Lawrence of Arabia’s garden

Hear, hear,’ I said when I read Country Life’s Leader on historic writers’ homes (March 4). For me, Clouds Hill, T. E. Lawrence’s Dorset retreat, is the National Trust’s greatest literary possession. No other house paints so complete a portrait of an author. Lawrence leased the cottage in 1923, and paid for its refurbishment by selling the famous gold dagger he acquired during the Arab Revolt.

The greatest figures in the land trod Clouds Hill’s stony path to dine off tinned sardines and recycled tea with England’s best-known recluse. Once they had left and Elgar (a friend) had been taken off the gramophone, Lawrence alternated between literary and military life. Today, even when this hermitage is packed with tourists, the sense prevails of a private meeting with a singular and solitary man. The must of club armchairs and first editions, the gun smoke and salt air of Aqaba, the sweat and boot-blacking of Bovington Camp all seem to linger, Lawrence in spirit.

Having cheered Country Life’s editorial, I dashed my spirits by listening to someone from Defra on the radio. Rhododendrons,  I learnt, were bird flu, toxic debt and the Taliban rolled into one. Their offence was to be hosts of the disease sudden oak death. Their punishment was to be eradication, by Government diktat if necessary, and not just of feral Rhododendron ponticum, but of any member of the genus, cultivated or naturalised, rare or common, loved or despised. I thought of Lawrence again, and not just because I felt like leading an uprising.

The slopes around Clouds Hill are thick with Rhododendron ponticum. But look near the cottage, and you’ll spot a rhododendron with cerise flowers and foxy bark which is not the hated ponticum. Lovely in a quiet way, this unnamed hybrid has one of the most distinguished literary pedigrees of any garden plant. It was given to Lawrence by his friends Mr and Mrs Thomas Hardy. They obtained it from another West Country author, Eden Phillpotts, who not only wrote 18 novels about Dartmoor life, but also produced a great book on woody ornamentals My Shrubs, published in 1915.

In the first two decades of the last century, Phillpotts grew about 50 varieties of ‘the king of all flowering shrubs’ in his Devon garden and was quick to obtain new introductions from the landowners, plant hunters and nurserymen who formed the West Country rhododendron ring. It was one of these plants that joined Arabian souvenirs, drafts of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and the Brough Superior motorbike that would kill him among Lawrence’s few treasured possessions at Clouds Hill. It remains there to this day.

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In 1933, Lawrence told Florence Hardy that he was pleased that rabbits had eaten the daffodils planted by his overbearing mother: ‘Clouds Hill is no place for tame flowers.’ But when it came to rhododendrons, he was solicitude itself: ‘Only two of mine and your T. H. Eden Phillpotts one have bloomed as yet. Yours is quite picking up now, with about 20 good flowers.’

In 1930, he extended his planting to the slopes around the cottage, ordering ‘a moving forest of rhododendron trees’ to be sent from Derbyshire: ‘I understand they are the latest Tibetan and Chinese trees of all sorts of shapes & colours!’ After his death in 1935, they succumbed to drought, fire, and competition from R. ponticum, but the Hardys’ Wessex wonder survived, having been given pride of place near the house.

I was anxious that this precious plant might be lost during some ponticum purge, but Peter Preen, who manages Clouds Hill, is well aware of the Hardys’ gift and of its status as a relic. Better still, there are plans to restore the landscape to Lawrence’s original mix of rugged heath and (non-ponticum) rhododendron dell. The obvious step would be to propagate, patent and sell the solitary survivor, this plant that stole the heart of the man who stole Damascus.

A Greek tag is carved over the door of Clouds Hill Ou phrontis or ‘why worry?’. In the case of this living treasure who went from a good novelist to a great novelist and thence to the greatest adventurer of his age, we needn’t fret. So far as the West Country’s remaining rhododendrons are concerned, however, it may be time to take a leaf from Lawrence’s most famous book. Revolts can happen in gardens as well as in deserts.