The midsummer morning in question was in 1934, one of those sleepy summer days between the wars. Laurie Lee grew up in an impoverished single-parent household in the Cotswolds – those early years are covered in the first book of his autobiography, Cider with Rosie. At the age of 19, "still soft at the edges," he left home to see the world. He walked down the cottage path carrying a hazel stick, a small tent, a violin, and a tin of treacle biscuits made by his mother. And he would keep walking for a year and a half, all the way to the southern coast of Spain.
When darkness came, full of moths and beetles, I was too weary to put up the tent. So I lay myself down in the middle of a field and stared up at the brilliant stars. I was oppressed by the velvety emptiness of the world and the swathes of soft grass I lay on. Then the fumes of the night finally put me to sleep—my first night without a roof or bed.
It takes him three months across Spain southwards to the sea. By the end of the first one the blisters have hardened up and he can walk without pain
Over the first two months he walks to London, taking in Portsmouth because he's never seen the sea. He sleeps in the fields, and pays his way by busking with the violin. He overwinters in London, working on a building site. And then spends all his saved up wages on a ship.
Everest, the North Pole, the 214 Wainwright summits. People who go on extreme journeys rarely offer any reason. Stuart Kettell, who pushed a Brussels sprout up Snowdon with his nose in 2014, did raise £5000 for the Macmillan Cancer charity. "People definitely think I'm mad, and I'm beginning to think it myself," he said as he coaxed his small brassica up what seems to be the Llanberis path (I guess Crib Goch would have been pushing it…).
And Lee did have a reason for choosing Spain: his language skills. Thanks to a glamorous young woman from Buenos Aires, he knew a sentence of Spanish. Por favor dame un vaso de agua would come in very useful when he collapses with sunstroke in the wheatfields west of Valladolid. A moment anticipated even in the preliminary stroll across Salisbury Plain.
I pretended I was T. E. Lawrence [of Arabia], engaged in some self-punishing odyssey, burning up my youth in some pitiless Hadhramaut, eyes narrowing to the sand-storms blowing out of the wadis of Godalming in a mirage of solitary endurance.
It takes him three months across Spain southwards to the sea. By the end of the first one the blisters have hardened up and he can walk without pain. He'll face an attack by wolves (but perhaps they were just wild dogs), heatstroke, bedbugs the size of beetles, two mountain ranges and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. He busks in the streets, in cafés, and once in a brothel. Meanwhile meeting up with vicious National Guards, gay waiters, lovelorn landladies and a slightly well-known poet called Roy Campbell.
Laurie Lee was a poet himself, though better known for his three books of autobiography – the third one, A Moment of War, describes his return to Spain to join the International Brigade fighting Franco. As I Walked Out is a beautiful book about a pretty harsh journey.
Enough of this excremental walking. Holy Mother of God, give the young man a little drink. If he lives, and still wishes to go to the city [Valladolid], we will take him in the car.
Por favor… Please would you give me a glass of water
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