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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 countryside.

"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 with inkwells."

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 people."

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 approached.

"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 people well."

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 the village.

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 Cotswold cloth-making.

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 ceilings".

"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 back door.

"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 anywhere else.

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 never solved."

Finally, we lean on a five-bar gate, and gaze out over a sunny meadow.

"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

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