place.
local cider, which slows minds as well as afternoons, have carved a culture into these soft, stone hills
Our journey in Lee’s footsteps was not without incident. Crossing a stile as we picked our way from Furners Farm to the other side of the valley, we came upon an almost-dry millpond where flies bothered the girls and spaniel who played there beneath the willow tree. Passing them as they swung on a tyre, our path begun to level out, rising up as it searched for the swiftest track up the hill that faced us, with Redding Wood sitting at its summit. Moving in and up through the wood I found, not for the first time, that my orienteering skills left something to be desired. For no sooner had we entered the forest – our heads by this point sun-dulled and filled with expectation at the thought of the bottled beer that clanked behind us in Martin’s rucksack – I lost my sense of direction. Swatting away needling questions from Martin that threatened to push us off course or reroute us, we struck on, me clinging to the map like Pancho Villa in the Amazon. In the words of Lee himself, ‘I was lost and didn’t know where to move’. We met a three-pronged fork in the road that stymied us momentarily, until, glancing at the route in my hand, I sent us off up the left-hand path, which would lead us up through the sun-dappled forest towards the Catswood.
The Catswood, so Lee tells us, is the home of a two-headed sheep that apparently is unremarkable ‘except that this one was old and talked English’. City readers, and those like Martin of a scientific disposition, will no doubt find the existence of a two-headed sheep to be remarkable in and of itself, but not being learned in such things, they cannot comment. This particular two-headed sheep lives alone and can only be seen in between flashes of lightning. Classic Cotswolds. Few have ever seen the two-headed sheep – however, I once spied a similar beast (a one-headed sheep), which had no great love of storms and whom I believe to be of some nearby relation to the latter.
Leaving the forest, we plodded our lazy way up an oak-lined road, musing together on the trustworthiness of Laurie’s tales and interpretations. For us, even for Martin who grew up here, the Slad of Laurie’s memories felt like a foreign country (the sun was blistering and there was no sign of lightning or two-headed sheep, more is the pity). Though the valley has changed little in the hundred years since he first walked these fields, we had seen little of the things that we had read about through his eyes. Gone, or at least unfound, were the schoolhouse and the horse-and-traps. Gone too was the sense of camaraderie and village unity that he drew. Our Slad, with its Wi-Fi and Netflix and Amazon Prime was, it seemed, worlds away from the Slad of his memories. Yet, as those words escaped me, we turned a corner onto Knapp Lane and were greeted with a view straight through blooming foxgloves and oak trees into the talus of the valleys, and the weight of his history hit us.
Few have ever seen the two-headed sheep – however, I once spied a similar beast (a one-headed sheep), which had no great love of storms and whom I believe to be of some nearby relation to the latter.
Having begun life in a provincial town that saw change with the same disgust that it reserved for outsiders, been twice to Spain, once to fight in the Civil War, and then returned to England and the vices of London, Lee saw the world transform. In his words, his generation “saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years’ life”. Suddenly, after such sustained status quo, the world moved into overdrive. For the most part, provincial life passed from life out of mind. And when the world wasn’t getting louder, faster and smokier, it was getting more violent. The green hills and neatly separated patchwork fields were becoming a footnote to a national history that was rushing away from colonisation, into the city and towards globalisation. In light of this perceived shrinking of the planet, Lee became obsessed with the impossible recovery of innocence, and a return to a time before the rush and roar of the motorcar. Though, of course, as is captured in the closing paragraphs of the book, this innocence could not and indeed would not last, and it’s this that seems to be the central force in Laurie’s writing.
Before returning home, we stopped a few corners up the road at a stile on the hillside that hosted one of the ten poetry posts dotted around the valleys of Slad. Our spot offered a vista looking out right across Stroud to Painswick in one direction, and to Bull’s Cross (local knowledge: the site of the old hanging tree round here) and Cheltenham in the other; to our right, one of the Severn bridges was visible (no one ever knows which). Sitting there, ‘fat with time’, we finally opened the beers and chatted for a moment about the books and the people hidden there: the warring grandmothers, the eccentric uncles, the two-headed sheep, all of them.
Lee returned to Slad in the sixties. Finished with Spain and London, it was here that he settled, becoming as much a feature of village life as was The Woolpack. By this point, sales of Cider With Rosie (which, at one point, would allegedly sell upwards of 700 a month in The Woolpack alone) had made him a minor celebrity and his passage through Spain had earned him a reputation as troubadour and travel writer extraordinaire. Now settled, with a wife and child, he was content to allow the near mythological doppleganger, which was created by the masses and informed by his interpretation of his life, license to inform his real-world person. He became as much a character as Cabbage-Stump Charlie, Crabby B and Spadge Hopkins (not to mention the nefarious sheep). To this day, stories of him are told here and around.
You’ll likely have heard before that Laurie Lee’s autobiographies blur the boundaries between fact and fiction like a British colonial carving up continents at the Admiralty. It’s true that the pictures he paints of the Slad Valley, and indeed of Spain in his later years, are of dubious verity, but what of it? Guidebooks exist of the Cotswolds and of Spain that absolve the clever travel writer of the need to point and sign for the reader. Lee’s talent was to show readers something of the people residing in these places and to impress upon them the similarities inherent in them all; for him, the people of Andalusia and Slad were inseparable. Drink cider in one, sangria in the other. Switch and repeat.
Phil Clement was raised by foxes in the Forest of Dean and currently works in academic publishing as a production editor; neither of these are as glamorous as they sound. He is a regular contributor to the New Welsh Review and Open Pen Magazine, and can be found at https://niagraphils.wordpress.com/
Photos copyright Martin Rendell. Used with permission.