Clouds Hill and T E Lawrence

T E Lawrence becomes 'Lawrence of Arabia'

Returning to England after the desert campaign of the First World War, Lawrence attracted huge attention – thanks in no small part to the sensationalised reportage of American war correspondent Lowell Thomas, who was quick to spot the journalistic potential of Lawrence in full Arab dress, and went on to tour an ‘illustrated travelogue’ of Lawrence’s exploits in the desert for many years after the war.

But whilst press and public mobbed him and competed to proclaim him a hero, giving him the title 'Lawrence of Arabia', Lawrence threw himself into trying to make good on his commitment to gain a fair settlement of the Arab claims, and to writing his account of the war.

Attached to the Foreign Office, he attended the Paris Peace Conference as part of Faisal’s delegation, and the Cairo Conference in 1922, at which he worked as advisor to Winston Churchill and successfully argued for self-government in Iraq and Jordan – which he considered one of his greatest achievements.

That summer of 1922 he also completed the ‘Oxford text’ of Seven Pillars, printed in a small edition on a press in Oxford. This was the second draft of the book; he had lost most of the first draft whilst changing trains at Reading Station.

Above: T E Lawrence's typewriter at Clouds Hill

This concentrated period of work brought him to the verge of a nervous breakdown, and he did what many have done before and since – he headed for the country where he attempted to recover his shattered sense of identity and recreate himself as a man of letters.

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, an unoccupied labourers’ cottage in a severe state of dilapidation, about a mile from the base.

These fragments I have shored against my ruin

The Music Room at Clouds Hill in 1935

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:

.. 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. (Letter to A.E. Chambers 24 August 1924)

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.

Above: The lintel over the front door with the inscription in Greek 'Ou Phrontis' ('Why Worry?) from a story in Herodotus.

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 sleeping.

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.

He added to the existing rhododendrons on the hill with different varieties to produce different shapes and colours, but rejected any idea of a garden or plants, giving away plants that his mother put in – ‘Clouds Hill is no place for tame flowers.’

Regrettably, the rhododendrons have now had to be cleared due to the threat they pose to  other species; they are one of the main routes for the spread of 'sudden oak death', a disease that threatens trees and plants like oak, beech, larch and bilberry.

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