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For most people “Lawrence of Arabia” means David Lean’s epic 1962 film starring Peter O’ Toole as the eponymous enigma: a film that won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. The film purports to tell the story of one of the most mysterious and colourful figures in the pantheon of these islands, Col. T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, or “El Aurens” as the Arabs knew him. But, however mysterious, Lawrence was a real person, so on a sunny Friday afternoon in spring my wife and I set off to Purbeck to find the real Lawrence and the Purbeck locations most closely associated with him. Thomas Edward Lawrence was the second of five illegitimate sons of an Anglo-Irish baronet, born at Tremadog, Caernarvonshire, in August 1888. Lawrence was a scholar, linguist and archaeologist, knowledgeable about the Near East, and the First World War found him operating as an interpreter in the Department of Intelligence; however, within a very short time his personality and character raised him to prominence. Almost single-handed, Lawrence engineered a revolt of the disparate Arab tribes against the occupying Turkish forces during the First World War. The ill-disciplined and formerly disunited Arabs accepted him as a natural leader and universally acknowledged “chieftain”, and although an outsider he was able to unite them against their common enemy and lead them to victory. It was his capture of Aqaba and the surrender of the Turkish garrison there against all the odds that made his name. Lawrence’s achievement was in being able to infiltrate the “closed shop” of nomadic tribal life and reanimate the Arab revolt, which was withering on the vine until his appearance. Lawrence’s consolidation of the Arab forces and his outstanding partisan leadership made possible Lord Allenby’s triumph in Palestine and the rout of the Turkish Army. Lawrence was now able to sit at high table and In search of Lawrence of Arabia was even to make an appearance, in full Arab garb, at the Paris Peace Conference that followed the war. Lawrence lived life on the edge, so it should come as no surprise that he had at least one brush with death before the fateful accident that finally did for him. On 17th May 1919, the Handley Page Type O carrying Lawrence on a flight to Egypt crashed at the airport of Roma- Centocelle. The pilot and co-pilot were killed; Lawrence came out with a broken shoulder blade and two broken ribs. During his brief hospitalisation, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy visited him, such was the fame of this remarkable man. Our search for Lawrence began in Wareham, the gateway to the Purbecks, at the Saxon church of St. Martin’s on the Wall. Inside the church is a stone effigy of Lawrence in full Arab regalia, carved between 1935 and 1938 by his friend, the sculptor and war artist Eric Kennington. He produced illustrations for Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922) and was also one of the six pallbearers at Lawrence’s funeral. We haven’t finished with Wareham, as Lawrence loved to sit in a window seat at the Anglebury House Restaurant and Tea Room in North Street. There are two plaques next to the seat: a small brass one and a larger one, which records that “Lawrence of Arabia spent many a pleasant hour drinking coffee at this seat”. Lawrence also lived in the building for a time with the then owner. It is still possible today to partake of coffee in the same seat as Lawrence if the mood takes you. Leaving Wareham behind us, we next pitched up at the tiny village of Moreton where Lawrence is buried. If you search for his grave in the churchyard, however, you will not find it, for the churchyard was filled to capacity in 1930. The extravagantly named Henry Fetherstonhaugh-Frampton then The effigy in St. Martin’s, Wareham, and the seat in the Anglebury House Tea Room where Lawrence used to take his coffee. 56 THIS ENGLAND, Winter, 2017
Lawrence on one of his much-loved Brough Superior motorcycles and Moreton Church where his funeral service was held. bequeathed a piece of land on the west side of the Moreton to Wool road to be used as a cemetery, which was consecrated on 3rd December 1930 by the Bishop of Sherborne. Among the graves in this cemetery is that of Colonel T. E. Lawrence. Killed in an accident on his motorcycle “Boanerges” (or “Boa” for short), near his cottage Clouds Hill, his funeral took place on 21st May 1935 and was attended by a large gathering of well-known figures, including Mr. and Mrs. Winston Churchill, the King of Iraq, George Bernard Shaw (who helped Lawrence write Seven Pillars of Wisdom), the artist Augustus John who painted Lawrence in 1919, Eric Kennington, General Wavell, war poet Siegfried Sassoon, Lady Astor, Sir Ronald Storrs (an official in the British Foreign and Colonial Office who Lawrence once described as “the most brilliant Englishman in the Near East”), and Lawrence’s youngest brother Arnold. The village school provided the choir for the funeral. By coincidence the twins Walter and Harry Pitman who refuelled Lawrence’s motorcycle at Bovington immediately before his accident were also in the choir. “May was in all its magnificence when they brought his body to Moreton Church at the age of 46”, wrote Harry Ashley in Explore Dorset (Hyperion Books, 1985). The grave of Lawrence and the bier that was used at his funeral. The church today is remote and tranquil, but it’s possible to stand there in solitude and imagine a day more than threequarters of a century ago when a national hero came here to be mourned and the great and the good followed in his wake. It is a short walk from the church around the corner and across the road to Lawrence’s grave. A simple posy of lilac and forget-me-nots was laid on the grave on the day of the funeral. The gravestone reads, “To the dear memory of T.E. Lawrence, Fellow of All Souls’ College, Oxford. Born 16th August 1888. Died 19th May 1935. The hour is coming and now is when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God”. At the foot of the grave is a carved book inscribed “Dominus Illuminatio Mea” (The Lord is my light). His coffin was transported on the Frampton estate’s bier. On decamping to the tea room in Moreton (the former village school) we were astonished to find that the funeral bier is in use today as an improvised cake table. I would imagine that Lawrence would chuckle heartily if he could see this. There is also a Lawrence Room in the tea room where photographs of the funeral can be seen. After this it was time to head for Lawrence’s retirement home at Clouds Hill: “In the heart of Hardy’s great heath, surrounded by woodland and swathed by rhododendron bushes, stands a little insignificant cottage.” (Ashley) It is just over a mile from Moreton and close to Bovington Camp, home of the Armour Centre (formerly the Royal Armoured Corps Centre) and the famous Tank Museum. This spartan, humble cottage was once the home of Lawrence, the home he’d earmarked for his quiet retirement. The National Trust looks after the cottage today, which has the simple words “Nothing Matters” written in Greek over the door. Lawrence bought it when, after years of living amongst international intrigue and having been the confidant of famous men, he opted for a simpler, withdrawn life, far away from the fame and notoriety. Lawrence’s motives for voluntarily seeking a fresh identity in the lowest ranks of the RAF (Aircraftsman Shaw) have never been fully understood and mystery continued to surround him until the day he died. THIS ENGLAND, Winter, 2017 57
For all who love our green and plea
Winter 2017 . . . is a quarterly jo
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Magazine: This England