The Lawrence of Arabia Walking Trail is a 7 mile circular walk which begins and ends at the Bovington Tank Museum, near the town of Dorchester in Dorset, southern England. During his later military career T.E. Lawrence was based at Bovington Camp and then, following his retirement, he lived in nearby Clouds Hill. It was at the camp that he died after a tragic motorbike accident in 1935. Sarah recently followed the trail with a friend on a cold and wet January day.
Clouds Hill, Lawrence’s small, rural cottage now managed by the National Trust.
Lawrence of Arabia is the name that was given to the Welsh born Thomas Edward Lawrence as a result of his various exploits in Palestine and Syria. A thesis on Crusader Castles first took him to the area in 1909. And a few years later he would work in Syria as an archaeologist. But it is as a member of the British army and his involvement in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I that he is better known. And for which is life has been immortalised and even somewhat fictionalised in the blockbuster movie, Lawrence of Arabia.
Throughout his life Lawrence sought to escape public attention. And this was certainly true when he retired to Clouds Hill in 1935. A very remote rural spot in Dorset. Earlier in his military career he had been based at the nearby Bovington Military Camp. Bovington is still an active military base today, but it is also home to a Tank Museum. This is where the Lawrence of Arabia Walking Trail starts and ends. This seven mile (just under 11 kilometres) trail takes you through a small part of rural Dorset to various points of interest intimately associated with Lawrence’s life and death.
Map of the Lawrence of Arabia Walking Trail
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The numbers of the markers correspond to the numbered boxes below, giving explicit instructions for moving from one point of interest to the next. A ‘street view’ is available for most of the trail. This can be accessed by clicking on the yellow ‘pegman’ in the lower right corner of the map and dragging it on to the map where you see a blue line.
1. Boving Tank Museum Parking
The parking at the museum is free. The first of the trail plaques is near the entrance to the car park. Walk out of the car park through the vehicle exit, keeping the museum on your left. Cross the main road, head right and after a few metres you reach a small track with a wooden signpost which says Lawrence Trail and Moreton, 2 miles. Follow this, cross another road and keep going straight ahead, where you are now walking through woodland.
This unprepossessing view is the start of the walk as you leave the Tank Museum car park.
It’s not long until you reach woodland however which is far more pleasant to walk through.
History: Bovington Camp
The Bovington area has been inhabited since Saxon times; Bovington means ‘the farm of Bofa’s descendents’. In 1776 it formed part of a larger estate which was sold to the Frampton family, who were Lords of the Manor at nearby Moreton House. In 1899, Mary Frampton was paid £4,300 by the War Office for 1000 acres of heathland, to be used as a rifle range.
A firing range was built and soldiers arrived in their hundreds. Huts could not be built fast enough to accommodate them all and many were billeted out with locals, until 1915 when the huts were finally finished. Trenches were constructed on the land and the soldiers trained constantly. Tanks were invented in late 1915, based on an idea of Winston Churchill’s who thought that developing ‘land ships’ would break the deadlock of trench warfare. Bovington was considered a good place for developing, training and testing them, in the remote heathlands where secrecy could be maintained. When the tanks arrived from nearby Wool, the locals had to close their curtains when the iron giants rolled into town for the first time. By the end of 1917 there were 300 tanks in Bovington and The Tank Corps was officially formed.
T.E. Lawrence had left the RAF in 1922, where he had been stationed at Uxbridge as Aircraftsman Ross, until his alias was discovered. He joined the army as T.E. Shaw and was stationed at Bovington in 1923. When he arrived, the camp was just a muddy main road, lined with shops and cafes, known as Tintown. Now it looks like many other military bases, filled with identikit housing, barbed wire lined fencing and the signs of military life all around.
This wooden signpost points to the Lawrence Trail in all three directions. Take the left fork first!
The long, narrow bridge over what is known locally as the ‘Moreton Splash’, where people often picnic and paddle on warm days.
2. Moreton Splash
At a T-junction in the track, all of which are signposted Lawrence Trail, take the left and keep on going. A narrow bridge takes you over the wide shallows of the River Frome and then you arrive in the village of Moreton.
Moreton is a tiny village of old thatched cottages and narrow lanes. With a manor house, a pub, a cafe and a tiny train station, it is remote and well off the beaten track. Moreton is Anglo-Saxon for ‘the farmstead on the moor’ and was originally owned from 1300 by Sir John Hussey, until it was handed down to the Frampton family in the 14th century. The Framptons were cousins of T.E. Lawrence and it was from them that he at first rented and then bought Clouds Hill, his sanctuary away from the camp.
The Frampton family are best known for one of their members, James Frampton, who was responsible for the transportation of the Tollpuddle Martyrs. In 1833, six men from the nearby village of Tollpuddle formed a Friendly Society, a union to protest about the reduction of wages for agricultural labourers. As the local Squire and magistrate, Frampton complained to the Home Secretary who recommended he use an obscure law to get the men transported to Australia. Over 800,000 people in Britain signed a petition to protest their treatment and they were eventually returned home.
3. St Nicholas Church
On the left is a small path to the church, St Nicholas of Moreton. The second Lawrence plaque is outside the entrance to the church.
T.E. Lawrence’s funeral was held at St. Nicholas Church and was attended by many famous writers and statesmen.
The second plaque is outside the church on the right. Make sure you go in if it is open as it is well worth a visit.
HISTORY: St. Nicholas Church
The first church was built on this site around 1190. It was only a small chapel as the village was so small it was unable to sustain a church. Dedicated to St. Magnus, in 1410 it was re-dedicated to St Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra in Syria. The church was rebuilt in 1776 by James Frampton. Bombed in 1940 by a stray German bomb probably intended for nearby RAF Warmwell, much of it was destroyed. It was rebuilt ten years later in 1950. The church was visited by the Oxford architectural historian Howard Colvin, who heard how much the parishioners disliked the windows and he suggested that they ask Laurence Whistler to submit designs for new windows.
He initially designed just the five windows for the apse, but over the subsequent years he designed them all, making this church unique in that it is the only one to have all of its windows designed by him. There are 13 windows in total, and for many years the local parish council rejected the 13th window, as it featured Judas, Laurence Whistler came up with the offer himself, saying that Judas was the 13th disciple and a perfect fit for their 13th window. He called it forgiveness and it implies that even Judas can be forgiven. When the council rejected it, he placed it in a museum on the understanding that if they changed their minds, they could have it installed in the church at any time. Fortunately they saw sense and it was installed in 2013, 13 years after Whistler’s death.
T.E. Lawrence’s funeral was held at St. Nicholas Church and was attended by many famous writers and statesmen.
The church is only small but it is amazing and really worth a visit. It is light and airy, with a colourful tiled floor and central font. It is the windows that really stand out though, and photos do not do them justice. With vivid depictions of nature from tumbling leaves to swirls of stars, they are spectacular.
It was here that Lawrence’s funeral was held, attended by well-known people such as Winston Churchill, Bernard Shaw, Augustus John, Siegried Sasson, and Lady Astor.
4. St Nicholas Cemetery
After visiting the church, go back to the main road and turn left. Bear left at the road junction and a little way along on your right is the entrance to the cemetery.
History: St. Nicholas Cemetery
The New Cemetery was opened in 1930 with land donated by the Framptons, as the church graveyard was full. The entranceway has a large porch, which was once the porch to the kitchen gardens of the Manor House. Badly damaged by a tank, it was removed and used for the cemetery. It has two marble tablets inside it which once formed the pedestal of a nearby obelisk, erected in the memory of James Frampton.
Lawrence’s grave is small and modest, and always has flowers on it.
Follow the brick path which takes you right through the cemetery to T.E. Lawrence’s grave. It is small and simple and makes no mention of his army career or his exploits in the middle East, purely his academic career, at the request of his mother. Apparently, there are always flowers on it.
There is a story that from 1974 onwards, a bunch of 46 white roses were delivered to the grave on 16th August, his birthday, with the message ‘In memory of TES, 2020 AD’. Each year thereafter, the number of roses has decreased by one. Each year at the same time, a single white rose is delivered to Clouds Hill, his last home. From 1974 – 2020 is 46 years, the age he was when he died, so it is expected that 2020 will be the first year that no roses will be delivered. No one knows where they come from, other than that the order comes from America. Researching this, I discovered the words of a guide at Clouds Hill: “since Lawrence died in 1935, thousands of women from all over the world have made pilgrimages to his grave in Dorset to leave tokens of their love for him. Over the years there have been notes and letters and little gifts, and of course the flowers, which appear all the year around. Some have been simple woodland flowers, others extravagant, expensive and stunning floral tributes. All represent the tremendous amount of affection in which his memory is held. There will always be women who become spellbound by Lawrence’s charisma, and there will always be flowers on Lawrence’s grave.”
5. The Walled Garden
After visiting the cemetery, walk back the way you came and a few metres on your left is the entrance to the Walled Garden. Although not officially part of the Lawrence Trail, it is well worth a quick visit.
The old kitchen gardens of Moreton Manor, in the background, are now the Walled Garden which is free for all to enjoy.
Point of Interest: The Walled Garden
These gardens were once the kitchen gardens of the manor house and are now open gardens free for anyone to enjoy. Maintained by Employ My Ability, which helps train young adults, they are well maintained and contain some lovely features and plants. There is also a cafe on site which makes it a great place for a pit stop.
You can see the manor house from these gardens, a relatively modest but well proportioned building of soft grey stone and Georgian windows. If you are looking for a very local place to stay, the Manor House in Moreton is a good historical location.
Just outside the walled garden and on your return back to the bridge, is the old Moreton Schoolhouse. Now a Grade II listed building, it is a typical 19th century village schoolhouse, with a single storey long school room with a bell on top, attached to a two storey red brick school house, and well worth a look at as you pass by.
This is a typical 19th century school house and is currently in use as a cafe.
6. Clouds Hill
Head back over the bridge and continue straight through Moreton Plantation until you reach the main road. Turn right and walk along the edge of the road. Take the next right and on your left is Clouds Hill. If it is open (March – October) you can go in and have a look around – it is free for National Trust members. The third plaque is outside the entrance.
History: Clouds Hill
Clouds Hill was gifted to the National Trust in 1937 by Arnold Lawrence, to remain as a memorial to his brother. It is the only house he lived in that still bears evidence of his time there. He had bought it as a retreat to army life and is where he would read, write, listen to his gramophone and relax. He lived an austere life here, without what many of us would consider to be basic necessities. The house reveals much of his tastes and interests. If the house is open and you have the time, I do recommend a visit.
Clouds Hill is closed over the winter months, but you can still see it from the road and appreciate just how small it is.
7. Lawrence Memorial/Tank Viewing
When you leave Clouds Hill, turn right back onto the main road, then right again. On your right you will see a public footpath which takes you behind Clouds Hill through woodland. On this path you will see a memorial stone to Lawrence, dedicated by the TE Lawrence Society.
The path emerges at a large layby which is also a tank viewing area. Here is the last of the Lawrence Trail plaques, as well as plaques to help you identify the tanks you may see, and the history of the Tank Regiment in the area.
Point of Interest: Tank Viewing
The Armour Centre in Bovington Camp has over 10,000 acres of heathland for training which includes an all-weather driving circuit. This runs past the main road and an enlarged layby has been created, which overlooks part of the driving circuit. If you’re lucky with your timing, you’ll see convoys of tanks rumble past in clouds of smoke and noise, often with projectiles thrown at them in training exercises and drills. There is an information board to help you identify the tanks, as well as a history of the area as an army base. You will also find the final TE Lawrence plaque of the walk here.
It was near this area that TE Lawrence died, coming off his motorbike on his way to camp to post a telegram. He swerved to avoid two boys on bicycles, clipped one and was thrown off his bike, suffering severe injuries. There is much speculation around his death, with claims he was killed deliberately. A memorial oak tree was planted here by his friend and colleague, 48 years after his death.
The tank viewing area lacks interest when its not in use, but if you can time you visit well, there will be plenty of tank action.
The narrow footpath on the right runs next to out-of-bounds MOD land for a short while.
8. Medical Centre
Cross the road and you will see a narrow path surrounded by barbed wire to the right of the military training area. Continue down here until you reach a gate on your right. Follow the path downhill and bear left at the next junction. Keep going through the heathland until you reach the T-junction you passed at the start of the walk. Turn left. After the woodland thins out, turn left into Menin Road then right at the crossroads into Holt Road.
On your left is the Medical Centre, a low brown building, and outside the front doors is a plaque to Lawrence. Continue down to Holt Road, turn right at the main road, left into Lindsay Road and you will walk back to the car park of the tank museum (Point 9 on the map above).
The plaque is on the wall just outside the main entrance to the Medical Centre.
History: Bovington Tank Museum
With Bovington as the main base for tanks during World War I, there were many left over afterwards. It is said that Rudyard Kipling visited in 1923 and suggested that more should be done to preserve the vehicles. A collection was started in a shed and added to over the years with more vehicles as they came out of service or other items kept for the archives. The museum expanded over the years, with new buildings and new exhibits, until it became the popular attraction it is today.
It contains an area dedicated to TE Lawrence and after some refreshment in the cafe upstairs to recover from your walk, it is well worth exploring the museum.
This fibreglass model outside the Tank Museum was used to create the bronze statue which stands in Whitehall Place in London, and depicts a Comet tank crew.
Walking the Lawrence of Arabia Trail
Start and end at the Tank Museum, BH20 6JG, which has free parking.
The walk is well signposted throughout and is easy to follow. Walking boots are a must, especially if there has been rain. There are no stiles or gates to climb over.
The walk takes about four hours but allow a full day if you intend to visit Clouds Hill and the Tank Museum too.