Beautiful Cotswold stone characterises the cottages of Bibury’s Arlington Row, and those where Laurie Lee grew up in the Slad Valley, Gloucestershire.
The valley was narrow, steep and almost entirely cut off; it was also a funnel for winds, a channel for floods and a jungly, bird-crammed, insect-hopping sun-trap whenever there happened to be sun… 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 things.
You can almost hear Laurie Lee whispering these words as you first set eyes on the Slad valley, the lush green dale he called home. On a sunny midsummer’s day, it’s a wonderful place to wander, and it’s easy to understand why this great country writer chose to spend much of his life here.
Lee is famous for his 1959 novel Cider With Rosie, the pages of which are filled with stories of the author’s childhood in Slad. The book enchanted millions of people – it sold all over the world, and was twice adapted for television. Its popularity lay in its vivid and often startling vision of what life was like in this part of Gloucestershire between the two world wars – a time of rapid change to traditional ways of life.
But what remains now of the place Lee loved so much and how has life altered here since his youth? If – like me – you’re a fan of Cider With Rosie, that’s an intriguing question. So I set off to explore the valley and find out whether his is still the sleepy idyll so fondly described in the book.
As I walked out…
I begin my walk in the layby at Bull’s Cross, on the A4060 about half a mile north of Slad. In Lee’s childhood, this “saddle of heathland set high at the end of the valley” unnerved some villagers. It was said a stagecoach had once crashed there, with fatal consequences. According to legend, a ghostly vision of the accident can be seen at the stroke of midnight. Add to this the fact that felons were once hanged from the gibbet on this hilltop, and you can see why Bull’s Cross has a sinister reputation.
When Lee was a child, such things were taken seriously. He and his friends did play in a derelict cottage in the woods below – until they realised it was once the hangman’s. Happily, while Bull’s Cross may have a chilling history, on a warm early summer’s day, it is a leafy and tranquil place.
A rosy landscape
The landscape of the valley hasn’t changed greatly since Lee’s time, according to Pete Bradshaw, Stroud reserves manager for Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, who is on hand to guide me. “The streams, old orchards, copses, mill ponds and hedgerows are still bountiful with wildlife,” says Pete. “There’s traditionally farmed limestone grassland here, covered with wildflowers and butterflies.”
The abundance continues on Slad Slope and along the trail at Snows Farm Nature Reserve, where the banks are bursting with elder blossom, cow parsley and glossy hart’s tongue fern. Of course, the ancient beech woods where Lee played and munched on the leaves as a boy still creek and sway in the wind, the “trees standing in heavy sunlight as though clogged with wild, wet honey”, as Lee wrote.
The preservation of the area owes a lot to Lee, Pete tells me. The writer strongly opposed development in the valley, and bought woodland to preserve it from the chainsaw. After his death, the Trust bought the woodland from the Lee family, and last year opened it to the public as Laurie Lee Wood. Here, I sit on a bench shimmering in dappled sunlight and watch Pete gently toe the soft undergrowth to see what new wild blooms are sprouting from the earth.
The rebirth of this woodland is just one nod to the centenary of Laurie Lee’s birth celebrated last year – the Trust also installed 13 poetry posts inscribed with Lee’s poetry along the trail.
Wonderful as that poetry is, it is Lee’s novels that made his reputation. Why are they – particularly Cider With Rosie – so adored? Rosie has acquired a reputation as a nostalgic, gentle book, but in truth it is full of tragedy. Some of the imagery is unnerving. Hairs rose on the back of my neck when I first read the terrible tale of the strange and beautiful Miss Flynn, who drowned herself in Steanbridge Mill Pond, portrayed so chillingly though Lee’s eyes. I feel goosebumps again as I stop to watch the reeds dance below the surface of the same water.
Before you come to the pond, the trail takes you past Furners Farm, the former cider farm that produced the “secret drink of golden fire” that Lee tasted with the red-cheeked Rosie Burdock. The writhing apple trees remain, their ancient, cracked bark baking in the midday sun. But in the village of Slad, surrounded by limestone cottages, you get the strongest sense Laurie Lee’s spirit. This was his whole world – at least until the age of 20, when he left for London and then war-torn Spain.
The whole Lee trinity – church, pub, home
I visit his grave at Holy Trinity Church, and gaze up at the golden-stained glass window recently installed in his memory, portraying his lyrical words and trusty violin, of which he was a gifted player.
Any walk in the area ought to end at the Woolpack, Lee’s haunt in his later years, for a pint of the amber stuff. On the walls of this 16th-century inn you’ll find portraits of Lee and dog-eared copies of his novels and poetry. This is where the four-year-old Lee peered through the window to watch the men of the village celebrate the end of the First World War, crushing glasses with their bare hands. It’s also where, in Cider With Rosie, a young man named Vincent – freshly returned from his new life in New Zealand to visit relatives in Slad – boasts of his riches to locals. Later, drunk on cider warmed with hot pokers, the same locals rob Vincent, leaving him to die in the snow. They are never tried or reprimanded, for they belong to the village, and the village looks after them. According to Lee, the people of the valley had “a frank and unfearful attitude to death, and an acceptance of violence as a kind of ritual, which no one accused or pardoned”.
Pete and I part ways and I start up the road out of Slad, but I can’t leave without glancing at Rosebank, the chaotic but love-filled home where Annie Lee raised Laurie and his six siblings single-handedly.
Leaving the quarry
I climb past remnants of the limestone quarry towards Frith Wood, renamed Brith Wood in the book. The houses of the valley are built of stone from these Jurassic rocks, but the quarry has long been left for nature to reclaim. The tranquil woods unnerve the senses, as the place where Lee and his fellow adolescent chums plotted to prey on young and simple Lizzie Berkeley, but succumbed to their better selves and scarpered.
Before long, I am back at Bull’s Cross, now bathed in afternoon sunlight and not at all forbidding. From here you can walk down quiet country roads to the beautiful villages of Painswick or Sheepscombe, both a two-mile walk away and well worth an idle amble along biscuit-coloured lanes. Before I decide which way to go, I sit on a patch of grass shaded by a canopy of beech, pull out my battered copy of Lee’s novel and read his words aloud for no one but the birds to hear.
The village was the world and its happenings all I knew… It was something we just had time to inherit – the blood and beliefs of generations who had been in the valley since the Stone Age. But arriving, as I did, at the end of that age, I caught whiffs of something old as the glaciers.
Article by Abigail Whyte, published in issue 86, BBC Countryfile Magazine