Unseen Britain - Clouds Hill
By Alan Russell
Clouds Hill as it is known today was built in 1808 surrounded by the woodlands near Bovingdon Camp as a forester’s cottage. If it wasn’t for one solitary man, T E Lawrence, renting it from a distant cousin of his father in 1923 for two and six a week (twelve and a half pence in decimal currency) then this humble cottage may well have destroyed itself and been absorbed into the ground through abandonment and neglect and never appeared in history.
When Lawrence leased the property it was almost uninhabitable but with the help of a very few very trusted colleagues from Bovingdon where he was based he slowly made it habitable. At the time Lawrence’s definition of ‘habitable’ did not include a kitchen or toilet and no electricity but I have to assume that after spending a couple of years living in the desert that anywhere with a roof and solid front door would be considered habitable if not luxurious.
What ‘habitable’ meant to Lawrence was having rooms that were purely functional. Downstairs there is the main room which has shelves of books that look like he had been reading them and returned them to the shelves just before going out on that fateful motorbike ride to send an invitation to lunch by telegram. Also in the main room is a purpose designed and built divan bed solely for use in the day to lie on and read by the light coming in from the large clear window at the head of the bed. The other room on the ground floor is the bathroom which only has a bathtub. Upstairs is a very small room used as the bedroom proper with a ships style bunk raised from the floor and supported by a set of solid drawers for storage. Not too unlike some bed designs that can be seen in modern furniture shops. To complete the nautical theme Lawrence cut a porthole in the wall in this room. The other room wedged into the attic is the ‘music’ room furnished with a sofa, single chair and a table supporting a huge wind up gramophone player.
In Michael Korda’s book ‘Hero – Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia’ he describes Clouds Hill as:
‘Like a snails shell, it would gradually be reshaped to Lawrence’s Spartan idea about living; indeed it became almost an extension of his personality’.
The three of us who visited Clouds Hill together on a very wet Saturday morning in September came up with the following adjectives over lunch after our visit to measure our own individual impressions of the place:
Each of us contributed to this list and the use of the adjectives when they were first mentioned between us took on negative and positive characteristics. For example ‘functional’ to one person had very positive connotations of being easy to live in without much fuss whereas the negative connotation was associated with lacking in being surrounded by lots of material objects. Only you can decide the positivity or negativity of each adjective once you have been there. One characteristic that we did agree on was that Clouds Hill was one of those rare places where whatever cares or worries you were carrying when you arrive in the car park they have been evaporated somewhere along the very short walk to the ticket kiosk.
Over the doorway is a triangular lintel in which Lawrence carved in Greek:
‘I don’t care’.
Clouds Hill was his place to escape as although he was considered a war hero all he wanted to do was live a very private life away from what we would today call being a ‘celebrity’. He shunned publicity and never courted it. On one occasion the press had worked out where his country retreat was and surrounded it hoping to see the hero of the age. Lawrence had just cycled up from the west country, saw the marauding press around his home and promptly made his way across country to see his brother in Cambridge. That is how much he hated publicity.
There is no formal garden, just a winding gravel path from the car park to the cottage. Then between the cottage and the outbuilding that was home to Lawrence’s beloved Brough motorbike is another cleared and gravelled path. In a rich irony of his fate when we were walking out to the building a group of motorbikes rumbled past leaving their noise for a brief few seconds echoing around the trees. Inside this outbuilding are some wall mounted pictures from Lawrence’s life and a bronze bust of him mounted on a plinth to show how tall he was in real life. Just five foot six compared to the lanky six foot plus frame of Peter O’Toole who played him in the 1960’s movie. On the back wall was this print:
Beyond the clearing surrounding the cottage are hummocks that look as well rounded as giant ant hills that have been cleared of rhododendron bushes to allow nature to reforest them in her own time with just a little management from human agency.
By 1935 had made Clouds Hill habitable and into the ‘snails shell’ of the home we can visit today. In a letter to Lady Astor he said:
‘My cottage is a gem of gems in the eyes of its owner. You see I made it from the roots up’.
He then goes on to partially shatter this moment of poetic pride:
‘It is as ugly as my sins. Black, angular, small, unstable, very like its owner….’
And then he restores his pride and love in the place with:
‘….but I love it’.
Clouds Hill is owned by the National Trust and the cost of entry is £7 per adult. Check the website for opening times before setting off for your visit.