Dorset and the West Country were mostly under water this winter so a walk to the local pub was more of an accomplishment than merely as a means of seeking entertainment or sustenance. But once reached there’s nothing quite like basking in the amazing breadth and scope of family conversations that comes from sitting for a couple of hours in a traditional pub supping pints of bitter beer while flood water flows through the kitchens!
I had hoped to gain semi-private access to the cottage and was indeed given dates that unfortunately did not coincide with my time in the UK. The staff at the NT were very helpful in their suggestions but due to the festive holidays we were unable to make it happen. Colonel Newcombe had provided building materials and advice to Lawrence during the refurbishment of the cottage and I wanted to see if I could match his suggestions to the finished improvements.
Newcombe had innovative ideas on heating homes and buildings. In an era when insulation in properties in the UK was not commonplace, he came up with practical suggestions that were ahead of his time. Where heat efficiency in the construction of buildings could not be improved, he developed a parallel idea that was explained in his paper of August 1954, Comfort and Cost of Heating Persons, Not Room Efficiency, which was sent out to relevant organisations and experts for their consideration and general discussion. Clouds Hill lacked any insulation and was served by two fireplaces and a ready supply of firewood. But to its owner it was ‘an earthly paradise,’ its simplicity reflecting his wishes. As he wrote to the artist and sculptor, Eric Kennington: ‘There cannot ever be a bed, a cooking vessel, or a drain in it - and I ask you... are not such things essential to life... necessities?’ A boiler and a bath was as good as it got for its owner who craved the luxury of hot water.
At Bovington Camp, the Tank Museum’s extensive collection was overwhelming. Its archive staff kindly brought out of storage the John Mansfield Crealock portrait of Newcombe - a real Christmas treat for both Newcombe and I, especially as he rarely sees the light of day.
Whether my family realised it or not, Christmas food shopping in Wareham was always going to be interrupted by a small detour to the local outfitters – A.F. Joy at 35 North Street - to pick up the key to the Saxon-era St. Martin’s Church where Kennington’s reclining effigy of Lawrence is undoubtedly the highlight, although the fragmented frescoes dating from the 12, 16 and 17th Centuries are certainly going to impress.
Cheese, pickles and bread bought from the local farmers’ market down by the quay on the swollen River Frome would make a tasty lunch but before that I took the family for tea and crumpets at the Anglebury House Tea Rooms. Little did they know that this is where Lawrence supposedly took tea at a favourite window table. As we were the only people present we made ourselves comfortable and got into conversation with a friendly local who gave us directions to the best butcher in town.
Reaching Dorchester via detours around flooded roads was necessary for those last minute purchases but with Christmas shopping done, the big day finally arrived. We walked over hills, we ate, we laughed, we slept, we ate again, we visited family, we drank, and then on Boxing Day I revealed a cunning plan – refreshments in the award-winning Moreton Tea Rooms. Nothing to do with Lawrence, honest!
It was raining and St.Nicholas’ Church, Moreton, was empty with a diffused light coming through the superb engraved windows created by Laurence Whistler, a post-Lawrence-era addition following partial destruction of the church by a fleeing German bomber in WW2.
For Lawrence, Christmas in the ranks as a single man held little appeal. He once wrote to George Bernard Shaw's wife, Charlotte: 'Mankind punishes himself with such festivals.' Barracks became 'wet' and the men boisterous; Lawrence preferred to take his turn at guard duty to escape the excitement.
In 1932, Lady Astor gifted him two heat lamps to warm the cottage and keep the damp off his books. The following Christmas he wrote to say how successful they had been. He then described how he had spent this year: ‘On Christmas day it was mild and grey,’ he wrote, ‘so we walked for fourteen miles and dinnered off a tinned chicken. The long walk made it taste good.’
Fourteen miles! Perhaps he walked across to the coast, maybe down to Lulworth which was generally off limits without a pass, past 'our' cottage with its smoking chimney to ‘smile at the sea.’ He once complained that it was too cold to bathe in the cove except in the rain. Then there were the gulls ‘questing through the spume’. He wrote: ‘They have the saddest, most cold, disembodied voices in the world.’
Our Christmas was nearly over. The weather had been Dorset weather. Lawrence accurately summed it up: 'wind and rain: rain and wind: wind: rain: and so on.' Corfe, with its castle, had a good pub. Still to be explored were Weymouth, Bournemouth, and Southampton, each with its Lawrence connections. It's easy to be sidetracked but it was time to go home to the sun. Happy days!