Laurie Lee's poetry by post
PUBLISHED: 10:07 16 June 2014 | UPDATED: 15:27 16 June 2014
© Thousand Word Media
As Katie Jarvis discovers, there's magic in the air at Bulls Cross
Behind the trees, beside the road where cars dash blindly past, lie the ruins of an old stone cottage where once the hangman lived. He exacted lives on his swinging gibbet, warning travellers that transgressions ended in the tightening of a noose. His own life ended the night he was called from his bed to hang a man in the dark depths of inky nothingness. When the tardy sun rose, his cries echoed desolately round empty valleys. For it was his own son he’d suspended there.
If you want to travel further into the past, then leave the tarmac and follow the old drovers’ track through Frith Wood. The cattle that plodded its length, from Cheltenham to Stroud, gave Bulls Cross its name, shaping the borders and even the foliage as they tramped along with their iron-shod hooves. Then came the bleating sheep, the squealing pigs, the squabbling Christmas geese.
These are the tales of the Cotswold hills. These are the tales that Laurie Lee loved; that he collected and shaped in his writing; his poetry.
I leave the car in the layby at Bulls Cross and cross the road into the ancientness of Frith Wood, which straddles the Slad and Painswick Valleys. For 600 years, trees have covered these slopes, as the delicate wood anemone bears witness: its white stars only deign to light dusky banks that have proved their worth over centuries.
The floor is covered with pungent wild garlic – the aroma of a fine chef’s kitchen – as well as blue periwinkle, daffodil and mock orange. The latter three blooms are stragglers from a formal garden that once carpeted this ground, part of an ornate gentleman’s retreat – Pan’s Lodge – built by the grand Hyett squires of Painswick.
Pete Bradshaw of Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, guardian of these woods, is holding a tall cedar post, which he will drive deep into this soil. Over time, the weather will silver its surfaces to a gentle dove grey. But look through its Perspex window and you’ll catch a view that will never fade. For engraved onto its clear surface is April Rise, one of Laurie Lee’s most beautiful poems – favourite of his daughter, Jessy.
Beyond the curling letters of the poem, you can see some of the landscape that inspired the Cotswolds’ most famous literary biographer: past the soaring beech trees, down over the valley to Painswick village, where St Mary’s Church sits, surrounded by its yew trees.
This poetry post is one of 10 that form the new Laurie Lee Wildlife Way, a six-mile circular walk around the Slad Valley, where Cider With Rosie played out. Each post will carry one of Lee’s poems, set against the landscape that inspired them. Officially unveiled on the 100th anniversary of Laurie Lee’s birth – June 26 – the new trail has been created by the wildlife trust, and funded by the Gloucestershire Environmental Trust Company, which gives grants for the benefit of the county, using money generated by the Landfill Communities Fund. There couldn’t be a more perfect memorial, as his daughter, Jessy, agrees: “We are so deeply grateful to the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust and to all of those who made this possible,” she tells me. “A true legacy to our Laurie.”
“People can walk round this as a full trail, or just visit individual posts,” says Emma Bradshaw, another stalwart of the wildlife trust, who’s also out walking with us today. “It’s quite steep in places, but it offers the most wonderful viewpoints as it snakes around one of the most beautiful and untouched valleys in the Cotswolds.”
The trail is particularly close to the trust’s heart for two reasons. Firstly, they were overwhelmed by the support they received when they bought Tranters Hill Wood – now renamed Laurie Lee Wood – from the Lee family trust last year: almost 1,000 donations flooded in from all over the world. But the poetry walk also provides another reason for people to get out into the countryside. “Sometimes it can be difficult to talk about nature reserves and to get people interested,” Emma says. “This is a new way for us. A lot of Gloucestershire is unexplored and hidden away; people think it’s inaccessible. Yet all you need is a map and a flask of tea.
“Listen…” she says. Up above us, a skylark is calling. There are jays, robins and blackbirds. Other than that, there’s silence. “Nobody else is here; you’ve got the place to yourself.”
The tall trees around us would have been as familiar to Laurie Lee as his own front room: he probably wandered this self-same trail as a boy. The 70-ft beeches were brought over as seed, at the same time as tired soldiers were laying down their weapons after the Napoleonic Wars had drawn to a close. “The Belgian seeds produce trees that grow tall and straight, compared to our more gnarled native beeches,” Pete explains. “They’re superb for timber.
“They’re probably close to their maximum height nowadays, so they’re vulnerable to gales. But when they blow over, we leave them there – the massive root balls are great for invertebrates.”
Invertebrates such as the tiny snail Ena montana, which only favours this type of ancient wood. Unusual moths and butterflies feed off the wild flowers. A fallen log hosts mosses and lichens. Another gnarled specimen is home to bats. Death is a provider of life: “When things start to fall and rot, the lower plants and the invertebrates start using it. You get some species of fungi that won’t even emerge before the trees fall down,” Pete says.
We move on to Laurie Lee Wood, which hosts the poem The Wild Trees. Here, the steep slopes harbour violets – food plants for butterflies – bluebells and the hart’s tongue fern. Each tiny patch of ground is a mini universe: “Roman snails can live up to 12 years and not move more than 20 metres in that time,” Pete says. He and the trust are still exploring the wood’s secrets, but already they know they have white helleborine and birds’-nest orchids; there’s the big, beautiful and nocturnal rugged oil beetle, which bucks the beetle-trend with its wintry activities: “Its nymph is the parasite of a solitary bee so it has to be out in the winter to mate, to coincide with the nymph being born to jump on the back of a bee.” The rarest thing they’ve discovered is Lauria sempronii (strangely but coincidentally sharing Laurie’s name), whose only other known location is in Ebworth.
As we emerge from the woods, we make our way past the dappled edges, to the top of Swift’s Hill, where Frocester, Coaley Peak, the Severn Vale and the Forest of Dean stretch out in front. You’ll see buzzards soaring over this Cotswold peak – maybe a red kite, if you’re lucky. And as the trail is unveiled this month, the hillside will be dotted with many of the 14 species of orchid that flourish here: the green frog; the tiny musk; the pink spikey common spotted; even the purple green-winged might still be tarrying.
Over the slopes we can make out Furners Farm, whose apple trees produced the cider that sauced Laurie’s memory: it goes without saying that his poem Apples features here.
“There are supposed to be only two perry pear trees left in Slad, in two fields either side of the road,” Pete says. “The farm workers used to make the perry and get drunk on it; so all their wives and girlfriends got fed up and cut the trees down.”
If you do the whole walk, you’ll see everything that’s iconic about Gloucestershire – valleys, hills, woods, water – the Dillay brook with its brown trout and gammarus. Even, perhaps, a water shrew bobbing in and out of the banks at Snows Farm.
And you can end up at the Woolpack, where (amongst other places), you’ll find a poetry trail map. It was, of course, Laurie’s own favourite watering hole.
“I grew up in Painswick,” Pete says, “and, as lads, we’d ride across to the Woolpack on bikes. Laurie would always be in there; he’d say a brief hello. There was a settle which three old guys would sit on, with each of their names on the top. One of them was Laurie. It was his place, and you’d never dare sit there.”
A downloadable map of the Laurie Lee Wildlife Way is available from the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust website: www.gloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.uk
On June 26, during the week of Laurie Lee’s centenary, Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust are hosting an exclusive opportunity to view an exhibition of art glass, photographs and soundscapes inspired by the landscapes and wildlife of Lee’s beloved Slad Valley - and to make your very own piece of glass art!
For more information and to book, visit: www.gloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.uk/events/2014/06/26/explore-slad-valley-glass?instance=0
Performances of ‘Cider with Laurie’
Across Gloucestershire, the story of Laurie Lee’s life will be told through his own writings, compiled and edited by local author Jamila Gavin. There will be readings, live music and a tipple or two, in a cosy café-style atmosphere. Produced by the Centre for the Spoken Word and supported by Stroud Arts Festival:
Stroud Black Book Cafe: Sunday 13th July 4pm
Museum in the Park: Sunday 21st September 3pm
Kingshill House, Dursley: Saturday 4th October 8pm
All tickets will be £8, including one complimentary drink of cider/apple juice.
For more information and booking details, visit: www.sladsociety.org.uk/festival.html