We were not expecting to come across T.E. Lawrence when we embarked on the latest leg of our Lea Valley walk - from Chingford to Enfield lock - on a grey February morning. The muddy tracks through Epping Forest were about as far from the scorching sands of Arabia as it is possible to get. But when we reached our first stop – the Meridian obelisk at the top of Pole Hill – there was a memorial plaque. It recalls how the 18 acres of surrounding land "...was once owned by T.E. Lawrence, the famous soldier, writer and scholar. It was here that he originally intended to erect a house with his friend Vyvyan Richards in which to print fine books including his classic 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom'. This never came to pass although until 1922, Richards lived here in a hut called Cloisters.”
Lawrence seems to have continued to consider settling there – in 1923 he wrote to a friend: “It’s my ambition to live there and read again.” In the end, though, he sold the property to the Conservators of Epping Forest for exactly what he had paid for it – £3,500. Cloisters was removed to the Conservators' Yard at Loughton, where it remains as a storeroom for forestry equipment.
The obelisk itself is of pink granite, and was erected in 1824 on the Greenwich Meridian "to indicate the direction of true north from the transit telescope of the Royal Observatory". The Greenwich Meridian was changed in 1850, which meant zero longitude now passes 19 feet to the east of the pillar, so a second, smaller one – in fact an Ordnance Survey trig point – now stands in the correct spot. The name, Pole Hill, has nothing to do with poles: the land once belonged to St Paul's Cathedral, and the name is a corruption of this.
After this high point, the walk was a mixture of forest, farms and river valley. We slithered down the hill, picked our way through squelchy mud at the bottom, and then began climbing Yardley Hill. Suddenly the sun came out, and the morning was transformed.