|Laurie, Rosie and Me
Slad, near Painswick, Gloucestershire
by Sarah Shuckburgh
As a schoolboy, Jim Fern was
one of the characters in Laurie Lee's classic
autobiography. Now 84, he takes Sarah Shuckburgh on a
memory-filled walk through the book's timeless
"Little Jim Fern, sitting beside me, looks up from his
ruined pages. 'Ain't you a good scholar! I wish I was a
good scholar like thee.' He gives me a sad, adoring look."
- From Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee
Today, Little Jim Fern looks neither sad nor adoring as
he regales me with his memories of Laurie Lee. Still fit and
lithe at 84, with snowy hair and much-polished shoes, he is
a cheerful raconteur and, ironically, something of a
scholar. In retirement, Jim has become an authority on the
Gloucestershire village of Slad and an expert on Slad's most
illustrious literary son, Laurie Lee, with whom he played
and went to school in the 1920s.
This quiet Cotswold village is the setting for Laurie Lee's
matchless childhood autobiography, which traces in
exquisitely poetic language his memories of growing up in a
crowded but fatherless family, and of life in a narrow
valley almost entirely cut off from the wider world. I have
come to Slad to be guided by Jim Fern to the places
described in Laurie Lee's book.
Our tour begins at the village school, scene of Jim's
literary claim to fame. "This building's just as it was 80
years ago," he begins, in a gentle Cotswold burr. "Laurie's
brother Tony and I started in the Infants, with a slate and
screeching chalk, an abacus and a bit of leather with holes
in, for practising lacing. At five, we moved through the
wooden partition to the Big Room, and joined Laurie,
chanting tables and writing with steel nibs, at wooden desks
He pulls some faded photographs from his rucksack. "There's
Laurie. That's me on the right, the dark-haired boy behind
Betty. Betty still lives locally in Stroud. She always hated
Laurie for telling that lie about what she would do for a
wine gum." Jim grins. "What's more, she never did like wine
gums! That's Sammy - he never forgave Laurie for mentioning
his bandy legs. Laurie wasn't always very kind about
Until the 19th century, Slad was no more than a cluster of
weavers' cottages above a millpond. The first road
penetrated the valley in 1801, but only when the church and
school were built in the 1830s did the hamlet become a
village. Laurie Lee describes it as a scattering of some 20
to 30 houses down the south-east slope of a valley and today
it is scarcely different, the steep hillsides still "rich in
pasture, and the crests heavily covered in beechwoods".
"Living down here was like living in a bean-pod," quotes
Jim. "Our horizon of woods was the limit of our world." Jim
recalls his childhood in an evocative mixture of Laurie
Lee's words and his own and the pages of Cider With Rosie
spring to life.
"You'll have to use your imagination," he grins, as a car
roars past. "This road was white chalk-dust in summer, and
mud in winter. Only the squire had a car. Black-plumed
horses pulled the hearse, steam wagons brought stone for
building, and in 1926, the tar wagon came up with a firebox
underneath and we got our first tarred road.
"Our favourite was the timber wagon - when we heard it, we
would scamper down the hill and ride up on the beam at the
back - and we had to be back before the school bell rang. It
was safe to play in the road, then, of course."
We stride up the stony track to the church. "This path is
completely unchanged but in those times, we had nights of
total blackness. Walking up here in pitch dark to choir
practice made our hair stand on end."
Across the road from the church is the Woolpack pub, where
villagers once awaited the open-topped charabancs for their
annual outing and where, in latter years, Laurie Lee spent
much time, often pretending to be someone else if strangers
"Laurie always wanted to be buried between the church and
the pub and he is," explains Jim, as I read the four lines
of gentle, touching verse above his grave.
"Laurie wrote poetry before he wrote prose," Jim continues.
"He was a good poet. But his behaviour wasn't always good.
He was sometimes a difficult man. At the pub, he'd be too
lazy to get up to order another drink, so he'd phone the bar
on his mobile and ring off before they answered, so he
didn't have to pay for the call. He didn't always treat
We gaze down at a rose-covered 17th-century cottage, where
three generations of Jim's family were raised. Nearby,
Laurie Lee's last home in the village - where his widow
still lives - is where Jim himself was born during a
blizzard one Sunday night in April 1918.
He points to the tiny upstairs window which was his parents'
bedroom. The Cotswold stone walls are now hidden behind
incongruous wooden cladding and high fences, which protect
Cathy Lee's privacy, but for a while attracted criticism in
We pass the home of the real Rosie, whose mother Lizzie was
the midwife at Jim's birth.
"She really was called Rosie but she wasn't called Burdock.
I know her real surname of course but Laurie never told, so
I won't either. She was a high-spirited country girl, not a
temptress." Jim pauses mischievously. "I went nutting with
Rosie once . . . But no, I won't go into that . . ."
And now we are looking down at Laurie Lee's childhood home.
Not much has changed since Laurie first saw it as a
three-year-old - the precipitous bank is still a mass of
nettles "rank with sharp odours", with daisies, cow parsley,
ferns, "snow-clouds of elder-blossom, and grasses, each
blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight".
The T-shaped house was originally a Tudor manor house but by
1919 it had decayed and become three dwellings in one. Slad
had declined by 1900, coal and steam having long closed the
water mills and caused the eclipse, after five centuries, of
The Lees lived in the down-stroke of the T and the
top-stroke was divided between two ancient rivals,
wine-brewing Granny Wallon - "Er-Down-Under" - and
snuff-taking Granny Trill - "Er-Up-Atop".
Laurie Lee changed the names of the two old ladies but Jim
confirms that all the stories are true. The grannies hated
each other. Dressed alike in black muslin dresses,
candlewick shawls and tall poke bonnets with trailing
ribbons, they never spoke but communicated "by means of
boots and brooms - jumping on floors and knocking on
"Granny Trill died first," says Jim. "The church was packed
for her funeral and all went well till the lowering of the
coffin, when Granny Wallon, ribbons flying, her bonnet awry,
fought her way to the grave, screeching: 'It's a lie. That
baggage were younger'n me. Ninety-five she says! Ain't
more'n 90, an' I gone on 92. It's a crime you letting 'er go
to 'er Maker got up in such brazen lies!
Dig up the old devil! Get her brass plate off!' " Jim
chuckles. "Two weeks later, Granny Wallon was dead - nothing
to keep her alive, no bite, no fury. But Granny Wallon
raised a score of children and she has a
great-great-grandchild still living in the village today."
We slither down the grassy path, past brambles, to the Lee's
"I spent a lot of time here as a child," Jim reminisces.
"Sometimes I'd go indoors for bread and dripping. You've
never seen anywhere so untidy as that kitchen. There was
nowhere to put a cup down. They'd eat 10 loaves of bread a
day and not much else. Laurie's mother, Annie Lee, had seven
children to feed, and four weren't even hers. They were one
of the poorest families in the village. Her husband sent her
£1 a week but he had another woman in London. I never once
saw him and neither did Laurie in those days."
Now we stroll on between houses of honey-coloured stone. "We
boys came to that door selling blackberries. I can see us
now - it seems like yesterday. Their donkey stepped on my
toe. And this pump is where we'd have to come if the spring
at our end of the village dried up, as it sometimes did."
On a distant hillside sits Joseph's farm, the final
destination for the boy carol singers, a dark and difficult
walk lit only by candles in jam jars.
"It's hard to imagine snow on a summer's day like this,"
says Jim, paraphrasing Laurie Lee. "But in these rough, bare
lanes, open to all winds, sheep were buried and wagons lost.
Huddled together, we tramped in one another's footsteps,
powdered snow blew into our screwed-up eyes, the candles
burnt low, and some blew out altogether. But when we got to
Joseph's house, we sang a carol about the other Joseph, and
we'd be given roast apples, hot mince-pies and sometimes a
sixpenny piece, a lot of money in those days."
Down the lane, past tangled hedgerows, we come to Jones's
pond, bubbling with life in summer - with moorhens,
dabchicks, new-hatched frogs and dragonflies - but frozen
hard in winter - "black and flat as a tray, with hanging
branches of willow manacled in the ice".
This pond also witnessed the suicide of poor naked Miss
Flynn, the solitary, pre-Raphaelite beauty, "cool as a
churchyard angel", whose "mute, distressed, life-abandoned
image" stayed with Laurie Lee all his life. We stare at the
dark water, "at the lily roots coiled deep down, at the
spongy weeds around them".
"That's where she lay," quotes Jim. "A green foot under. It
was ages before we dared play down here again. Fred the
milkman, who discovered the body, saw another death in
Stroud the very next day and everybody shunned him after
that. We crossed roads when we saw him coming. No one would
speak to him or look him in the eyes, and he wasn't allowed
to deliver milk any more. Superstition was rife in those
days. We're talking about a time when the village was the
world and its happenings all we knew."
Now we follow a winding lane up hill. Jim has long legs and
is amazingly sprightly - he never draws breath, even on the
steepest slopes. As we stride along, Jim tells me about his
life. Apart from six years away in the RAF during the Second
World War - "chairborne, not airborne" - he has never lived
We pause at the stone cross where in the book boastful
Vincent, back from Auckland flaunting a sheaf of pound notes
and a gold watch, got the beating he deserved. This is the
wall he was thrown over after he left the pub on that stormy
winter night. And that's where he was found the next
morning, frozen to death in the snow.
"Everyone knew who'd done it," muses Jim. "But the crime was
Finally, we lean on a five-bar gate, and gaze out over a
"We'd all help bring in the hay after school," says Jim.
"Our pay was tenpence an hour." He pauses. "And this field
is where Laurie drank cider with Rosie, under a half-loaded
hay-wagon - where he took his first bite at the apple, never
to be forgotten, or ever tasted again."
Like that afternoon a lifetime ago, today is "a motionless
day of summer, creamy, hazy and amber-coloured, with the
beech trees standing in heavy sunlight as if clogged with
wild wet honey". We agree that Laurie Lee's valley is as
beautiful in real life as it is in his prose.
On our way back through the village, we come across Jack -
for many years a drinking companion of Laurie Lee's -
sitting outside his cottage, with a glass of whisky. Like
his father and grandfather before him, Jack keeps a
wonderful garden with beehives, geese and vegetables.
"Afternoon, Jack," says Jim. "Afternoon, Jim," shouts back
Jack. "Telling more fibs, are you?"
"They taught gardening at school in the old days, didn't
they, Jack?" "That's true, Jim," yells Jack. "Unlike most of
what you've told this young lady."
"In those days, every cottage had a black-soil garden, with
a washing line and a well," continues genial Jim. "But yours
is the last one left, isn't it Jack?" "They don't grow veg
any more, do 'em?" agrees Jack. "That bit's true, miss. But
don't believe a word of anything Jim tells you. Not a scrap
of truth. Pack of lies."
But I believe every word from the scholarly Little Jim Fern.
• For guided walks round Cider With Rosie country contact J
D (Little Jim) Fern (01453 753104) or the Stroud tourist
office (01453 760900).
Where to stay
The best base is Painswick, an enchanting village of narrow,
winding streets and honey-coloured stone houses. A footpath
leads across country from Painswick to Slad. The Painswick
Hotel (01452 812160; www.painswickhotel.com) is an
award-winning country-house hotel five minutes' drive from
Slad; double rooms from £85. Bedrooms with four-posters cost
£190 a night.
First published by the Telegraph