Clouds Hill is one of our favourite places to visit, and one we always recommend to visitors. It stays in the memory.
T.E. Lawrence with his Brough Superior motorcycle outside Clouds Hill
Clouds Hill is the tiny cottage to which T E Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) retreated to escape the fame (and notoriety) that had engulfed him in the years following his return to England after the Arab campaign in the First World War. Participation in the Paris and Cairo conferences and the effort to complete ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, his autobiographical account of the war in the desert, had brought him to the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Clouds Hill today
After an abortive attempt to enlist in the RAF under the pseudonym of J H Ross, Lawrence enlisted in the Tank Corps at Bovington in Dorset, using the name T E Shaw. And in order to find a quiet place away from the base to work on a subscribers’ edition of Seven Pillars, he rented Clouds Hill, about a mile from the base and at the time an unoccupied labourers’ cottage in a severe state of dilapidation.
Raising funds by selling the gold dagger made for him in Mecca, Lawrence carried out essential structural repairs to keep the cottage intact, and installed a roof light to create a room upstairs for writing, listening to music and receiving visitors – an early incarnation of what is now the music room:
Above: The music room in 1935
‘.. the cottage is alone in a dip in the moor, very quiet, very lonely, very bare . . . Furnished with a bed, a bicycle, three chairs, 100 books, a gramophone of parts, a table. … No food, except what a grocer and the camp shops and canteens provide. Milk. Wood fuel for the picking up. I don’t sleep here, but come out at 4.30 p.m. till 9 p.m. nearly every evening, and dream, or write or read by the fire, or play Beethoven or Mozart to myself on the box. ‘
In the summer of 1925 he succeeded in re-joining the RAF, which put Clouds Hill largely out of reach. Nevertheless he decided to buy the cottage, and in his absence it was looked after first by Private Palmer, and then Sergeant Knowles, both from Bovington.
At Lawrence’s instruction, Knowles put the cottage in some form of shape for letting. He wrote to Palmer in March 1927 that ‘Knowles … is now engaged in converting Clouds Hill to a Christian way of living, with a view to letting it. Alas! However, or if ever, things change, and I’m able to get back and free… I’ll enlist your help, and we will go down some weekend with axes, and re-paganise the place.’
This is how the visitor finds Clouds Hill today. Every detail precisely considered, and often designed, by Lawrence, from the inscription, in Greek, in the stone pediment over the front door – ‘Don’t worry’ – to the three glass bell jars upstairs in the ‘pantry’, lined with foil against the damp.
He removed the kitchen Knowles had installed downstairs and converted it into the book room, with the walls lined against the damp and bookshelves built to exact dimensions for his book collection.
A bed covered in hide for reading, and a sleeping bag (one for him and one for a guest) for resting. To this he added an armchair chair and fender, constructed to his design and to suit his small frame, for warmth by the fire in winter. Finally, via ingenious plumbing, he added a bath – though no lavatory.
Clouds Hill combines the bareness and simplicity of the Bedouin tribesman with the fruits of Classical European civilisation – music, books and art. All furnishings are stripped back to essentials. Nothing is superfluous.
‘I have lavished money these last . . . months upon the cottage, adding a water-supply, a bath, a boiler, bookshelves, a bathing pool (a tiny one, but splashable into): all the luxuries of the earth. Also I have thrown out of it the bed, the cooking range: and ignored the lack of drains. Give me the luxuries and I will do without the essentials.’
Nonetheless, the restless man of action was not entirely banished. He continued racing his beloved Brough Superior through the country lanes to and from Bovington. Just days after the last addition to the cottage – the port hole in the bunk room upstairs – Lawrence was killed in an accident riding his motorcycle between Clouds Hill and Bovington.
His funeral drew major figures in the political and military establishment, including Winston Churchill, to the nearby village of Moreton. If you are visiting Clouds Hill do make time to visit Moreton Church, just a short drive (or longish walk) away. There is also an excellent tea rooms in the village.
The church was hit by a (possibly jettisoned) bomb in 1940, demolishing all the stained glass. Following a fundraising effort new glazing was installed in the 1950s; this features truly astonishing engraved panels by Sir Laurence Whistler, who revived glass engraving in the 20th century. The picture below shows a detail of one of the engraved panels in the church featuring butterflies:
Lawrence lies in the cemetery close by; his grave is at the far end on the right.
[Note: For more on T E Lawrence, see://www.thewordtravels.com/Lawrence_of_Arabia.html]