Travels with a Donkey, Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-loved travel tale is threaded with longing for the love of a woman he was not sure he would ever meet again.
In Cider wth Rosie, a coming of age story that became an instant classic, Laurie Lee made a corner of the southern Cotswolds his own.
I remember too the light on the slopes. Long shadows in tufts and hollows with cattle brilliant as painting china treading their echoing shapes. Bees blew like cake-crumbs through the golden air, white butterflies like sugared wafers, and when it wasn't raining a diamond dust took over which veiled and yet magnified all things.
In the summer of 1918 Laurie Lee’s three-year old self was set down from a carrier’s cart in the tiny village of Slad in Gloucestershire. He was at once dwarfed by the towering grass, ‘each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight’, with ‘snow-clouds of elder blossom banked in the sky’ and ‘frenzied larks, screaming, as though the sky were tearing apart.’
His mother Annie later wrote to him:
I love you for that story. You brought back so many things to my memory so vividly. How when you first got out of West’s cart & was placed at the top of the bank and the grass was so long & high, how frightened you were & how you cried…
With four stepchildren and three sons of her own (Annie’s daughter Frances died aged four), Annie Lee settled them all into the three-storey cottage. It had oak beams, mushrooms on the ceilings, crumbling walls and ‘thumps and shadows’. There were rooks in the chimneys, frogs in the cellar, and a garden steeped in roses.
That was the day we came to the village, in the summer of the last year of the First World War. To a cottage that stood in a half-acre of garden on a steep bank above a lake…and all for three and sixpence a week.
Set in a secretive, steep valley two miles from Stroud, this village was Lee’s world until he was nineteen. It was a place of ‘long steamy silences’, interrupted by the sounds of horses’ hooves, pigeons and mowing machines. The pouring rain would hurtle down its steep embankments so ferociously that one year the cloth mills along the bottom of the valley were washed away.
Thirty or so families lived in the cottages that straggled along the road. Most were in service to the Squire, a benevolent man who opened his garden for special occasions and his pond for fishing and skating. One villager would take on the role of midwife, another laid out the dead; there was a pig-sticker and a dry-stone wall builder. They supplemented their low income by living off the land: bottling fruit and gathering wild berries; keeping pigs and hens; hunting rabbits, brewing flowery wines. Life was communally lived, vivid and intense. There were outings to the choir, harvest festivals, feasts, concerts, penny-dances. ‘For the most part we stayed in our tight green valley, as snug as beans in a pod’ and the days ‘crowed and chirped and rang’.
Cider with Rosie is a collection of vignettes about Laurie’s mother, the ‘steaming school life’, and his rivalling ancient grannies. It describes the seasonal events common to village children of those times: haymaking and fishing in summer, carol singing and ice skating in winter. There was also space to breathe and do nothing. Writing to Laurie when he was in Spain, his brother Jack reminisced:
Do you remember how we used to float logs down “Joey” stream as far as the “whirlypool” and how we stopped up the drain by trying to float Harold’s boat through it? And those walks over to Painswick Beacon to lie on our stomachs and, shading our eyes from the afternoon sun, look out across the Glo’ster plain to that lovely line of the Malverns?…Sunny days those were. Strange and sad to think that those simple irresponsible joys (I deliberately forget the unhappy days) will never occur for us again.
It wasn’t always idyllic. The winters were freezing; there was death, sickness, poverty, suicide, murder, even gang rape, and one family ended up in the workhouse. Laurie was wary of overly romanticising this life.
Everybody was poor. It wasn’t all rising fields of poppies and blue skies. A large part of it was lashing rain; chaps walking round dressed in bits of soaking sacking, and children dying of quite ordinary diseases like whooping cough.
No coming of age story is complete without a romp or two; there is the early exploration of young Jo’s ‘milk green’ body and later Rosie, with her ‘sharp salts’ of wickedness who took Lee and a stone jar of cider in hand under the haymaking wagon.
Never to be forgotten that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time, wine of wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apples; and Rosie’s burning cheeks…For a long time we sat with our mouths very close, breathing the same air. We kissed, once only, so dry and shy, it was like two leaves colliding in air. At last the cuckoos stopped singing and slid into the woods.
Laurie said the valley was a place where:
life was a glass-bottomed boat, you could see through to all the details of life, animals, neighbours, and nothing was concealed, nothing got between us and the history of our neighbours, both tragic and comic, and we only had each other for entertainment.
But all the while he reminds the reader that change was afoot. After the war came the great agricultural depression. Attempts by the squire and the parson to fend off the ‘flight from the land’ were in vain. A mass rural exodus led to the irreversible dissolution of these close-knit communities and a way of life that had existed for generations.
Soon the village would break, dissolve and scatter, become no more than a place for pensioners.
Annie Lee described her son as a ‘loving and dreamy’ boy, sensitive to nature, a cuckoo’s call or the phases of the moon. As a teen he practiced writing his observations in the style of whichever author he was reading at the time: Dickens, Joyce, or D.H. Lawrence. He had fun imitating the ‘master of similes’ Warwick Deeping: ‘I woke up feeling as sleepy as a library lizard this morning’ or ‘The depression increases as I feel as misplaced as a stick of garlic in a cherry trifle.’ Under the spell of All Quiet on the Western Front, he tried writing in the first-person: ‘This morning I go for a walk up Scrubs way…This afternoon a man comes up from the Infirmary to tell Mother that Grandfather is very ill.’
Years later Laurie did find exactly the right voice, and one that was all his own, to describe the way of life he witnessed as a boy and convey the distinct atmosphere of the Slad valley through all its seasons. As local poet Adam Horovitz says,
All landscapes have their music, but Slad is fortunate to have had a singer as tender and profoundly understanding of its moods and temperaments and lyrical weather patterns as Laurie Lee.
Cider with Rosie is the first volume of an autobiographical trilogy. Lee left Slad in 1934 at the age of nineteen when he walked away to London. His life there and his adventures in Spain before the Civil War are recounted in the other two volumes of the trilogy: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War.
He published other books and poetry. Lee said of his poems that they were intended for the voice: ‘They are not intellectual poems, they are sensual. They celebrate sound and colour and smell and light.’ But his early works were not received kindly by the critics.
It was Cider with Rosie that made him famous. His friends from London’s literary establishment, Rosamond Lehmann and Cecil Day Lewis, had first commissioned Laurie to write a piece about his childhood in Slad for their literary magazine Orion. In 1945 his mother wrote him a helpful letter reminiscing about the bashing of a poor man on a frosty night who was found dead from exposure the next morning. Day-Lewis published the resulting article, calling it a ‘winner’, and encouraged Laurie to write an autobiography.
But Laurie suffered a great deal of ill health and was also a procrastinator. He enjoyed being diverted by his many friends, usually at the pub. Between these distractions, he worked in a room as chaotic as his mother’s, conjuring up memories and crafting his words in soft pencil. He had landed on a simple, yet lyrical style: ”I hope to find patterns of words that can transmit sensations in the simplest and most direct way, without using highfalutin language’, he said. By October 1958 he finally completed Cider with Rosie.
On receiving the final draft, Leonard Woolf wrote him an off-hand note saying he did not really care much for this kind of book, and did not encourage the writing of childhood memories. ‘But I think in your case we will publish it’. So Cider with Rosie was duly published by Hogarth Press in 1959 and went on to sell over six million copies. It has been adapted multiple times for film, stage and television. Chosen as a set text on the national curriculum, it is well known to countless people of a certain age.
The reviews were mostly very favourable. J.B. Priestley wrote, ‘Often he trembles on the very edge of affectation and overwriting…But always…he dances out of danger, and coins phrase after phrase with which to delight us.’
Reviewers were unanimous in their praise of the portrait of Lee’s mother, Annie. ‘It is to Mrs Lee – haphazard, lackadaisical, fanatically unselfish, tender, extravagant, with her love of finery, her unmade beds, her litters of unfinished scrapbooks…her remarkable dignity, her pity for the persecuted, her awe of the gentry…that this book belongs, rather than to the Rosie of the title,’ said one. And another: ‘He became a poet. How could he help it with a mother like that?’
Lee wrote that Annie ‘was born to quite ordinary poverty.’ She had excelled in composition and music but left school early to go into service in stately homes, which gave her a taste for fine living. Later she helped her father in his pub, the Plough at Sheepscombe, and at thirty she applied for a position at Stroud as housekeeper to Reg Lee, the widowed father of four children. They married a year later and started a new family. Laurie was born in Stroud in June 1914.
In 1918 Reg moved them all to the cheaper house in Slad while he joined the Royal West Kent Regiment. After that he visited them only once or twice a year, eventually setting up a household in London with his landlady, Topsy. Laurie’s brother Jack said, ‘You can imagine the chaos of Annie’s cottage. He would have been driven mad by it. I don’t think the life in Slad was grand enough for our father.’
Laurie said his mother was:
…too honest, too natural for this frightened man, too remote from his tidy laws. She was after all, a country girl: disordered, hysterical, loving. She was muddled and mischievous as a chimney-jackdaw, she made her nest of rags and jewels, was happy in the sunlight, squawked loudly at danger, pried and was insatiably curious, forgot when to eat or ate all day, and sang when sunsets were red.
Lee’s biographer, Valerie Grove, says of Annie that ‘what she lacked in housewifery she made up in artistry…She made Laurie an observer of skies and spring leaves, and a lover of music and rhymes, stories and songs.’
Annie’s kitchen was filled with vases of wild flowers, but Laurie remembered her cooking less than favourably and said her ‘lentil soup which was like eating hot, rusty buttons.’ She could also irritate: ‘Mother has been talking at full speed for the last hour,’ he wrote. ‘It does get on your bally nerves.’ But as the reviewers of Cider with Rosie all agreed, Laurie had been ‘splendidly and richly mothered.’
Annie lived long enough to see her two elder sons distinguish themselves: Jack as a film director (he directed the classic war film A Town Like Alice) and Laurie as an author, who wrote to a friend in 1959:
I wish more people had known her and I wish for her own modest sake that she had known how many “figures” she had admired at her village distance – Harold Nicolson, V. Sackville-West, Cynthia Asquith, Priestley, etc. – had picked her out in their reviews of the book for a particularly affectionate mention.
Laurie bought Rosebank Cottage with the proceeds of the book. It was within stumbling paces of his favourite pub, the Woolpack and he, his wife Kathy and daughter Jessy divided their time between the village and London. He wrote nothing to match the success of his first memoir. With its growing popularity, more and more tourists arrived in Slad. Some marched down to Rosebank Cottage and knocked on the door, or spotted Laurie holding court at the pub. He was often generous with his time, escorting them on a spur of the moment tour to see the village sights. In old age his vision and hearing failed him and he moved to Slad permanently, where Kathy and Jessy nursed him until his death in 1997.
The John Dowland piece was one of Laurie Lee’s choices for Desert Island Discs, the BBC radio program for which he was interviewed in 1971. He asked for the version played by Julian Bream. Laurie had met Bream in the mid 1950s and admired the fact that he could play C.P.E. Bach and Villa-Lobos beautifully ‘even when apparently drunk.’
Lee was an accomplished musician himself, and played the fiddle, violin and ukulele. As a boy he had learned the fiddle from Travis Cole, a music teacher who cycled around the villages offering lessons for a sixpence. After leaving school, Lee was able to double his income by teaching the fiddle to villagers, and he was constantly practising for the next dance or concert with his friends Harold and Les.
Out all evening to play dance music. Started off with “William Tell” and we did let it rip. Our best tune is “You will remember Vienna.”
When he left for Spain Lee took his violin with him and earned money busking on his journey. His musical tastes were varied, from the big bands of Jack Payne and Henry Hall to classical concerts that he would listen to on the crystal wireless set. His daughter Jessy talks about his love of music here.
The poet Adam Horovitz grew up in the Slad valley fifty years after the events related in Cider with Rosie. He arrived with his hippy parents, the poets Michael and Frances Horovitz, in the seventies. Fleeing London, they picked up a cottage for a song. At an early age he remembers:
…the sensation of belonging that rippled through me as I waded in bright red boots through the ford in the stream, heading up to the badger sett at the edge of Catswood…the valley was my playpen…
Fellow poets visited them including Allen Ginsberg and his partner Peter Orlovsky. When he was nine, Horovitz did a reading with his parents and Ginsberg at the back of what is now Boots (chemist) in Stroud. His parents had met Laurie Lee in London and from their cottage they could see his house. He remembers Lee as an occasional presence in his life, jovial, slightly anarchic, with ‘a sly, twinkling charm’, who always encouraged his interest in poetry.
‘Are you writing?’ he asked me.
‘A little,’ I said. ‘I’m going to a summer class in a few weeks.’
‘Ah, writing classes,’ said Laurie, and he raised his eyebrows and smiled. ‘Do you need them when you’ve got all this?’
He gestured to the party, the valley, the world at large, his drink slopping a little, like late winter sunlight over the edge of his glass.
To mark the centenary of Lee’s birth, Horovitz wrote A Thousand Laurie Lees, a book that explores how the Slad valley shaped Lee and his writing and also how it has in turn been indelibly affected by its literary association. It is a mixture of personal memoir and tribute to Lee. He draws from an intimate understanding of the landscape that shaped them both.
At the beginning of the book is a funny and moving account of how, exactly a year after Lee’s death, a bunch of men dressed up as Laurie Lee cycled on a pub crawl from one end of Cider with Rosie country to the other. They called this journey ‘The Night of the Thousand Laurie Lees’.
Horovitz describes them careening down the road from Miserden, after a warm up at Frank Mansell’s pub The Carpenter’s Arms, and arriving with a great clatter of battered bicycles outside the Woolpack. They struck up a football-like chant, ‘Laurie LEE, Laurie LEE Laurie LEE-EE’ before bursting into the pub and thrusting books at astonished locals. ‘Signed Books available’, they shouted, as they scribbled their names in any old thing and doled them out. The initial confusion turned into laughter and song.
Laurie’s wife Kathy and his daughter Jessy were marking the first anniversary of Laurie’s death with a gathering of friends at their nearby home. But they were drawn to the pub by the chanting and made the dodgy journey on the ‘erratic stairs, past the lavatory’ and in through the door, which by now was full of ‘anarchic and beery’ life.
The many arms of Laurie open in welcome as Kathy enters the pub. Books are dropped and drinks passed around, charged and recharged. Laurie suddenly seems alive and well and living on in the valley’s dreaming.
The morning I explored Slad I had the sense that summer had reached its peak. Everything hummed and glistened. It actually was ‘all rising fields of poppies and blue skies’, and I scrambled up and down the steep embankments of the village and passed between its scattering of houses in a state of sheer joy. Opposite the bus shelter is the Old School where young Laurie learned his three Rs. On the opposite side is Rose Cottage, where Lee lived with his family after the book’s publication. There is a poetry post near the Woolpack Pub placed there by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust featuring the poem ‘The Abandoned Shade’ (which had been an earlier title for Cider with Rosie).
Hearing original summer,
the birdlit banks of dawn,
the yellow-hammer beat of blood
gilding my cradle eyes.
Further up the lane to the right and down the bank is the T-shaped Rosebank Cottage, Lee’s childhood home. Markers will lead you on a guided walk out of the village, past many landmarks mentioned in the book, with further spectacular views across the valley and there are a further nine poetry posts to discover.
Apart from the power-lines, nothing seemed much changed physically since Lee’s time, no new housing schemes have encroached on this, his sacred patch. He would be pleased as he actively campaigned against such developments in his later years. But of course there has been massive social change. The old community with its rural working class of the twenties is long gone. Slad is not a home so much for pensioners as Lee predicted, but for prosperous, upper middle class commuters now.
Of course some long-term residents remain. I stopped to talk with a woman walking her dog who’d lived in the village all her life. She remembered Lee fondly and told me his wife now lived ‘just over there.’ I’d heard Slad described as quite an ordinary little village but there was nothing ordinary about it that morning. Everything seemed wrapped in the diamond dust that Lee described.
Passing through Slad a year later, a friend and I dropped into the Woolpack, the pub where Lee held court. No wonder it was his favourite. It’s warm and unpretentious with a spectacular view of the far side of the valley from the window behind the bar where you can see Swift’s Hill, a woodland Laurie bought from the proceeds of Cider with Rosie in order to protect it from development.
But he did have troubles here owing to giving too much away. On the publication of the 25th anniversary of Cider with Rosie, he told an interviewer:
There are taboos about village life. The things you say in the pub and the local jokes that can be repeated, you put them in print and they’re not forgiven. It takes a long time to get over that. It takes a long time and a lot of free drinks to allow that to be forgiven.
He added that by then, all had indeed been forgiven.
The place was packed that fine sunny, autumn evening. A local man told us people come from miles for the craic, and for the fact that it’s one of the few pubs in the area that’s ‘not gone gastro’. A few instruments lay on the table in case someone felt in the mood for a spot of music. I’d been assured they’d been well used the previous evening. Laurie’s portrait hangs behind the bar and his grave can be seen from the pub window as he requested, with a view across the valley that he loved and immortalised.
The trailer for a 2015 BBC production of Cider with Rosie, starring Timothy Spall and Samantha Morton.
A documentary about Laurie Lee’s Gloucestershire.
Another program about Lee’s Slad.
Laurie Lee was interviewed by Mavis Nicolson for Thames Television in 1975 where he talked about his writing.
A secret Life of Books episode with Joanna Trollope, who examines the real story behind Cider with Rosie, her particular connection to the book and why it became such a success.
A Spectator article written by Jeremy Treglown on Lee’s centenary.
Kathy and Jessy Lee talk about Laurie Lee’s epilepsy and its effect on his life in this brief film clip produced by Icon Films.
Living with Laurie Lee was not a bed of roses, as his daughter Jessy reveals in this article.
In this Bare Fiction Magazine podcast, Adam Horovitz reads three of his poems about the Slad Valley: A House Built from ‘Cloth’, ‘Cheese Kisses’ and ‘Roots’.
Adam Horovitz reads from Cider with Rosie in the garden of Lee’s childhood house.
Cotswold Life featured an interview with Adam Horovitz.
Accommodation details and Slad valley walking routes can be found on the Discover Stroud District website.
And information about Slad on Cotswolds.com.
Grove, Valerie. Laurie Lee: The Well-Loved Stranger, Viking, 1999
Horovitz, Adam. A Thousand Laurie Lees: The Centenary Celebration of a Man and a Valley, The History Press, 2014
Lee, Laurie. Cider with Rosie, Penguin Classics, 2000
Lee, Laurie. Down in the Valley: A Writer’s Landscape, Penguin, 2019