54 ❘ MOTOR CYCLE NEWS APRIL 16, 2008
In search of Lawrence of Arabia’s favourite roads
T E Lawrence achieved many great things during his celebrated life, but nothing gave him more pleasure than riding one of his beloved Broughs
TE Lawrence was a soldier, spy, archaeologist, author and motorcycle enthusiast. Peter Henshaw seeks out his old haunts andy.downes @bauerconsumer.com
NOTHER bend: and I have the honour of one of E n g l a n d ’s straightest and fastest roads. The burble of my exhaust unwound like a long cord behind me. Soon my speed snapped it, and I heard only the cry of the wind which my battering head split and fended aside… I pull the throttle right open…” (TE Lawrence, The Mint). The place? A15 between Sleaford and Lincoln. The bike? A Brough Superior SS100. The rider? TE Lawrence, better known to most of us as Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence was many things: soldier, spy, intellectual, aircraft mechanic and archaeologist, but it’s clear from that quote that he was a biker as well. He owned no less than seven Broughs in the 1920s and ’30s, all of them a cross between a
Hayabusa, a Buell and a Ducati 1098, if that makes sense. A Brough was the fastest thing on the road in its day, capable of 100mph when the average 250 struggled to reach half that speed and rickety Austin Sevens (35mph on a good day) littered the highways. Bikes were the one luxury Lawrence allowed himself. He was a vegetarian, didn’t drink or smoke, and was celebate by choice, although they say one Nancy Astor rode pillion with him now and again. He achieved fame as Lawrence of Arabia, was a personal friend of Winston Churchill and the playwright George Bernard Shaw (another Brough nut), yet he hated publicity. He sought obscurity by joining the army and the RAF under an assumed name. He was a complex character. One thing’s for sure, he would have appreciated Moto Guzzi’s Le Mans, a big, beefy V-twin with little
concession to comfort, just like the Broughs. Lawrence liked lineage and, today, as I slip on a rucksack and prepare to head up the Fosse Way to Lincolnshire, I know that this was his sort of bike. I’m on the trail of Lawrence of Arabia, tracking down the life of this troubled man and riding the same roads he did.
It’s perfect for the Guzzi, which gallops along at a relaxed 3500rpm. By Lawrence standards, I’m dawdling. From his cottage in Dorset, he could make London in a couple of hours. That would be a respectable time today, but was a quite a feat in the 1930s, with no motorways,
‘A Brough was the fastest thing on the road in its day’ I don’t know if Lawrence ever rode the Fosse Way, now a mixture of country lanes, A roads, B roads and green lanes that stretch from Lincoln to south Devon, but he’d have liked it. Especially the bit in Warwickshire where it leaves the busy A429, running arrow straight and little-used up to the A5.
dodgy surfaces and the road shared with unlit horse and carts. Of course, what helped was that Lawrence could ride a bit. He had George Brough fit smaller wheels than standard, so he could get both feet flat on the ground – he was only 5ft 5in. tall. “It is the silkiest thing I have ever ridden,” he wrote to Brough about one of the bikes. “At 50 she is a dream. Just popples along so mildly that I can count the revs.”
The big Guzzi proved to be the perfect bike for tracking down Lawrence’s old haunts
Lawrence was illegitimate. His father was a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, who ran away with the family governess – they never married. As for their second son, he was never going to settle for a suit-and-tie career. Studying archaeology at Oxford, he travelled to the Middle East, ostensibly on a dig, but really to suss out the influence of Germany and Turkey in what was already seen as a vital strategic area.
By the time WWI broke out he was fluent in Arabic, working as an intelligence officer whose job it was to encourage the Arabs to rise up against Turkish rule. It has become legendary how the dashing Lawrence of Arabia helped the Arabs successfully kick the Turks out of their homeland. And how, after the war, the British reneged on their promise to grant them self-government. Depressed by this betrayal, Lawrence had a virtual nervous breakdown, and ended up penniless on the streets of London. But he made use of his top brass contacts and joined the RAF under an assumed name. It was at RAF Cranwell, with his beloved Brough nearby, that Lawrence finally found peace. And it was on the road that he approached nirvana. This part of south Lincolnshire is real biking country, where the roads are fast but not busy. Good for airfields too – the RAF have been flying here for decades, and you can take a tour of the derelict sites. Inside the Cranwell Aviation Heritage Centre I met a dapper looking old chap with a clipped moustache and a neatly pressed blazer. “A friend of mine served with Lawrence in the RAF,” he told me. “Said he was a nice chap; got on well in the ranks.” Les Steadman is 81, and used to ride a bike: “Had a motorbike after serving in the RAF, an Ariel Square Four, then a Lambretta of all things. Did 75,000 miles on that, never had a prang.” I climb back onto the Guzzi and head east on the
It’s easy to get to TE Lawrence’s old Dorset haunts by bike. From Dorchester, take the A352 (signed Warmwell/ Wareham) and after five miles turn left (B3390, Crossways). Another five miles or so on the right you’ll find Clouds Hill, Bovington Camp (the tank museum is
worth a visit, with a display about Lawrence) and Lawrence’s grave at Morton. Useful contacts: ■ Greater Lincoln Airfield Trail: visits current RAF and disused airfields, plus museums (www. visitlincolnshire.com) ■ Clouds Hill Cottage. Open to the public, run by
APRIL 16, 2008 MOTOR CYCLE NEWS ❘ 55
Bovington Tank Museum has a permanent Lawrence display
Lawrence’s final resting place – his grave is no grand affair
The road from Bovington to Clouds Hill, Lawrence’s final ride
the National Trust (01985843600, www.nationaltrust. org.uk) ■ Bovington Tank Museum (www.tankmuseum.co.uk) ■ Moreton Tea Rooms: lots of Lawrence memorabilia, good tea and cake (01929-463647) ■ The TE Lawrence Society: first stop for all information on the man (www.telsociety. org.uk) A17 for a few miles, then north on the A15, the road that Lawrence loved so much. There’s a series of bends before it flattens out for the final dozen or so mostly straight miles into Lincoln. This is where he famously raced a Bristol fighter plane on his Brough. “I slowed to ninety: signalled with my hand for him to overtake... Open went my throttle again. Boa [short for ‘Boanerges’ the Brough] kept level, held them, sailed ahead into the clean and lonely country…” The A15 is still a popular bikers’ road today. But there are no RAF fighters to race, and I reckon even the Guzzi would have trouble keeping up with the average 500mph jet. We crawl into Lincoln
Lawrence’s pampered Broughs lived in this thatched garage
CLOUDS HILL B3390 BOVINGTON CAMP
on the hot, sunny afternoon, where Lawrence would climb off his SS100 to have a hot chocolate and muffin at a favourite teashop. Then (if you believe his account) he’d ride on to Nottingham and Sleaford to pick up sausages, bacon and eggs, before head-
‘In speed we hurl ourselves beyond the body’ ing back to Cranwell for a fry-up with the lads. I’m not sure that a dozen eggs would have survived on the back of a rigid-frame Brough, but there you go.
Lawrence didn’t stay in Lincolnshire, though. After a spell developing fast motor launches for the RAF near Plymouth, he moved to Dorset. And that’s where we’re heading now, back down the Fosse again to Bovington, near the village of Wool. Lawrence bought a remote cottage here during a spell with the Tank Corps at nearby Bovington Camp. He was 46 and intending to retire but, of course, he couldn’t settle. In a thatched garage next to Clouds Hill, Lawrence kept the seventh and last of his Broughs. Lawrence loved the Brough so much that he’d use it to ride the mile or so into Bovington. That’s what
he was doing on May 13 1935, when, riding back to Clouds Hill, he swerved to avoid two boys on pushbikes. He lost control of the Brough and came off, suffering fatal head injuries. For six days he clung on to life in a coma, before finally passing away. Lawrence of Arabia was dead. Today, a memorial stone marks the spot, under a tree near the layby. Ever since, conspiracy theorists have had a field day. How could such an experienced rider have been killed at moderate speed on a straight, clear road? What of the mysterious black car seen heading in the opposite direction but never traced? Some say Lawrence was under surveillance by MI5 at the time; others reckon the
whole ‘accident’ was faked, so that he could slip back into vital intelligence work. But at Lawrence’s simple grave in the nearby village of Moreton, you get a different feeling. Here was a man who could only live life at top speed, whose love of bikes defined his soul. “In speed we hurl ourselves beyond the body,” he once wrote to a friend. “Our bodies cannot scale the heavens except on a fume of petrol.”
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