Laurence Edward Alan Lee (MBE) was the first writer to touch my soul, so last summer I decided to pay a visit to the Cotswold village he loved.
Weaving through the choking chaos of Stroud’s traffic system, I took a left turn at the small sign saying: “Slad 2 miles” and followed the winding B4070, the same hill that Laurie Lee’s mother struggled up on her bicycle “with her baskets of groceries…scattering packets of tea in the mud.”
Uncertain of how storytelling of such remote rural beauty in Cider with Rosie could ever have occurred on the doorstep of such a busy town, I continued in hope, past the lines of refurbished stone mills and up the narrow road. Sweeping the car through a bend, carried along by the flow of traffic, I breezed past the village sign for Slad. But slowing down, I soon recognised the pub, the school, Holy Trinity Church and eager to look around, pulled over to park. As I edged back along the narrow crumbling path, I looked across the valley and noticed Rosebank cottage down the steep grassy bank to my left. I stood and savoured the moment, careful to avoid toppling backwards into busy traffic, and instead, tried to imagine a bygone era of horse and cart trundling past that same “knife-edged, dark, wicked green, grass thick as a forest,” that made Laurie Lee weep in 1917, when plucked from West’s cart and plonked there at the side of the track.
Having done a little research before visiting, I mused over what the great poet and writer might have thought about me ‘googling’ ahead. I pictured him sitting in his favourite corner seat in the back room of the wood-burning Woolpack, enjoying a pint and cursing the endless tourists and meddling housebuilders. Having dodged by a couple of decades the relentless waves of interest that social media pound against person, place or thing, I imagined him relieved, reflecting that he would not be around to witness the inevitable intrusion upon his landscape. Such insolence -profanity permeating the valley he loved! So, I took a quick photo, inhaled the fresh air and forgave myself for being interested enough to visit the lifelong home of one of England’s finest authors.
By Lee’s own admission, his family were poor growing up. Their father Reginald had organised for them to live in a small oak-beamed three-storeyed cottage in its own half acre, for three and six pence a month. Annie had always expected him to come back, but he had gone to join the Royal West Kent Regiment and fight in the war and never returned. So, with a houseful of children to feed, Annie brought them up in her own inimitable way — sisters Marjorie, Dorothy and Phyllis, and brothers Jack, Harold, Tony and Laurie — eight of them in all, under the maternal guidance and loving care of their mother. Rebounding between hunger and cold, they would sweep the rainwater away from the blocked drain in the dead of night. They settled and grew up together, living a chaotic hand to mouth existence, short on everything but love.
I remember listening to an audio cassette in my English O Level class back in 1986, yearning for the comfort, warmth, hardship, innocence and loving tenderness of his family life; the maternal love of Annie Emily Light and the safety of sleeping in the bosom of her bed. He reveals in Cider with Rosie: “The sharing of her bed at that three-year-old time I expected to last forever.” Eventually the girls prized him away, as younger brother Tony lay in wait in his cot and Laurie was growing fast. “I was never recalled to my mother’s bed again. It was my first betrayal, my first dose of ageing hardness, my first lesson in the gentle, merciless rejection of women.” It would be the first of many rejections during his lifetime.
Setting out from the church, we walked up the steep pathway to where his headstone rests, engraved simply with: “Laurie Lee. He lies in the valley he loved.” Overlooking it is a new stained glass window with a map of Spain, a fiddle, his autograph and a sprinkling of magical prose. We were greeted by a garrulous stranger, hunched in one of the pews, who directed us to a wall of press clippings and suggested we donate to the church fund. We duly obliged, dropped some pound coins into an empty wooden collection box, signed the visitors’ book, then headed over the road for lunch in the Woolpack. A few minutes later we spotted him leaving and wondered where our money would eventually lay to rest.
The pub, in a word, is ‘local’. The bar and beating heart of this narrow building is reserved for drinkers only, but with most of them sat outside in the sun, I announced to an empty room, that we had booked a table. We clonked across the original wooden floorboards, perched in the sweaty settle seats and looked up at a filthy ceiling, caked in stories from the last hundred years.
A short stroll down the lane to Steanbridge House, we came to Mill pond. This peaceful spot, wallowing in the sump of the valley, was where beautiful naked Miss Flynn was discovered by Fred the Milkman early one morning, drowned and floating in the spillage of cloudy water. I leaned against the rotten fence, imagining the story and gazed across from the shade to the cows in the sparkling sunlit fields, “brilliant as painted china treading their echoing shapes.”
We didn’t make it as far as Bull’s Cross and Deadcombe Bottom, with its dark yellow wood beneath, but instead paid our respects at the war memorial at the top of the village. Slad is certainly not the most picturesque Cotswold village, busy and bruised in parts with areas spoilt by the pressure of modern life, but magical pockets of peace and untouched beauty still remain, if you know where to look.
His masterpiece Cider with Rosie was published in 1959. It took two years to write (including three re-writes) and has sold over six million copies – not bad for the boy who left school at fifteen.