Whenever I pick up a book of Laurie Lee’s poetry, I fall under its spell. This first happened when I was an impressionable teenager searching for something that would resonate with my own experience of the countryside. The pull of nature had been a part of my life since my early years, occupying a place in my heart which I couldn’t really express, but which Laurie Lee could. It touched me in a way both visceral and emotional. As a child, in an era when it was possible to roam safely, I would sit in a favourite tree for hours, or cross fields to reach a stream fringed with pink campion and bluebells. Sometimes on my own, sometimes with a friend or my older brother. (It was more powerful, I discovered, without the grown ups.)
But at the time I began to read his poetry, I sensed that this instinct for nature was something which might slip away from me as I moved into my mid-teens. Another great nature poet, Wordsworth, was able to express that potential loss:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight, To me did seem Apparelled in celestial light, The glory and the freshness of a dream. It is not now as it hath been of yore;— Turn wheresoe'er I may, By night or day. The things which I have seen I now can see no more. (Ode to Immortality)
Laurie Lee’s verse played a different part, in that it took me right into the heart of that experience, rather than just ruminating on how it once was; it gave me a way of holding onto that instinctive bond with nature, and also brought a special poignancy with it.
If ever I saw blessing in the air I see it now in this still early day Where lemon-green the vaporous morning drips Wet sunlight on the powder of my eye. Blown bubble-film of blue, the sky wraps round Weeds of warm light whose every root and rod Splutters with soapy green, and all the world Sweats with the bead of summer in its bud. If ever I heard blessing it is there Where birds in trees that shoals and shadows are Splash with their hidden wings and drops of sound Break on my ears their crests of throbbing air…. (From ‘April Rise’)
I still have the edition of his work in the ‘Pocket Poets’series, which I bought when I was at school, complete with the marks I made to indicate my favourite verses.
In these poems, I found a deep understanding of the magnetic pull of the English landscape – the fields, woods, rivers and villages which have especially captivated me. I may be fond of Wales, Scotland and Ireland too – and have plenty of Celtic ancestry – but it’s the English countryside that I have been immersed in all my life. Even though I have always had the travel bug, roaming the world when I could, England is home, and I can’t give up the primroses smelling delicately of hazelnuts, the ancient hedgerows, and the village fetes enjoyed on a hot summer’s afternoon.
When I first encountered his poetry as a teenager, my travels abroad were limited to trips by boat and train to Europe. So when I read what Laurie Lee wrote about returning home across the Channel, I recognised what he was talking about. I, too, had fallen back in love with the English landscape on the boat train after what seemed like very exotic adventures abroad.
Far-fetched with tales of other worlds and ways, My skin well-oiled with wines of the Levant, I set my face into a filial smile, To greet the pale, domestic kiss of Kent. But shall I never learn? That gawky girl, Recalled so primly in my foreign thoughts, Becomes again the green-haired queen of love Whose wanton form dilates as it delights…. So do I breathe the hayblown airs of home, And watch the sea-green elms drip birds and shadows, And as the twilight nets the plunging sun My heart’s keel slides to rest among the meadows. (From ‘Home from Abroad’)
‘Everyone has a Laurie Lee story’
I first wrote a blog about his poetry on my author’s website, at the time when we were living near Stroud, in Gloucestershire, from 2007-2014. It was barely a fifteen minutes’ drive from Slad Valley, Laurie’s old stomping ground, which he celebrated in his popular poetic memoir, Cider with Rosie. And talking to locals in the Stroud area, I was excited to find the living proof of his existence, even though he’d died over a decade ago in 1997. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
The First Laurie Lee Blog: written in Amberley, near Stroud
It often seems that he’s not quite gone from there. We are relative newcomers to the area, but practically everyone who’s been around Stroud for longer has a tale to tell about him. Just recently we watched the play of Cider with Rosie at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham. Two well-dressed middle-aged ladies behind us were discussing him.
‘So did you see Laurie Lee often, then?’
‘Oh yes! I used to meet him about twice a week, at the Imperial.’
(Hmm – interesting!)
My acupuncturist mentioned casually that he used to be her landlord, a musician friend related how he once gave performances with him, and a local, now well-established writer, revealed that she’d marched up to his front door when she was still a teenager, asking for advice on how to become a writer. Should she go to university or not? ‘You don’t need all that,’ he told her. And she didn’t, it seems.
So, as one who is often late to the party, metaphorically speaking, although I never met Laurie Lee, I can still revel in the legacy he left and the landscape he inhabited.
Yesterday, in brilliant sunshine, we walked up Swift’s Hill which lies on the other side of the steep Slad Valley. Ponies were basking in the sun, a buzzard or two soared overhead, and the primroses were out in the hedgerows.
We looked across to Slad, picking out the phone box, the pub, and the cottage we thought Laurie had lived in. There was woodsmoke – ‘having a bonnie’ as the garden owner told us later, when we chatted over the wall. The wonderful, steep-gabled grey stone cottages appeared along the route of our walk tracing the contours of the valley, ranging from charming but tiny abodes like something out of a folk tale to grander dwellings with many eaves.
When we drove back to Slad later, we paid a visit to the Laurie Lee bar at the Woolpack pub, Laurie’s local, hoping we wouldn’t get mistaken for tourists. Which in one way we were, of course – but maybe we were more pilgrims for an afternoon, on the L.L. trail.
We were not alone, but the atmosphere was relaxed, the bars uncrowded. We then visited at his tombstone in the churchyard, and later I looked up the poem ‘The Wild Trees’, which begins with the following lines:
O the wild trees of my home, forests of blue dividing the pink moon, the iron blue of those ancient branches with their berries of vermilion stars and ends: ‘Let me return at last….to sleep with the coiled fern leaves in your heart’s live stone.’
Present Memories of Christmas Past
Writing now, in December 2022, I recall with pleasure how when we lived in Gloucestershire, we often attended Johnny Coppin’s annual Christmas concert, ‘All on a Winter’s Night’, held in the Stroud Subscription Rooms, and always packed out. (Once it was so much of a ‘Winter’s Night’ that unfortunately we couldn’t even get there, down the icy hill from Amberley.) It was an evening of music and poetry from the ensemble, plus favourite readings from Laurie Lee, as Coppin had collaborated with the poet in the years before his death. I have a copy of their ‘Edge of Day’, a CD first released in 1989, which includes this poem, ‘Christmas Landscape’. It opens thus:
Tonight the wind gnaws with teeth of glass, the jackdaw shivers in caged branches of iron, the stars have talons. There is hunger in the mouth of vole and badger, silver agonies of breath, in the nostril of the fox, ice on the rabbit’s paw. Tonight has no moon, no food for the pilgrim; the fruit tree is bare, the rose bush a thorn and the ground is bitter with stones… You can also find the full recording on You Tube – but please support Johnny Coppin’s albums if you can.
The Laurie Lee Journey
There is something about Lee which has inspired people to seek out his haunts, both in Gloucestershire and further afield. Adam Horovitz, poet and author, lived in the Slad Valley too, and found his own childhood entwined with that of the Lee family. He himself has been drawn back to live here later on in life. After Laurie’s death in 1997, he witnessed others taking their own Laurie Lee pilgrimage around the area, and even a ‘Night of a Thousand Laurie Lees’ when a bevvy of tipsy cyclists, dressed in Laurie-type gear, careered from Miserden down to Laurie’s pub, the Woolpack at Slad on the first anniversary of his death. ‘More Lauries enter, all signing books, adjusting their hats and husking out requests for beer, their tongues parched with the effort of song and cycling….’ And when Laurie’s widow, Kathy, enters the pub, ‘Laurie suddenly seems alive and well and living on in the valley’s dreaming, in the moths and minds of everyone who lives there or passes through…’ It seems that people not only want to honour the poet, they want to be Laurie Lee.
The opening of ‘As I walked out one Midsummer Morning’ has acted as a call to other young men to follow in Laurie’s footsteps:
The stooping figure of my mother, waist-deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool, was the last I saw of my country home as I left it to discover the world. She stood old and bent at the top of the bank, silently watching me go, one gnarled red hand raised in farewell and blessing, not questioning why I went. At the bend of the road I looked back again and saw the gold light die behind her; then I turned the corner, passed the village school, and closed that part of my life for ever.
Then follows his epic journey on foot from his Slad valley home to Spain at the time of the Civil War. It has inspired others to tread that path too, and then write about it likewise. Benedict Allen – the well-known TV traveller – set out to explore Lee’s journey in a programme which can be seen via the link below:
And very recently, I watched a documentary – Laurie Lee: The Lost Interview, described later. The morning after, I sauntered across the road to a charity Christmas sale, and on the second-hand book stall found a copy of As I walked out through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee by P. D. Murphy – yet another young man setting out to repeat Laurie’s journey. What are the chances of me finding that book straight after viewing the film and deciding to write a new blog about Laurie Lee? But serendipity often occurs, when I’m writing these posts!
My own connection to the poet ebbs and flows, as the years proceed. As mentioned, the recent broadcast of ‘Laurie Lee: The Lost Interview’ has set me going again, and provided the direct inspiration for this current post. Here in the carefully compiled documentary, you can see Laurie himself, filmed in the late 1980s walking through the countryside, and coaxed into talking about his early life by David Parker, a BBC producer who’d gently persuaded Laurie to open up to a microphone and a camera, in a way that he usually avoided. (It may be accessible through Now TV, or try for other online options).
In this film too, the ‘Who is Rosie?’ mystery from his other well-loved memoir, Cider with Rosie, continues…was she a real person, who became Laurie’s first tentative girlfriend, with a foray into love and cider drinking under the hay cart? Or was she a composite character, the essence of those first awakenings he had with the cuddlesome village girls? We may never know for sure, but we find out a little more here.
A bonus for me is that this documentary also links our former Gloucestershire home with our current one in Devon, through the presence of photographer Chris Chapman. Chris is a Dartmoor-based photographer par excellence, but he spreads his net wider, and had an earlier career in television as a ‘reluctant presenter’, as he puts it. In this current film, he appears with some of his own iconic shots of Laurie Lee, having collaborated on the original project with David Parker. I am very grateful to him for giving me permission to use one of the most touching and interesting portraits of Laurie ever taken. When Chris sent Laurie a copy of the photo, he wrote back to Chris:
‘Girl looks at horse, horse looks at me, I look at you, You look at us. Perfect.‘
How does he do it?
But before signing off, I can’t resist sharing Roger McGough’s question which many of us may ask – just how did Laurie Lee create his magic with words? Well, there might indeed be a spell involved…
I love the way he uses words. Will they work as well for me? Sorry, said the words. We only do it for Laurie Lee. But words are common property – They’re available and free Said the words, ‘We’re very choosy, And we’ve chosen Laurie Lee.’ I want to write like he does, But the words did all agree, ‘Sorry, son, we’re spoken for, We belong to Laurie Lee.’ (Roger McGough - Transcribed from Laurie Lee: The Lost Recordings ) Yes, well, some of my early poems were also influenced by Laurie's! But if Roger McGough can’t emulate him, what hope had I?
Laurie’s poetry remains an inspiration for me – and helps me to reconnect with the landscape which I feel is in my blood, whether Gloucestershire, my childhood in Kent, or time spent in country lanes, bluebell woods, pasture, moorland, and river banks. The older I get, the more powerful I find the magic of our natural landscape again. What was discovered in childhood returns – and perhaps had never really gone away.
And if I am feeling a touch melancholy at the passing of time, then these words of his strike home:
Slow moves the acid breath of noon over the copper-coated hill, slow from the wild crab’s bearded breast the palsied apples fall…. Slow moves the hour that sucks our life, slow drops the late wasp from the pear, the rose-tree’s thread of scent draws thin – and snaps upon the air. (From 'Field of Autumn')
Interviews with Laurie Lee can be downloaded on the BBC website
A description of the Lost Recordings project
An illustrated talk by Chris Chapman on the theme of his ‘Photographic Friendship’ with photographer James Ravilious.
Blogs from Cherry’s Cache on travel, landscape, and Gloucestershire
Sweet Chance: Spring on Minchinhampton Common (which also celebrates the life of another local poet, W.H. Davies the ‘supertramp’. He famously wrote: ”What is this life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare.’)
‘The Three Hares: A Curiosity Worth Regarding’ by Tom Greeves, Sue Andrew and Chris Chapman (photography), a fascinating study of the Three Hares symbol, found from the Silk Road to the churches of Dartmoor. (no longer in print but copies may possibly be found second-hand).