In eastern Dorset, there are two National Trust properties at either end of the spectrum of gay male identity. For all the frills and frou-frou, there is Kingston Lacy, a sugary 17th century pile that was home to the Bankes family. William John Bankes (1786 to 1855) was the most famous of the family – an explorer, adventurer and politician. He filled the house with the plunder of his travels, but after being caught in 1841 having sex with a guardsman in Green Park, was banished abroad, and never returned to his beloved house.
At the other end of the spectrum is nearby Clouds Hill, a small and squat brick house, sat in the middle of a blank, bosky heathland. The reason that somewhere so plain is in the care of the National Trust is simple: Clouds Hill was the last home of T. E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”), the dashing pin-up and hero to post-Edwardian England. Lawrence’s sexuality was never in doubt: his Arab boyfriends were legion, and he wrote explicitly about his fantasies of being overpowered by strong young men. The whole house oozes a lusty, musty masculinity.
Through the 1950s and 60s, Reg and George, the couple that I write about in my book, On the Red Hill, lived in nearby Bournemouth, a relatively gay-friendly resort in the dark days of illegality. In his writing, Thomas Hardy disguised it as Sandbourne: “a fairy place suddenly created by the stroke of a wand”. The darkest days came in the early 1950s, when countless men were imprisoned, many on the evidence of blackmailers and agents provocateurs. The most notorious trial of all was of Lord Montagu and others, from a party on the nearby Beaulieu estate in the New Forest. One of those imprisoned was journalist Peter Wildeblood; his defiant memoir Against the Law helped turn the tide towards greater tolerance.