It is the beginning of a magical sunny day as I drive across the Cotswold Way, high up overlooking the Gloucestershire countryside, lovely views once the early morning mist burns off under the gentle intensity of a warming-up autumnal day.
It is a real “Veranillo del Membrillo” day, as the Spanish in Andalusia say, “a little summer of the quince” – an Indian Summer day – and the English are out en masse to enjoy it.
It feels like a moment snatched away from the inexorable march towards the darker days of winter and I am looking to enjoy it to the full.
I am on my way to the inaugural “Walking with Words” event, inspired and led by Kevan Manwaring, a quiet, gentle Gloucestershire poet. The collection of guided walks and tours stretch from late summer, through the winter and into spring 2014. They celebrate Gloucestershire’s links with classic English writers who took their inspiration from the natural beauty of the county. The collection of writers range from WH Davies, Edward Thomas and Robert Frost, Ivor Gurney through to John Drinkwater. Today though It is all about Laurie Lee, who would have been 100 next year. He is a hero of mine and I am writing a book about his Spanish Civil Wars years, that shaped him as a writer and a man, and a walk that started, well it started from here in Slad, a tiny village in a sumptuous English green valley on the edge of the Cotswolds.
We assemble in front of Rose Bank cottage where Lee grew up, we gaze down the steep bank to the cottage and imagine the scene of little Laurie Lee, only three, being set down from the carrier’s cart. It is 1917 and the Great War is still raging on the once-green fields of France. Laurie recollects his arrival in the village in his first memoir “Cider with Rosie”: “The June grass, amongst which I stood was taller than I was and I wept.”
There are no tears from our slightly surreal group, but I think it is close. Chantelle, a trained archeologist – IT boffin in the public sector by day, a backing vocalist for a progressive band at night – is distracting herself by knitting socks as she watches on. She is not digging up dead bones today, just gently sifting the earth and the air for traces of the spirit of a dead poet. Sylvie, a retired classical violinist who toured the world and once played with the Grateful Dead and taught Joni Mitchell’s daughter, is imagining a stained-glass commemorative centenary piece of Lee flailing against the grass much like a young Don Quijote acting against the whirling blades of the windmills on La Mancha. Sylvia, as vivacious as the uplifting vowel at the end of her name implies, another singer and a poet to boot, whose muse was Joni Mitchell herself, would be in grave danger, I think, if an older Laurie were to appear, armed with his charm, silver tipped tongue and come-to-bed eyes. In the words of the great American singer, that could have been written for Lee, he was all about “Court and Spark.”
We are an eclectic group, many, like me, looking for something, a second chance in life perhaps, after bereavement, divorce, the ending of first careers. Some first lives move into a second phase seamlessly, others end abruptly. Perhaps we are all looking for some of Lee’s alchemy to inspire and transform our lives. Anything is possible, I think, on a day like today, with grasshoppers chirping and apples, both red and green, ripe for the picking.The opening words of Lee’s second memoir “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” also have Lee standing where we are now. It is 1934, he is 19 years old and he is leaving home. He has no plans other than to walk to London, he doesn’t know that after a year in the capital, his feet would feel restless again and he would walk out again, this time down from the Atlantic coast of the north west of Spain to the Mediterranean…
“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.”
We walk for about five miles and circle the valley, like the red kites above us, stopping from time to time to admire views, relive scenes from “Cider with Rosie” and to read extracts from the book. Sylvie reads a piece about Peace Day and the annual blessing from the squire, a man always close to tears on these occasions apparently. Somehow Sylvie creates a more evocative scene than intended when she speaks of the party being welcomed by a “wet-eyed squirrel” on the steps of the manor house. I feel this is in keeping with the spirit of our pilgrimage and that Laurie would have loved the slip of the tongue.
The highlight of the day is visiting the newly christened Laurie Lee Wood, acquired recently by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust and now protected from the threat of redevelopment. I had heard recently a BBC Radio 4 programme on the wood and had been touched by the many lovers of nature and Lee’s words who had raised £36,000 in just six weeks to ensure that this particular bit of the Slad valley, immortalised in Lee’s writing, was now secure for generations to come to enjoy. Lee’s daughter Jessy had led the fight to save the wood, continuing the work that her father had started when purchasing the wood when it was threatened by those that know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
We finish back at the church opposite Laurie’s favourite pub,The Woolpack, at his graveside, but not before Chantelle had taken centre stage and with knitting put away and with a glint in her eye had read a few lines from the climax of “Cider With Rosie”, “The first bite of the apple,” Laurie’s first tryst with Rosie who was even prettier than Betty Gleed:
“Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time…never to be forgotten, or ever tasted again.”
Chantelle, for me, had now been rechristened as Rosie and she leads us on to our lunch that we had all earned in the enchanting grounds of the Hawkwood Centre. Our lunch, like our morning, is organic, biodynamic and utterly delicious. No cider though, just apple sauce on the side.
I linger at the end of the lunch and then go back down to The Woolpack and look over the valley again to Laurie Lee’s Wood. I fell in love with Laurie Lee and his writing many years ago when I was drifting on the cusp of manhood, recently he had helped me negotiate a crisis in my life. I am writing a book for Lee’s centenary year that starts on 26 June 2014 and I realize now that on that day too, when Lee would have been a 100 years old, the wood will be one. I am not sure how yet but I want my book, its due date of birth falling at around the same time, to play its own part in conserving the enchanted wood. I resolve to speak to the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust soon.