Hopefully you will have read the previous post about the classic epic movie, Lawrence of Arabia, it’s not entirely necessary but it sets this post in perspective.
I came to Lawrence through the film and after watching it, you do get a good idea of what he must have been like. Lawrence was also a writer and philosopher and I am pleased to say I have his work sitting on a bookcase not too far from where I type.
It was partly down to the film and to him that I started studying what I did and naturally going to see some of the scenes of his life was pretty high on my agenda. Lawrence was always someone who I felt very attached too. Perhaps if I had been born a century earlier I might have led a similar life. He was an excellent cartographer for the army and as my blog shows, I have always liked my maps (Mappa Mundi, World of Maps, Earth from Space and others) . Lawrence didn’t really feel comfortable with his normal day to day life and found he preferred living in the desert. He liked the different cultures and felt he could be more himself there. He was incredibly well educated and felt himself not particularly tied to any single place or country. He also disliked attention or being told what to do by his superiors, especially if they didn’t understand things as he did. Oh how similar we are.
I was fortunate to follow in Lawrence’s footsteps with a few touristy diversions from Cairo across the Sinai desert. I saw the ships passing through the canal as shown in the famous shot of a boat seemingly travelling through sand dunes although unlike Lawrence I passed under the canal through a modern road tunnel.
I didn’t try or really think of going to Saudi Arabia at the time so met up again with Lawrence at ‘Aqaba in Jordan. Due to the severe lack of rain, junk doesn’t get overgrown by greenery or dissolve away by rain and mud so anything that doesn’t get carried away or sink beneath the sand, stays there for ever. It is still possible to see some of the wrecked trains that Lawrence blew up on the Hejaz railways. Totally ruined and skeletal but there nonetheless.
Further north is the legendary beautiful area of Wadi Rum where much of Lawrence of Arabia is set. Here I spent some time with Bedouin nomads. I made some great friends and on recognising their tribe through their clothing I was taken to heart and welcomed as part of the family as well.
I was spending my time with the descendants of Auda Abu Tayi. They are wonderful people, honest, uncomplicated, fun, loyal and keen to share their lives with someone from the west who wants to truly get to know them and not just do the tourist bit. They still love their guns too. I ate with them, slept with them, travelled with them, got ill with them and did slightly stupid things with them. The desert there is amazing and beautiful and could only have been more unspoilt 100 years ago but even so it only takes a few minutes walk before you leave the 21st Century behind.
Finally I went up via other non-Lawrence sites such as Petra and Kerak past the Dead Sea to Amman and north to the border with Syria, I didn’t visit Dera although it was only a short drive way and instead went east away from the relative green of the Dead Sea area and towards Iraq.
Whereas some of the places near Wadi Rum are a little Lawrence mad, such as Lawrences Well, Lawrences house etc Azraq is much more off the tourist map. Here in the ruined castle where Lawrence over wintered, you can still see the charred ceilings from his fires he lit to keep warm every night.
And so that was that, I had pretty much been everywhere where Lawrence had ventured. It was a journey of a lifetime and I would love to discuss it with him but sadly Lawrence died shortly after returning to England. Not wanting a life of fame and glory as he was surely entitled too, he left the army and joined the fledging RAF at a very lowly rank making every effort to avoid fame and responsibility, before being killed in a motorcycle accident.
It had never occurred to me to visit some of the places in England that were familiar to him and there are still one or two locations to visit. However I found the most important place when I wasn’t really expecting it. On a family holiday in the beautiful county of Dorset in southern England we visited the Bovington Tank Museum, the worlds largest collection of tanks. For anyone interested in tanks then this is the place for you. There are hundreds and hundreds of them from every country and you can go in them and often see them in action as the museum is still adjacent to a large and active army base.
However more importantly to this tale we noticed that about 2 miles up the road was Clouds Hill Cottage. This is the cottage that Lawrence came to live in when he was in the RAF at the adjoining military base. He bought it in a slightly ruinous state and planned to develop it to enjoy a life of anonymity and contemplation. Excitedly we drove there not knowing if it would be open but having our National Trust cards with us, we knew we could get in free if it was.
What a hidden gem his cottage is. Exactly as it was when he lived, it seems like Lawrence has just popped out for a walk. Hidden from the road by dense bush and woodland, the cottage is tiny and not at all fitting a great historical figure but totally in keeping with Lawrence. I could easily relate to his choice of leaving the world behind and living a simple quiet lifestyle. The house is simply furnished and has no heating as Lawrence was still in the process of improving the house when died. Upstairs was a marvellous little room with a sofa, writing table with typewriter and also grammar-phone. A very wondrous chill-out zone. Downstairs the sole living room was largely a library, I like that.
There was a guest book which I signed, it had signatures from people across the world, America, Canada, Australia, Europe and more than a few Arabic names and comments. I am sure Lawrence would have been gratified if not slightly embarrassed. I signed my name directly under some Arabic script. Despite all the wars and problems in the last 100 years, it seems that many people in the region still love Lawrence and are proud of how he inspired and fought for them.
It had never occurred to me to look to see where Lawrence was buried. Of course he had a huge memorial service in St. Pauls Cathedral in London but it is not the practice in the U.K. for all great and famous people to be buried in London, many wish to avoid the lights of the big city and be buried where they feel most at home. Such was the case with Lawrence, whilst entering his house I had heard an official tell some other visitors that Lawrence was buried a few miles away but only vaguely heard the complicated directions and the official was no longer there when we left. It was getting dark but we decided to look for his grave.
We drove off through the woods taking seemingly random turns and after 15 minutes magically came to a village which I remember being mentioned, the village of Moreton. A tiny place in the middle of nowhere, beautiful, small and tranquil except for hens and goats wondering around and noisily voicing their displeasure as we walked through their backyard. After almost driving into a weir we parked the car and set out on foot. Initially we headed in totally the wrong direction until a kindly local told us to do a u-turn. We came to the church and went inside.
It was a beautiful church but not entirely what we expected as it had been accidentally hit by a German bomb in WW2 and had lost its stained glass windows. Instead the building was full of etched crystal glass windows. It was a very unexpected marvel and made the building full of light and beauty. Hardly wanting to draw ourselves away we went out into the churchyard. Being some of experts on the layout of church yards and having a good idea what a military grave looked like we went outside. It wasn’t a big yard and we looked everywhere. Knowing that Lawrence didn’t want publicity I wondered if he had decided to have an unmarked grave but surely this wouldn’t be the case as his funeral was attended by the great and good including Sir Winston Churchill and his wife.
We went to go back to the church but met someone who guessed what we were looking for and told us we would find Lawrence at a separate small cemetery a few hundred yards up the road. We walked on with our hopes once more risen and found the entrance to an even smaller cemetery. Towards the back though clearly visible from the front was the tell-tale sign of a limestone grave stone and it belongs to Lawrence. I had finally caught up with him after, hundreds of hours of movie watching, dozens of hours of reading, some serious sunstroke, diarrhoea and the odd close shave in the desert. 35 years and thousands of miles later here he was.
Sad as it was, I felt glad for him that he had spent his last years in such a beautiful peaceful place. I can imagine it must have felt like heaven to him and what a beautiful place to buried also. Considering we had never intended to even visit his house, but to then do so and feel even more connected to him before then going on this historic goose-chase through the woods only to find him in this beautiful setting was quite emotional. I felt my journey was over, I had followed in Lawrences footsteps from Africa all the way back to England and had spent time at the places he had seen and with the grandchildren of the people he had known. I’d been inside his head and he in mine.
I thought of the huge multi-decade journey this trip had taken me and of all the people I had met and how Lawrence had inspired me in many ways and of lots of other things. We said a little prayer, took some photos and left feeling fulfilled in more ways than one.