Set in the 1930s, the beginning of Lee's account describes an English countryside unravaged by the huge road network that has defaced modern Britain, as he walks the London Road. After a stint of hard work as a manual labourer in London, he decides to embark on a ship bound for Spain. Once there, he braves the torrid daytime heat of the Spanish sun as he averages twenty kilometres a day from Vigo in the north to the south coast. He manages to scrape together a living by playing his violin outside the street cafes, sleeping at night in his blanket under an open sky or in cheap, rough posadas.
Experiencing a Spain ranging from the utterly squalid to the utterly beautiful, Lee creates a story which evocatively captures the spirit and atmosphere of the towns and countryside he passes through in his own distinctive semi-poetic style. He is warmly welcomed by the Spaniards he meets and enjoys a generous hospitality even from the poorest villagers he encounters along the way.
... still followed their original tracks, drawn by a packhorse or lumbering cartwheel, hugging the curve of the valley or yielding to a promontory like the wandering line of a stream. It was not, after all, so very long ago, but no one could make that journey today. Most of the old roads have gone, and the motor car, since then, has begun to cut the landscape to pieces, through which the hunched-up traveller races at gutter height, seeing than than a dog in the ditch.
He visits Southampton and it is here that he first tries his luck at playing his violin in the streets. His apprenticeship proves profitable and, with his pockets full of change, he decides to move on eastwards, catching his first glimpse of the sea a mile outside Southampton docks. Lee makes his way along the south coast, to Chichester, where he his moved on by a policeman after playing Bless This House and on to Worthing, from where he turned inland to journey towards the capital.
As he makes his way to London, he lives on pressed dates and biscuits. He bumps into a veteran tramp, Alf, who is very streetwise and gives him a very old and battered billy can for making brew ups. Eventually, a few mornings later, Lee, coming out of a wood near Beaconsfield and sees London at last: ' - a long smoky skyline hazed by the morning sun and filling the whole of the eastern horizon. Dry, rusty-red, it lay like a huge flat crust, like ash from some spent volcano, simmering gently in the summer morning and emitting a faint, metallic roar. He decides to take the underground, and finally meets up with his American girlfriend, Cleo, who is the daughter of an American anarchist.
Living with her family in a dilapidated house on Putney Heath, Lee tries to make love to her but she is too full of her father's political ideology. Her father finds him a job as a labourer and he is able to rent a snug little room above a cafe on the Lower Richmond Road. However, he has to move on as his room is taken over by a prostitute, and ends up living with the Flynns, a Cockney family, who welcome him into the family's embrace. He lives in London for almost a year as part of a gang of wheelbarrow pushers, supplying newly-mixed cement to the builders. With money to spend, he whiles away his time wandering the London streets, scribbling poetry in his small bedroom and having occasional liaisons with some of the maids from the big houses around Putney Heath. However, once the building nears completion, he knows that his time is up and decides to go to Spain because he knows the phrase in Spanish for "Will you please give me a glass of water?". He pays £4 and takes a ship to Vigo, a port of the north-west coast of Spain.
The first half of his journey takes him from Vigo to Madrid. He has a tent, a blanket in which his violin is wrapped, and normally some fruit, bread and cheese to eat along the way. Joining up with a group of three young German musicians, he accompanies them around Vigo and then they split up outside Zamora. Passing through Toro, he watches a religious procession in which a statue of the Mother of Toro is taken around the town. Lee leaves town the next day, and gives a vivid description of the searing heat of the Spanish sun:
"The violence of the heat seemed to bruise the whole earth and turn its crust into one huge scar. One's blood dried up and all juices vanished; the sun struck upwards, sideways, and down, while the wheat went buckling across the fields like a solid sheet of copper. I kept on walking because there was no shade to hide in, and because it seemed the only way to agitate the air around me; I walked on as though keeping a vow, till I was conscious only of the hot red dust grinding like pepper between my toes."
Valladolid is 'a dark square city hard as its syllables'. It is full of beggars, cripples and beaten-down young Spanish conscripts who have nothing to do in their leisure time. If they don't have a local girlfriend, then their only recourse is to sleep with a local whore down by the river for which they pay with their cardboard boots, and so return barefooted ready for jail. The chapter ends on a sour note with his landlord's wife screaming and shouting at her husband because the Borracho has returned home drunk and tried to have sex with their daughter, Elvira.
Making his way to Segovia, Lee's feet become hardened and his Spanish is also improving after almost a month on the road. He spends only a few nights in the town because he is impatient to reach Madrid. He makes the long climb through the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains and is finally given a lift by two young booksellers in their van.
Counting London, Madrid is only the second major city he has seen. Lee feels like he has "... slipped into Madrid as into the jaws of a lion. It has a lion's breath, too; something fetid and spicy, mixed with straw and the decayed juices of meat. The Gran Via itself has a lion's roar, though inflated like a circus animal's - wide, self-conscious, and somewhat seedy, and lined with buildings like broken teeth." However, he loves the city and is impressed by the pride that its citizens feel. The city lies on a mile high plateau and is the highest capital in Europe, and there is the proverb: 'From the provinces to Madrid - but from Madrid to the sky'. He spends his time drinking wine in the cool taverns during the daytime and playing his violin in the evenings in the older part of the city, the cliffs above the Manzanares where the streets are 'intimate as courtyards, with lamp lit arches smelling of wine and woodsmoke.' He lives in a cheap posada and befriends Concha, the girl who buys his breakfast. She is a husky young widow from Aranjuez and spends her daytimes idling about, waiting for the return of her boyfriend from the Asturias. Sometimes Lee sits out the morning by rubbing fish-oil into her hair. His last night is spent on a late-night drinking binge. He starts at the Calle Echegaray, 'a raffish little lane, half Goya, half Edwardian plush, with cafe-brothels full of painted mirrors, crippled minstrels and lacquered girls' and ends up at the Bar Chicote being chatted up by a young prostitute but who leaves him when a minor bullfighter arrives with his court of gypsies. He returns drunk to his posada and is helped into bed by Concha, who makes the sign of the cross before she joins him.
The second half of Lee's journey takes him from Madrid to Altofaro on the southern coast of Spain. In Toledo, he has a touching meeting with the South African poet, Roy Campbell, who he meets with his family whilst playing his violin in the open-air cafes in the Plaza de Zocodover:
"It was the poet's saint's day, and the party had dressed in his honour and were drinking his health in fizzy pop. Campbell himself drunk wine in long shuddering gasps, and suggested I do the same. I was more than satisfied by this encounter, which had come so unexpectedly out of the evening, pleased to have arrived on foot in this foreign city in to be elected to this poet's table."
The Campbell's invite him to stay in their house which lies close to the cathedral as Mary Campbell is very spiritual. Campbell spends the daytime sleeping but comes to life in the evenings:
"During most of the daylight hours Roy lay low and slept, appearing at nightfall like some ruffled sea-bird, leaning against a pillar with his arms stretched wide as though drying his salt-wet wings. One saw him gathering his wits in great gulps of breath, and which he would be ready for anything."
After a final day of drinking with the poet, Lee makes his departure the next day and is accompanied by the poet as far as the bridge crossing the gorge of the Targus by which he will cross. By the end of September, he has reached the sea, having passed through Valdepanas, Cordova, and Seville to reach Cadiz and his tells his story in retrospect. He describes Valdepanas as 'a surprise: a small graceful town surrounded by rich vineyards and prosperous villas - a pocket of good fortune which seemed to produce without effort some of the most genial wines in Spain.' It is a very friendly town and, whilst he is busking one evening, three young men invite him to go with them to a brothel. Lee plays his violin and watches the customers coming and going as he is plied with wine by the old grandfather who runs the place. There a four girls, two sisters and two cousins, and the whole establishment has a very intimate atmosphere, 'a casual atmosphere of neighbourly visiting, hosted by these vague and sleepy girls; subdued talk, a little music, an air of domestic eroticism, with unhurried comings and goings.' Once the last visitor has left, the grandfather whispers something in the youngest girl's ear and winks at Lee.
Now south of the Sierra, he met:
"... a new kind of heat, brutal and hard, carrying the smell of another continent. As I came down the mountain this heat piled up, pushing against me with blasts of sand, so that I walked half-blind, my tongue dry as a carob bean, obsessed once again by thirst. These were ominous days of nerve-bending sirocco, with peasants wrapped up to the eyes, during which I was savagely bitten by a demented dog with eyes like yellow gas."
Entering the province of Andalusia through fields of ripening melons, he saw the first signs of the southern people: men in tall Cordobese hats, blue shirts, scarlet waistbands, and girls with smouldering Arab faces. Instead of taking the road to Granada, he decided to follow the Guadalquivir, adding several months to his journey, and taking him to the sea in a roundabout way. He lives in Seville on fruit and dried fish, and sleeps in a yard in Triana, a ramshackle barrio on the north bank of the river, which has 'a seedy vigour, full of tile-makers and free-range poultry, of medieval stables, bursting with panniered donkeys, squabbling wives and cooking pots.' Whilst he spends his evening trying to get cool on the flat roof of the Cafe Faro, eating chips and gazing at the river, he hears the first mention of the upcoming war:
Until now I'd accepted this country without question, as though visiting a half-crazed family. I'd seen the bug-eyed rich gazing glassily from their clubs, men scrabbling for scraps in the market, dainty upper-class virgins riding to church in carriages, beggar-women giving birth in doorways. Naive and uncritical, I'd thought it part of the scene, not asking whether it was right or wrong ... A young sailor approached me with a "Hallo, Johnny" ... "I don't know who you are", he said, "but if you want to see blood, stick around - you're going to see plenty."
Disliking Cadiz - 'life in Cadiz was too acrid to hold me' - Lee makes his way along the south coast, and he makes a stop in Tarifa, the southernmost point of Europe, 'skulking behind its Arab walls.' He moves on into the country and makes another stop over in Algericas, a town which he very much likes for its aura of illicitness:
"It was a scruffy little town built round an open drain and smelling of fruit skins and rotten fish. There were a few brawling bars and modest brothels; otherwise the chief activity was smuggling ... But for all it disreputable purposes and confidence-trickery, it seemed to be a town entirely free of malice, and even the worst of its crooks were so untrained in malevolence that no one was expected to take them seriously."
Laurie Lee decides to stick to his fiddle and finds the town financially rewarding, his patrons liking Schubert (that is unpopular in other towns), followed by local ballads of mystical sex. He is half in love with Algericas but he decides to stick to his plan to follow the coast round Spain, and sets off for Malaga. However, he decides to make a stop over in Gibraltar in order to have some tea, but is held by the police and told to report to their station at night. So, for Lee, 'Leaving Gibraltar was like escaping from an elder brother in charge of an open jail. It takes him five days to walk to Malaga, following the coastline smelling of hot seaweed, thyme and shellfish, and occasionally passing through cork-woods smoking with the camp fires of gypsies. At night he finds a field and wraps himself up in his blanket, and then warms himself in the rays of the early morning sun before any farmers appear.
In Malaga, he stays in a posada, sharing the courtyard with a dozen families who are mostly mountain people selling their beautiful hand-woven Alpujarras blankets and cloth in the city. The young girls are some of the most graceful he has ever seen, 'light-footed and nimble as deer, with long floating arms and articulate bodies which turned every movement into a ritual dance.' Malaga was full of foreigners, a snug expatriate colony, and everyone is very chummy apart from the English debs with 'that particular rainswept grey of their English eyes, only noticeable when abroad.'
Encountering four British mates of a tanker - two from Newcastle and two from Liverpool - they all get rip-roaringly drunk. Disaster also occurs when Lee's violin breaks-up owing to over-exposure to the Spanish sun. He and some friends from his posada attempt to glue the joints back together but it is a failure. Fortunately, he meets a young German who gives him a violin for free as it had belonged to his girlfriend who'd run off with a Swede.
Winter comes and Lee decides to hole-up in Almunecar, sixty miles east of Malaga:
"It was a tumbling little village, built on an outcrop of rock in the midst of a pebbly delta, backed by a bandsaw of mountains and fronted by a grey strip of sand which some hoped would be an attraction for tourists ... (it) was grey, almost gloomily Welsh. The streets were steep, roughly paved, and crossed by crude little arches, while the square was like a cobbled farmyard."
He manages to get work in a hotel run by a Swiss, Herr Brandt, who has unfortunately arrived there twenty years too early and is in financial difficulties. The whole area is very poor, with the peasants just managing to scrape a living from the sugar cane grown in the delta and the sea:
"But the land was rich compared with the sea, which nourished only a scattering of poor sardines. As there were no boats or equipment for deep-sea fishing, the village was chained to the offshore wastes, shallow, denuded, too desperately fished to provide anything but constant reproaches."
With nothing much to do in their spare time, Lee and his friend Manolo, the hotel's waiter, drink in the local bar alongside the other villagers, drinking rough brandy mixed with boiling water and eating morunos - little dishes of hot pig flesh stewed in sauce. Manolo is the leader of a group of fishermen and labourers and they sit in a room at the back discussing the expected revolution.
The Socialists win the election and they believe a People's Government has at last arrived. Spring also appears and a whiff of change is in the air and a lessening of social and sexual mores:
"Books and films appeared, unmutilated by Church or State, bringing to the peasants of the coast, for the first time in generations, a keen breath of the outside world. For a while there was a complete lifting of censorship, even in newspapers and magazines. But most of all it was the air of carnality, the brief clearing away of taboos, which seemed to possess the village - a sudden frank, even frantic, pursuit of lust, bred from a sense of impending peril."
The villagers, in an act of revolt, burn down the church but then do a volte-face when Feast Day arrives and the images of Christ and the Virgin are brought out into the open, loaded as usual on the fishermen's backs. In the middle of May, there is a strike and the peasants come in from the countryside to lend their support as the village splits down the middle between 'Fascists' and 'Communists'. There is also hope in the air that the working class will see an improvement in their terrible living conditions:
"Men hoped that their wives might be freed of the triple trivialities of the Church - credulity, guilt and confession; that their sons might be craftsmen rather than serfs, their daughters citizens rather than domestic whores, and that they might hear the children in the evening coming home from the fresh-built schools to astonish them with new facts of learning."
War now breaks out and, with the disappearance of the police, Manolo searches the fascist houses for concealed arms. El Gato, the militia leader, make arrests he and Manolo are now in charge of the village. A threat is Altofaro, ten miles down the coast, that is a rebel beachhead and an abortive attempt is made to assault it (the militia soldiers forget to take their ammunition!). Almuñécar is also mistakenly fired on by a Government warship that thought it was shelling Altofaro. Finally, a British warship arrives and Lee and the English novelist he is renting a room from are taken on board and he takes his last look at Almuñécar and Spain as they grow smaller in the distance.
"All I'd known in that country - or had felt without knowing it - seemed to come upon me then; lost now, and too late to have any meaning, my twelve months' journey gone. Spain drifted away from me, thunder-bright on the horizon, and I left it there beneath the copper clouds."
The Epilogue describes Lee's return to his family home in Gloucestershire and his desire to help his comrades in Spain. He is held back by a liaison with a wealthy lover but finally decides to make his way through France in order to cross the Pyrenees into Spain. After a desperate climb starting from Ceret in the foothills, in which he gets caught in a snow storm, he ends up in another French village. Here he is helped by a peasant, after another tortuous climb through the thick snow, to cross the border once more into Spain.