TE Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia, escaped his fame in a small rural cottage called Clouds Hill, in Dorset, where he lived for ten years before his tragic and untimely death in 1935. The cottage was passed on to the National Trust, who have kept it very much as he left it. It is a great place to learn more about this fascinating and controversial man, as Sarah discovered on a recent visit this summer.
A visit to Clouds Hill is a unique experience – something far removed from many of the sophisticated mansions and stately homes owned by the National Trust. It is one man’s private retreat from the world, a space where he could be himself, away from the public eye and live his life simply, modestly and quietly. It was the isolated cottage home of T E Lawrence, set in the tranquillity of the Dorset countryside, and from where he tragically rode out to his death on his beloved Brough Superior motorbike.
Much has been written about the life of TE Lawrence, a complex man who accomplished so much throughout his life. The illegitimate son of an Irish lord and his daughter’s governess, he had an unhappy childhood; beaten, punished and sedated by his god-fearing mother. He felt a great relief when he could leave home for Oxford University to study History, a subject he had a great fascination for from an early age. He had spent a couple of summers in his youth visiting medieval churches to study them, and also made several contributions to the Ashmolean. During his degree, he walked 1,000 miles alone through Syria, studying crusader castles.
In 1911 he worked on Leonard Woolley’s team excavating the Hittite site of Carchemish on the river Euphrates for the British Museum. For the next few years, he learnt Arabic, became a useful archaeologist, and even worked with Flinders Petrie in Egypt for a while. He was a talented photographer and draughtsman, speaking over seven languages as well as knowing the basics of many more.
With archaeologist Leonard Woolley (on the left) at Carchemish.
Lawrence in army uniform in 1918.
During World War I, his knowledge of Arabic and the local cultures led to his work in army intelligence, and his fight alongside Arab guerrilla forces in the Middle East, his work for Arab independence and subsequent disappointment at the treatment of the Arabs are all well documented. His role in events led to a great deal of celebrity and fame, which soon became a heavy burden.
After the war he was posted to the RAF recruits’ training depot at Hillingdon House at Uxbridge, later the site of the Battle of Britain Bunker, under the pseudonym John Hume Ross. When the press discovered his name change he left the RAF, briefly joined the Tank Corps under the name of T E Shaw at nearby Bovington and first rented then bought the cottage at Clouds Hill. He rejoined the RAF, working for the Marine Craft Section on air-sea rescue launches. It has been said that his works there saved the lives of 30,000 RAF servicemen during World War II.
Clouds Hill was an old foresters cottage, discovered by Lawrence when he was out walking one day. Wanting somewhere to write and reflect, he persuaded the owner to rent it to him, using the money he had received for his translation of Homer. He had been writing for most of his life as well as corresponding with many notable people of the day and many of these letters have since been published. He wrote three significant works, the most important of which was the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his vivid account of his experiences in the Arab Revolt, which he revised while at Clouds Hill. His other two were translations of Homer’s Odyssey and The Forest Giant by Adrien Le Corbeau. A further book, The Mint, about his time in the RAF, was published posthumously.
He finally retired from the RAF in 1935 and settled permanently in the cottage – sadly to die just two months after at the age of 46.
An easy to miss turning off the tree-lined main road in rural Dorset leads to a small dusty car park. A short walk down a track and a tiny cottage appears behind the fir trees, painted a brilliant white, with light blue windows and a moss covered red tiled roof. As you approach the main entrance round the other side, the first thing you notice is not just how small it actually is, but that it has no windows. An old stone lintel above the doorway is inscribed with a Greek inscription ‘οὐ φροντὶς’, ‘don’t worry’, which is the only ornamentation on the entire cottage, and was inscribed by Lawrence.
Lawrence loved motorbikes and owned several, using them to travel from his military camp to Clouds Hill whenever he got the chance.
The tour begins in the small thatched garage, which he had built himself and where his motorbike was kept. He had a real love of bikes, apparently driving at full speed over the bumpiest roads he could find, even racing an RAF plane at one time. The garage has good information boards about his life, copies of his most famous book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a video of his funeral, and a bronze bust of Lawrence, standing at his height. Your instant thought is just how small he was, as he stood at just 5 feet 5 inches.
With low ceilings, oak panelling, and very few windows, the house is dark inside, and there are just four rooms. These rooms however very quickly give you the essence of this complex man – the furniture and furnishings are much as he left them in 1935, and fit in with his own declaration that “Nothing in Clouds Hill is to be a care upon the world. While I have it there shall be nothing exquisite or unique in it. Nothing to anchor me”.
The tiny Book Room contained this huge divan at one end, and a fireplace and chair at the other. Lawrence had over 2000 books and was an avid reader.
The first room downstairs, known as the Book Room, seems overcrowded – a large leather Arabian divan dominates the space, 6 foot square and covered in cowhide. He used it as a sofa during the day, but spread his sleeping bag out at night; he was so used to sleeping under the stars in the desert that this was natural to him. The sleeping bag has MEUM (mine in Latin) stitched on it, and a spare for visitors had TUMM (yours) on it, and it had some famous occupants over the years The walls are lined with shelves and shelves of books and some of his own photographs. The only other piece of furniture is a large armchair made to his own specification, with a reading stand and wide arms so that he could read in comfort, and still reach the log box to top up the fire.
This very basic bathroom is missing what many of us would consider to be essentials, but suited Lawrence well.
The other room downstairs is a small bathroom, which he added later, being particularly fond of hot baths. He lined the walls with cork, fed water by pump from a nearby tank and fitted a boiler in the room to heat it. There is no hand basin and no loo. Guests were given a spade and told to go outside – there were four acres of land and the only rule was that they were not to be visible from the house.In fact an outdoor privy had been installed while his mother stayed there, which he had ripped out when he took up residence again. “Give me the luxuries and I will live without the essentials.” he said, and his luxuries were no more than books, music, a hot bath and a roaring fire.
Guides in the house have a great deal of knowledge about Lawrence and his life and are happy to answer any questions.
Upstairs, the dark music room with its exposed beams houses his gramophone “with a huge amplifier horn” of over 50cm wide and made from papier mache. Lawrence loved music and had over 200 records, a lot of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and other classics. The room contains a leather sofa, a typewriter, some chrome candlesticks and a chair. The mantelpiece above the fire is built so that he could rest his elbow on it while eating or drinking – its height reveals just how small he was in stature.
Many distinguished guests were entertained here including Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, Robert Graves, EM Forster, Siegfried Sassoon and Augustus John. They would make toast on the fire, eat tinned olives and baked beans while talking in that strangely spartan yet intimate atmosphere. Alcohol was not allowed, food was not cooked (there is no kitchen) but eaten from tins or raw. The room evokes a vivid feeling of earnest intellectual discussions in a garret, of the world being discussed and dissected by some of the greatest writers of the time, it is easy to feel as you stand there that they might return at any moment and resume their conversation.
Lined with silver foil, this room was for storage, guests and food.
The second room upstairs is distinctly quirky. Lawrence wanted it to resemble a boat so he included a porthole in the wall and built a “cabin” bunk bed for his guests, with drawers underneath to provide storage for his few clothes and possessions. He lined the room with asbestos and aluminium, to keep out the damp and provide insulation, as well as make it resemble the interior of a ship’s cabin. He kept his food in here, huge quantities as he believed in buying in bulk, and perishables such as cheese or nuts were kept under large glass domes.
The visit to the cottage is a brief one, but you emerge with some understanding of Lawrence’s deep affection for the place and also feeling that you have been given some insight into his difficult and unusual character. There has been a lot of controversy over him: his childhood, his relationships, his death, but here you do feel as if you can clearly see at least one facet of the man he was.
It’s quite a climb to the top, but once there, you can see the woodsmoke curling out of the chimney of Clouds Hill, and see why it appealed to Lawrence so much.
There are no formal gardens, “Clouds Hill is no place for tame flowers”, just four acres of hilly heathland, covered in trees, shrubs and rhododendrons. They are a steep climb, but you can walk up the hill to experience the views that he saw so often, and look down upon his little cottage from above. He had written to Lady Astor, “It is the gem of gems in the eye of its owner. I made it myself from the roots up – it is black, angular, small, unstable – very like its creator”, and it is possible to realise exactly what he had meant.
TE Lawrence Walk
For those who want to explore further there is a circular Lawrence of Arabia Trail, starting and finishing at Bovington Tank Museum, which takes you across spectacular heathland between the various significant sites. It takes in Clouds Hill and the small memorial by the roadside at the spot where he was killed on his motorbike, trying to avoid two young cyclists.
You also walk to Moreton Church where his funeral took place and you can see photographs of the event and read of the many dignitaries including Winston Churchill who attended the service. It was an occasion of deep national mourning. The route takes you across the road to the churchyard where he is buried. The grave is simple – it says nothing of the exploits for which he is best known but, at the wish of his mother, who was proud of his academic accomplishments, has only the Oxford University crest and the recognition that he was a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford.
In nearby St Martin’s Church at Wareham, there is an effigy of Lawrence carved by Eric Kennington. The face is delicate, showing both the strength and sensitivity characteristic of him.
Visiting Clouds Hill
11h00 – 17h00
Closed October to March, see website for details
The National Trust offers membership schemes for UK residents and those visiting from abroad, so you can visit any of their properties without worrying about the cost.
A very small shop, tea and coffee in an urn in the garage
There is no wheelchair or pushchair access in the house.