Paul Murphy traces author Laurie Lee’s footsteps in Spain and Cornwall

When Paul Murphy began his Masters in Professional Writing at Falmouth University, he had no idea it would lead him along the same paths trodden by the much-loved writer and poet, Laurie Lee, 75 years earlier.

Lee’s most famous work, Cider With Rosie, chronicles his childhood in Gloucestershire and is the first in a trilogy of memoirs. In the second, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, the author takes the reader on a densely descriptive journey through 1930s Spain on the eve of the Spanish Civil War; while in the third, A Moment Of War, Lee returns to Spain a few years later to join the International Brigade and fight for freedom.

“I read As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning when I was 19, and it had a huge impact on me at that age,” Paul recalls. “Ever since, I harboured a fantasy of doing the journey myself one day. Lee’s account brought Spain vividly back to life for a generation of readers in the 1970s and, like so many others at the time, I read the book and dreamed of ‘walking out’ in his footsteps down those white, dusty roads, lined by orange groves, all the way to Seville.”

Coming to a difficult turn of events in his own life, Paul decided to move to Cornwall for 18 months. Here he researched and retraced Lee’s footsteps as part of his Masters dissertation. His ensuing account, As I Walked Out Through Spain In Search Of Laurie Lee, was published on June 26, 2014: the centenary of the author’s birth.

During his research, Paul discovered that between journeys to Spain, Lee had taken a trip to Cornwall that is said to have changed his life forever. Visiting friends in the area, he sauntered down to Church Cove, Gunwalloe on August 23, 1937, playing his violin as he is known for doing along his travels to earn money on street corners. It was here that he met Lorna Wishart, the youngest of the Garman sisters who were famed for their many love affairs with writers, poets and artists of the time.

When the pair met by the coast, Lorna was holidaying nearby with her husband and two young sons, but this didn’t stop her from embarking on a passionate six-year affair with Lee, during which they had an illegitimate child together. The affair ended when she left him for artist Lucian Freud, but it was Lorna who propelled the unknown and penniless wanderer’s career as a poet.

Valerie Grove, who reissued her biography – Laurie Lee: The Well-Loved Stranger – for his centenary, said: “He wore her signet ring until the day he died. Lorna had changed his life: she was the reason that a country boy without money, social status, education or contacts (but possessing artistic gifts and boyish charm) came to mingle on equal terms with the foremost poets and artists of the 1940s and 1950s.”

Lee’s return to Spain to fight in the civil war is believed to have been largely spurred on by his desire to impress Lorna, who bade him a passionate farewell in France. In the midst of writing his dissertation in 2012, Paul realised that if he headed to Church Cove on August 23, it would be exactly 75 years to the day since the fateful encounter between the pair.

“Sitting on the rocks in the same spot that Laurie and Lorna met 75 years before was fascinating,” he says. “I wrote the pivotal chapter of my book there, and it was quite an eerie feeling, being so connected to them in this way. Not long after, I myself returned to Spain as Lee had done and described in A Moment Of War, completing my full journey in his footsteps.”

As I Walked Out Through Spain In Search Of Laurie Lee offers fresh insights into Lee’s journeys through a greatly troubled Spain, against Paul’s colourful portrayal of the country today – and the unchanged landscape at Gunwalloe Church Cove. The book is available in bookshops and online, and you can find out more about Paul on his blog. www.thelittlesummerofthequince.wordpress.com