The Long Shadow of Clouds Hill

A visit to Lawrence of Arabia’s last home—and last stretch of road—after all these years.

Lawrence of Arabia illustration #1

Driving down a surprisingly wide (more than 6 feet!) English lane through a green tunnel of shade trees, I suddenly spotted a clearing along the road, so I pulled over and parked our Vauxhall Corsa rental car. Barb and I got out and walked over to a man who was exercising his tiny dog in the grass.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but do you know where the monument is along the road here—the one that marks the spot where T.E. Lawrence had his fatal motorcycle accident?”

The man stared at me for a moment with ever-widening eyes and then exclaimed, “Looovely spych! Looovely spych! So yer a Yank, then, eh?”

I admitted to being a Yank and translated his opening comment as, “Lovely speech!” Here we had yet another Englishman charmed by my American accent, as filtered through the upper Midwest. To English ears, I imagine it has the dulcet tone of a table saw hitting a nail in a two-by-four. Yes, our spoken “r” is hard and pure as a diamond.

“Ye’ve joost missed the monument,” he said in a rich Dorset accent right out of a Thomas Hardy novel. “It’s there in the woods, back up the road a few hundred feet. Ye can take that path along the fence.”

Barb and I thanked him and followed the footpath. To our right was a tall barbed-wire fence bordering what appeared to be the motocross track from hell. In actuality, it was a British Army tank-training facility called Bovington Camp, famous as the home of the British Tank Museum.

And probably even more famous as the last place T.E. Lawrence—better known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia—set foot on solid ground before his death on May 13, 1935. He was on his way home from Bovington, headed for Clouds Hill—his nearby cottage in the woods—when he crashed his Brough Superior SS100. He’d ridden the bike down to the camp to send a telegram to a London friend, confirming he’d be home that weekend. After the accident, he was taken to the camp hospital, where he died six days later from his head injuries.

Lawrence of Arabia illustration #2

We discovered a stone monument in the woods, said to be the spot where Lawrence’s unconscious body was found, and another one along the road, marking the place where his bike left the pavement. I’d read that the road had been widened and straightened since Lawrence’s day, so it wasn’t easy to imagine exactly what happened. The standard story is that he came over a rise and found two lads on bicycles weaving along the road, headed in the same northerly direction. He swerved and/or slammed on the brakes, lost control, and was thrown onto the roadside. His Brough slid down the road and hit the back of one of the bicycles, damaging the rear wheel. The boy on the bike was only slightly injured.

I looked up and down the road, trying to envision it all, frequently stepping back on the shoulder to dodge lethally fast-moving cars. English country roads aren’t the quiet, pastoral places they were in 1935. Or even in 1973, when Barb and I drove around the island in a rented Mini. There seem to be cars everywhere now, all of the time. More trees too. Accident scene photos from 1935 show a brushy, relatively open landscape with the road dipping and curving across the hills. The road looks like a lot more fun in the old pictures, more inviting to a person on a bike.

So what were Barb and I doing in this green little corner of southwestern England?

Well, we were taking an endlessly planned and long-delayed celebration-of-retirement vacation. We'd arrived early that very morning in the port of Southampton, having left New York seven days earlier on the Queen Mary 2, and were driving our rental car up to the Cotswold Hills for a six-day hiking tour.

In between those two featured events, however, we’d set aside a couple of days for a side trip down to Dorset to find both Lawrence’s cottage and a place called Max Gate, the country home of novelist Thomas Hardy. Oddly enough, those two homes were only about 6 miles apart, near the city of Dorchester. Hardy and his wife used to ride their bicycles to visit Lawrence, and he in turn would ride his motorcycle or bicycle to visit them. England is rich in historical overlap like this, condensed and compacted for easy visitation.

Lawrence of Arabia illustration #3

Less than a mile from the crash site, Clouds Hill is a charming little two-story whitewashed stone forester's cottage (built in 1808) set back in the woods. Barb and I pulled into a small parking lot and walked down a wooded path to the house. A friendly man in a small British Trust ticket booth/book stall sold us a pair of tickets as I scanned the bookshelves behind him. There were Lawrence's own works, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Revolt in the Desert (an abridgment of Seven Pillars), The Mint, and his translation of Homer's Ulysses. And of course there were biographies—lots of them—four or five of which I've somehow managed to accumulate over the years.

Why so many biographies of this particular man?

Well, Lawrence seems to fascinate a wide variety of people—WWI historians, Middle East specialists, archeologists, students of Crusader castle architecture, professors of literature, Peter O’Toole fans, cinema buffs, practicing masochists (Lawrence apparently had a few kinks in his private life), and—of course—motorcyclists. And who better than a genuine masochist to own seven British motorcycles?

Yes, the man was a personal friend of George Brough, who built the exquisite self-proclaimed “Rolls-Royce of motorcycles,” and Lawrence owned, serially, seven of these beauties. And of course he was killed on the last one. Besides that, his personal letters and books contain some wonderful passages about the joys of riding fast on a fine motorcycle. All this, along with his brilliant and enigmatic personality, combine to make him one of the cult figures of the 20th century.

“Lawrence seems to fascinate a wide variety of people... and—of course—motorcyclists. And who better than a genuine masochist to own seven British motorcycles?

It also probably didn’t hurt that he was a nice-looking chap, whose manner gave the appearance of reserve and modesty. This is a big help if you want to be a cult figure. Look at Charles Lindbergh. Or Amelia Earhart. Or Robert E. Lee, for that matter. It also helps to be portrayed by Peter O’Toole, Jimmy Stewart, Hilary Swank, or Martin Sheen in a big-budget movie.

Anyway, the O’Toole film is where I came in, so to speak.

I went to see Lawrence of Arabia when I was 14, almost exactly at the moment when the motorcycle gene kicked in, flooding my young mind with adrenaline and hard-wiring its circuits in favor of two-wheeled adventure. I'd already built my own minibike, and suddenly we had an epic David Lean film (winner of seven Academy Awards) opening with a charismatic hero who kickstarts a throaty-sounding V-twin and hurtles down the narrow green lanes of England, obviously enjoying himself.

The hook was set. Never mind that Lawrence crashed and killed himself. I figured that when I got my own British Twin I would simply swerve around those two bicycles and continue riding for the rest of my life. Which, surprisingly, I’ve done—with only a few emergency room detours. As Bob Dylan once said in a song, “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.”

Anyway, I’ve been a Lawrence buff ever since, and apparently I’m not alone in this. I have a couple of riding friends whose bookshelves are virtual altars to the lore of T.E. Lawrence, lacking only votive candles, incense, and a brass gong to be completely over the top. I’m not quite that fixated, but I had to set aside a few days of our trip to see that famous spot on the fatal road. And Clouds Hill.

On entering Lawrence’s cottage, I soon realized it’s perfectly geared to appeal to the ascetic minimalism that lurks in the hearts of most motorcyclists. The building is smaller than I expected but quite welcoming and comfortable in a rustic way. Fireplace downstairs, with a big slab-sided reading chair designed by Lawrence himself and a tray across the arms to hold a book and hot drink. Or cold drink, if there is such a thing in England. There’s a raised bunk with shelves built under it and a bathroom with a huge bathtub and boiler cleverly fed from a nearby spring. Lawrence’s one temporal flaw was his weakness for a hot bath. There’s no toilet. That was out in the woods, presumably with a crescent moon on the door.

“I went to see Lawrence of Arabia when I was 14, almost exactly at the moment when the motorcycle gene kicked in, flooding my young mind with adrenaline and hard-wiring its circuits in favor of two-wheeled adventure.

No kitchen, no fixed meal times. Weekend guests (such as George Bernard Shaw and his wife, Charlotte) were expected to snack from cans of tinned food so meals wouldn’t interrupt conversation—or listening to music. Upstairs is the music room, a very comfortable open space with a wood-beamed ceiling, leather-upholstered chairs, and a Victrola with a large horn. Beethoven, Mozart, and Elgar were favorites, though I suspect he would have enjoyed the Lawrence soundtrack by Maurice Jarre if he’d lived long enough. The room is lined with more bookshelves. There are paintings of General Allenby and Emir Feisal, which Lawrence referred to as his “dual masters.” Outside in the yard is a neat shed Lawrence had built to hold his latest SS100—the last of which is now in the British War Museum.

Over the front door is a stone lintel—designed by Lawrence himself—with a Greek inscription loosely translated as, “Who cares?” I can barely read the Greek letters on a fraternity house, but I nevertheless bought a small souvenir copy of this stone and have it sitting on my desk right now. For inspiration.

So. Motorcycle, cottage, books, fireplace, music, and a vast network of some of the most charming winding roads on earth, just beyond the driveway. Not a bad retirement, really.

Unfortunately, he hadn’t been retired long when he died. Hoping to escape his own fame and his disappointment at the arbitrary borders imposed on the Arabs after WWI (a problem which haunts us to this day), he sought refuge in anonymity. During the ’20s and early ’30s he served under assumed names as an enlisted man in both the RAF and the Tank Corps. He rented Clouds Hill as a refuge from barracks life while serving at Bovington in the early ’20s and later bought the place and fixed it up. He’d only just finished his 12-year enlistment in the RAF when he died.

Lawrence of Arabia illustration #4

Barb and I drove to the nearby village of Moreton (population 270), where Lawrence is buried in a simple grave just across the street from St. Nicholas Church. This country church has a second claim to fame because a random Luftwaffe bomb blew out its ancient stained glass windows in 1940 and the noted artist Sir Lawrence Whistler designed a set of beautiful engraved glass windows for the church. When we were there, a BBC crew had just finished doing a TV documentary on the church and its windows. It occurred to me that if it weren’t for two terrible wars, there’d be very little tourism in Moreton. More strange historic convergence.

After a visit to the gravesite, Barb and I climbed back in our rental car and merged into the hectic flow of traffic, headed north for our week of hiking through the rural landscape and 14th century villages of the Cotswolds. We were temporarily back in the 21st century but headed for yet another attempt to defeat modernity in a quiet corner of England. And Clouds Hill may have been exactly this kind of refuge for Lawrence. The peacefulness and simplicity of the cottage left us with an odd feeling that he’d just been there, had just gone out for a ride, and that it might still be the spring of 1935.

I sometimes wonder if it was the Brough Superior that captivated me when I first saw Lawrence of Arabia 52 years ago or if it was simply the romantic vision of those empty English roads from a bygone era. Or the heroic legend that connected them both. Maybe it was all three. Motorcycling is never just about the bike.