As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning
by Laurie Lee
Published by Penguin (1969)
“Go where you will. It’s all yours.
You asked for it. It’s up to you now.
You’re on your own, and nobody’s going to stop you.”
Laurie Lee’s account of his journey through England and across Spain in the 1930s is a classic and makes the top 20 in World Hum’s list of most celebrated travel books as well as The Telegraph’s top 20 travel books of all time.
Following the success of his childhood memoir, Cider With Rosie, Laurie Lee was a best selling author as well as a poet, musician, artist and scriptwriter by the time As I Walked Out was published in 1969 as the second part of his autobiographical trilogy.
In an interview with Phillip Oakes for the Sunday Times in 1969, Lee commented:
If you’ve written one reasonably good book, why try to follow on? There’s no real point. You’re not proving anything. The only argument for it is that what I have to write seems to fall naturally into a trilogy. Childhood, then discovering Spain, then the civil war. (published in the Sunday Times on 30 May 2010)
As Robert Macfarlane noted In an article for the Guardian in 2014, there are similarities between As I Walked Out and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Time of Gifts. Both journeys began within a year or so of each other, 1934 and 1933, respectively. War awaited both authors at the end of their experiences and both accounts were published later in the authors’ lives; As I Walked Out in 1969 with Time of Gifts following in 1977.
In As I Walked Out, Lee describes how he left his village of Slad in Gloucestershire to busk his way along England’s south coast before stopping to work in London. After several months in London, Lee departed for Vigo in Spain where he began a six month journey on foot across the plains and sierras to Madrid and then on to Andalusia before reaching Almunecar as the storm of the Civil War was about to break.
In its review of As I Walked Out in 1970, the English Journal concluded that “This is a book for an adolescent its itchy feet and a bent for vicarious living” (English Journal, 1 May 1970).
In a sense that is fair. Writing these memoirs was, in Lee’s words, “a celebration of living and an attempt to hoard its sensations”. What he achieves is a vivid evocation of youth, loss of innocence and youthful travel. Lee’s style is poetic but eloquent and economical rather than florid or ornate. His phrases are well turned and he uses striking imagery.
Lee recalls what it was like to be young, to be in no hurry and feel no pressure (“never in my life had I felt so fat with time”). He remembers his youthful energy and physical strength and describes them in a way that only someone who has started to miss them could.
Lee also captures the pleasures of travel: the thrill of waking up in a place which holds no memories and has an unfamiliar language and likening it to being reborn; the unease of arriving somewhere at night; the unexpected moments which make one think of and miss home; the innocent ignorance and the feeling of independence and the satisfaction of having no plan but choosing one’s own path and making a journey happen.
At the centre of this is Lee the wandering violinist, the “prince of the road, the lone ranger“ developing a “taste for the vanity of solitude”, and it never occurring to him that others may have done this before him.
By the time As I Walked Out was published, Lee’s Spain was already changing. Retracing his journey for the BBC in the 1960s he lamented:
I remember Segovia as a place of ragged almost oriental poverty, where a stranger’s face was a matter of unusual interest. Tourism has changed all that. But the old relationship between host and visitor has been corrupted and cheapened. Tourism always corrupts and no country can stand against it.
Lee realised how fortunate he had been, reflecting in the book that:
I was a young man whose time coincided with the last years of peace, and so was perhaps luckier than any generation since. Europe at least was wide open, a place of casual frontiers, few questions and almost no travellers.
Laurie Lee and As I Walked Out were the subject of an episode of Travellers’ Century, a BBC Four documentary series presented by Benedict Allen:
You can also hear Laurie Lee reading an extract from the book describing life and lunchtime in Madrid here or read how his journey has inspired others to make the same walk, here, here and most recently, P D Murphy’s As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee.
As I Walked Out One Midsummers Morning is also available in ebook format as part of Red Sky at Sunrise, which contains all there instalments of Laurie Lee’s autobiography: