By Claire & Chuck
For over a year now, I’ve been anxiously waiting to see T. E. Lawrence’s rural retreat, Clouds Hill. We left Dartmoor at 9:30 am to arrive precisely at the opening time of noon. But, we arrived 35 minutes too soon and the small parking lot was closed and there was no place to pull over and wait. So, we drove on down the road, shaded by large atmospheric trees on either side, coming to a military tank training ground. There was room in the parking area so we pulled in to wait. Turns out, it was fascinating! Who knew? There were a number of little boys squealing with excitement as the huge tanks roared by, the red L for learner mounted on the front. It was exciting to see them make 90° turns, roar up hills and, in the distance, up and down a roller coaster of dirt roads somewhat like a skateboard park.
There was an interpretive sign about Lawrence of Arabia with a map showing a ½ mile walk down a footpath to Clouds Hill from this parking lot. We decided that since we were already comfortably parked, we’d stay here and do the walk. Besides, we are never sure that small lots can handle Homer’s girth.
Soon into our stroll, we came across a stone marking the spot and the date where his fatal accident took place.
We continued on and on….and on. The path had ended and we crossed over to the other side where we found the rest of the footpath. 45 minutes later, we came to the end of the road and we knew we had somehow missed it. Does this happen to anyone else? Turning around, we finally made it back to the original path and saw, once again, the place where we should have climbed over the fence (with the provided steps) and cut back in the direction we had been coming. We were sure that wasn’t the way to go when we first saw it. Wrong! Our 10 minute stroll turned into an hour of anxiety. I so wanted to have this place to ourselves. It’s quite small and I just couldn’t imagine being tightly squeezed into the rooms with a herd of other people.
It is another National Trust property so our entry was free again. The woman at reception told us to go to the garage first for the exhibit. We walked into a tiny garage that wouldn’t even hold a car. Apparently, he stored his beloved motorcycle in here. There were about 6 people jammed inside, examining the photos and information boards; so I made a beeline for the house. Chuck chose to stay with the exhibits. I was in luck. I had the two upstairs rooms to myself. The docent was wonderful and told me that Lawrence bought the place along with 5 acres with money from an advance for his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He rented an additional 2-1/2 acres so that the press could not have access to it and keep tabs on him.
Lawrence fought to retain some privacy and anonymity in other ways. He joined the RAF as an Aircraftsman under the name T.E. Ross in 1922; he was discovered and had to leave. Friends helped him join the Tank Corps in 1923, which is when he moved into Clouds Hill. He had changed his name to T.E. Shaw by then. He was permitted to rejoin the RAF in 1925.
Once he was £13,000 in debt; his publisher said that he could do a popular version of the original, subscription form of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which he had sold for £30, each—though he apparently gave away many copies to friends. This abridged version was popular and revenues from the sales soon covered his debts; but, as soon as he was financially in the clear again, he ordered the publisher to stop the sale: He did not want anyone to think he wished to profit from his war efforts and his relationship with the Arabs. However, I believe that some still think just that.
He did not wish to have a general publication of Seven Pillars until his mother had died: He was illegitimate and he wished to spare her the embarrassment of making this public knowledge. His wishes were not respected—it was published shortly after his death—but, his mother was 98 at that time and it is not clear that anyone cared by then.
The place was a mess when he bought it—it had a thatched roof that had caved in, taking the floor with it. He redid it adding a tile roof. The interior was all dark wood with just a few windows, one in the roof like a skylight. It had a small fireplace, leather sofa, gramophone (given to him by George Bernard Shaw) and table with typewriter.
Leather sofa with painting of King Faisal
The next room was lined in what looked like tin foil and had a porthole for a window and a bunk kind of bed built into the wall with a few drawers underneath. This is where Lawrence kept his food, mostly in tins which he ate out of when he was hungry. He never ate much, never had a set eating time and always ate standing up. He also kept cheese and a few other perishables when he found that the room worked like a refrigerator—cool in the summers. It was used mostly as a guest room.
When he had guests, they were told to be easy here and not to think about the world and its problems. No alcohol was served—he drank only tea and water. If someone spent the night, they either used the bunk or the floor in a sleeping bag. Lawrence himself mostly slept on the floor in front of the fire or on the leather sofa upstairs.
One of the peculiarities of Lawrence and Clouds Hill is that he had no toilet, by design—he used a bucket and spade, instead. He once said something to the effect that so long as he had the luxuries, he did not require the necessities.
The downstairs room had a larger fireplace and the walls were lined with bookshelves. There was also a large bed with leather cover but apparently, he never slept in it. The focus for me was the leather reading chair, which he designed, set up for maximum use for reading and writing.
One of the docents explained that Lawrence was concerned that a proposed tank road near his property would come so close as to vibrate the cottage to pieces. Being Lawrence, he did not approach the locals—he took the problem straight to Winston Churchill, who promptly redlined the project and saved the cottage.
His later career was devoted to developing and testing high speed rescue boats; this formed the basis of the air-sea rescue service.
Only a few months after retiring, Lawrence was riding his beloved Brough SS-100 motorcycle down the road we came in on when he came upon two bicyclists. He swerved to avoid them but clipped one of the bikes and was thrown from his motorcycle. He sustained fatal head injuries. He died 4 days later on May 19, 1935, without regaining consciousness. It was recorded that the cause of his death was congestion of the lungs and heart failure following a fracture of the skull and laceration of the brain.
For anyone interested in reading more about Lawrence, you might try his autobiographical, The Mint—about his RAF days. I did not know about this until today. For biography, the docents recommended Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography of T.E. Lawrence by Jeremy Wilson or the more recent psychological approach, A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence by John Mack, a psychiatrist.
This horizontal block of stone,
Miraculously not a man
Is touched with presence nobler than
The hollow scaffolding of bone.
The chiseled tribute of a friend
Who poured the harvest of his art,
The stored up grains of a full heart
To swell another’s plenteous end.
He lies—so would a hero lie—
At rest from being incomplete
Then thirsting through life’s fevered heat
Now bathed in cool eternity.
~ T. E. Lawrence by James Branwell