Colonel Stewart Francis Newcombe was already a legend in the deserts of Arabia before he was joined in Cairo during the early months of the First World War by a group of extraordinary specialists in Middle Eastern affairs. One member of this group was T.E. Lawrence who went on to achieve worldwide fame. Colonel Newcombe's story, like those of other unsung figures in the Anglo-Arabian panoply, has been eclipsed by the legend of ´Lawrence of Arabia´, and has languished in the dusty recesses of regimental records, government files or in the elliptical words of Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. However, S.F. Newcombe´s untold story is there to be told. IN THE SHADOW OF THE CRESCENT is a story of extraordinary exploits and courage, coupled with Newcombe's own legendary and inexhaustible supply of energy and of remarkable adventures under the very noses of the Ottoman authorities – full of danger, intrigue and perhaps more surprisingly, of romance during Newcombe's captivity in Turkey.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Dorset Treats

West Lulworth
The family gathered for Christmas 2012 in Dorset where we rented a delightful thatched cottage in the picturesque village of West Lulworth. Apart from a few research trips, it was our first time back to the UK for any significant period for over ten years. Happily my daughter had chosen a property that would evoke fond memories of bygone times. Christmas decorations that once adorned our own cottage in a small village three miles outside of Canterbury were shipped back over from Spain to decorate an inglenook fireplace that was eerily reminiscent of one I once owned. The oak bressummer beam, the brickwork, the log pile – it was all there, tricking me into thinking that time had stood still and it was the year 2000 again and the last English Christmas before we embarked on our big adventure. 

Lulworth Cove
A short walk from the cottage took us to the sheltered Lulworth Cove, once a flourishing smugglers’ haunt, and a starting point for some pleasant walks over the hills - in one direction to Durdle Door (on Christmas morning!) and in the other across Army Firing Range Walks to the Arish Mell cliffs which overlook the now inaccessible beach. It was here that T.E. Lawrence swam with his friend, Arthur Russell, the so-called ‘Patroclus’ of the small group of friends who regularly convened at Lawrence’s cottage, Clouds Hill. Russell was one of the pall bearers at Lawrence’s funeral, representing the Tank Corps period of his life alongside Stewart Newcombe as the representative of the Arabian years. 

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!

Clouds Hill
Nearby, Lawrence’s Clouds Hill was looking forlorn and exposed, locked up for the winter and with its gardens shorn of the rhododendrons that once gave it the privacy that Lawrence craved. A sign on the gate read that the National Trust was managing a particularly virulent disease that affects the rhododendron ponticum and has caused extensive damage to trees, garden shrubs and heath plants throughout the west of the UK. Replanting with rhododendron hybrids and other native evergreens is planned to continue throughout the winter. At the moment, it looks as if a tank has veered off course and wrought havoc in the garden, creating an effective fire-guard against the heath fires that were a constant worry during Lawrence’s time. 

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. 

Kennington's Effigy
There’s something about having the key to the church door and being responsible for locking up afterwards that reminded me of Derek Nimmo, an actor well-known for playing clerical roles (All Gas and Gaiters, Oh, Brother!, and its sequel Oh, Father! – I once interviewed him for a Dubai magazine as he was a regular visitor with his touring company, InterContinental Entertainment). The key was returned to the manager of the outfitters who is also the Church Warden, Merville Gover – the only man I have ever met that appears completely at ease with a measuring tape around his neck – and who readily gave me a copy of Lawrence’s birth and death certificates (for free) plus for a small fee a copy of Lawrence of Arabia, The Simple Facts by a former mayor of Wareham, Harry Broughton. 

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. 

Constant companions
Lawrence’s grave is located a few metres away down a leafy country lane in an extension to the graveyard. It is approached by a brick path paid for by the T.E. Lawrence Society and can be found at the back of a well-maintained site. Someone had even placed a Welsh flag in a corner of his grave by his feet. The red dragon fluttered stiffly in the chill afternoon wind connecting Lawrence of Arabia, of Oxford, of Carchemish and finally of Dorset to Tremadog in Wales, his place of birth. To the left of the headstone was a bench donated by Arthur Russell over twenty years ago and engraved with the name Patroclus, the constant companion of Achilles in Greek mythology.

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!