Gloucestershire’s genius loci

Down in the Valley: A Writer’s Landscape, Laurie Lee, Penguin, 2019

Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie (1959) is a classic of English rural writing, lauded for its evocation of Gloucestershire’s Slad Valley in the early 20th century, and the last days of an intensely-experienced, millennium-old way of life. This slender but well-conceived volume revisits some of these scenes and themes, and adds new ones, through interviews conducted with Mr Lee in 1994, three years before his death.

We find ourselves again at the village pond with its swimming children and coots, and the corpse of poor suicidal Miss Flynn – exploring old ways across the hilltops, made impassable by ‘fallen trees and rocks, and abandoned cavaliers, cannon, armour’ – carousing in the Woolpack – superstitiously shunning slumped cottages, and sinister gibbets. We also encounter more of the valley’s eccentric inhabitants and some of Mr Lee’s closely-observed and unpretentious poetry: ‘

And the partridge draws back his string / and shoots like a buzzing arrow / over grained and mahogany fields.

The author embraced modernity even as he regretted its ravages. He relished James Joyce, jazz, travel, and even war, volunteering to fight Franco – but he was always aware of the brooding presences underlying daily life. Beneath Slad’s slopes lay deep sleepers, from the Stone Age to people he’d known in his youth. Behind the spinking blackbirds, stridulating grasshoppers and strains of Elgar, he heard timeless stories told in West Country dialect or the tones of the King James Bible. He read great books in the greenwood, and when he drank summer’s cider with the blooming Rosie, felt rooted in an English Arcadia, at one with the ancients.

This is a charming tribute to a genial and gifted author who blended darkness with light, and realism with romance, to superb effect, in the service of a special place – and all of England.

The review first appeared in the 22nd January 2020 issue of Country Life, and is reproduced with permission

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