Clouds Hill is the tiny cottage in Dorset where T E Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia as he had become known, sought to escape from the intense scrutiny of celebrity.
It is well preserved and looked after by the National Trust and you find the house almost as Lawrence left it, closing the door behind him for the short journey to Bovingtom Camp on his Brough Superior motorcycle.
Visiting Clouds Hill you see the purest expression of the mind of a single, remarkable individual. Entering the tiny hallway, eyes adjusting to the darkness, you are immediately aware of just how small the cottage is. But also of a ‘rightness’; that everything has been considered and is exactly as it needs to be.
In the desert Lawrence lived a life stripped to the essentials.
At Clouds Hill we see this applied as an aesthetic. No paint, plaster or wallpaper; no kitchen or lavatory. Just the essentials as interpreted by a single, highly individual mind: panelling, bookshelves, bare wood and undyed leather.
Above: The reading chair Lawrence had built to his exact specifications, comfortable for a man of his (short) height and positioned so he could just reach out and add another log to the fire without needing to move.
Somewhere to rest; somewhere to read; somewhere to listen to music. Clouds Hill is an opportunity to see Lawrence unmediated.
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.’
(T E Lawrence in a letter to T B Marson 21.12.1933)
The book room at Clouds Hill, shortly after Lawrence's death. The books were dispersed, but the bed is still at the house.
Above: The Book Room today
Much of the money for renovating the cottage had come from sales of an abridged version of Seven Pillars, titled Revolt in the Desert, and a translation of Homer’s Odyssey for an American publisher. Lawrence wrote to Edward Garnett ‘In the distant future, if the distant future deigns to consider my insignificance, I shall be appraised rather as a man of letters than as a man of action.’
Nonetheless, the restless man of action was not entirely banished. He continued racing his beloved Brough Superior motorcycle through the country lanes to and from Bovington and visiting friends, for example the group of writers and artists at Chaldon Herring (East Chaldon) of Theo and Llewelyn Powys, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland and others. Riding as fast as he could he would time himself, each visit trying to beat his previous record.
Above: The Bunk Room at Clouds Hill, lined in foil against the damp, light coming in from the port hole window at top left of the picture.
Just days after the last addition to the cottage – the port hole in the guest room upstairs – T E Lawrence was killed in an accident riding his Brough Superior 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.
When visiting Clouds Hill, try to make time to visit Moreton Church, just a short drive (or longish walk) away. There is also an excellent tea rooms in the village, where the bier that bore Lawrence’s coffin does service as the sweet trolley.
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, featuring etched panels by Lawrence Whistler. It is astonishing.
Lawrence lies in the graveyard close by.
Above: Butterflies, detail of one of the windows by Lawrence Whistler at Moreton Church
Read about the history of Lawrence and Clouds Hill, and his work on the cottage, here
Back from T E Lawrence to the Word Travels home