Hugh Sawyer: My night with ditch man

By day he can be found in Sotheby's, besuited and coiffed. But come dusk, Hugh Sawyer beds down in a field, with not so much as a tent for cover. Ed Caesar joined him to find out why
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The Independent Online

Contrary to popular belief, he doesn't live in a ditch. Not always. He also lives in fields, or in the woods. Ditches, presumably, are for special occasions only.

Clarifying Sawyer's residential status, therefore, is problematic. "No fixed abode", with its intimations of forced homelessness, isn't quite fair. No one is forcing Sawyer to live under the stars. The privations he has chosen to endure are self-imposed. In fact, a couple of nights a week, he stays in town, has a few drinks and crashes at a friend's place.

But at least five nights a week, this is what Sawyer does. He gets off the bus at Lewknor, a village six miles south of Oxford on the M40, and makes for the large hill about half a mile's walk away, where he finds a good spot, makes dinner, and rests his head.

Sawyer has relinquished his flat, along with everything it brought - the TV, the fridge, the freezer, an oven, radiators, a bed - and has stripped his life down to the bare minimum. Now, Sawyer only owns what he can reasonably haul on to his back. He wants to prove "it is possible to do everything you normally do, maintaining a full existence, while cutting back". Well, he's cut back all right. And tonight, I'm going to join him.

"One of the great benefits of carrying everything you own," says Sawyer, "is that you don't have to go back to the same place every time." But doesn't he want to pitch a tent, leave some stuff, and come back every night?

"Ah, no, well, that's one of the rules," laughs Sawyer. "No tents. I foolishly said when I started this three months ago that tents were for girls. And now I have to stick to it." The man is quite clearly certifiable.

Sawyer and I meet for the first time on a Monday at 6.30pm, straight from work. He has already changed from the sharp suit he has to wear during the day and is in shabby, hill-living mode. The launderette, he explains, decides what he will wear on any given day - his wardrobe operates, like Chelsea under Claudio Ranieri, on a rotation system. Today, a grey sweatshirt and jeans are joined by a battered straw cowboy hat.

Sawyer loads his rucksack on to the Oxford Tube, the direct bus link from London to Oxford, and we sit opposite two other commuters. Pretty soon, Sawyer is making small talk with our fellow travellers, one of whom, it turns out, might be a useful business contact. They swap numbers. The commuter talks about what he's going to watch on telly tonight. I am deeply envious.

It's an hour to Lewknor. On arrival we unload and start to walk along the main road towards a field. We hop over stiles, skirt along the edges of fields and make for a small but dense bit of woodland. We are two yards into the wood when Sawyer asks: "The question is now, how far do you want to go?"

Surely he can't be saying that we are going to sleep here? It's dark and oppressive, and, at the risk of sounding like the soft townie I clearly am, pretty scary. I bravely suggest that we push on to the top of the hill, where it looks a bit more open. "It's a bit of a lungbuster of a climb," says Sawyer.

He wasn't joking. But as we catch our breath at the top of the hill and crack open one of the four lagers I have lugged up 300 yards of 50-degree incline, the view is stunning. In the bleeding sunset, the white and red light of the traffic winds in and out of darned-felt fields.

Coming over all Tintern Abbey, though, isn't going to help us eat tonight, and we're soon on to the practical business of dinner. As we find an appropriate hollow in the field at the summit - "I prefer this hollow, that one's a bit lumpy," says Sawyer - he whips out his new toy, a super-efficient stove. "Revolutionary bit of kit this. Boils half a litre of water in 90 seconds."

It's the sort of technical-speak which should put my mind at rest, but somehow Sawyer projects an air of amiable uselessness. He forgets the cutlery he was meant to purloin from the staff canteen; it takes an age to find the frying pan which he has hidden in the bushes; he drops the torch (the only torch), and we spend minutes scrabbling around for it on the ground.

As we are sucking up our boil-in-the-bag sausage casseroles - no cutlery remember - Sawyer tells me that this kind of "gentleman amateur" approach is exactly what he hopes will attract people to his cause.

"I am hoping," he says, "that if I go through these tough times up here, and then write about them in an amusing and engaging way on my blog, then that's going to get through to people. I like to think about people reading about my forthcoming experiences in the dead of winter from their warm living rooms, because then it might hit home."

But why do such a thing in the first place? "Well, first of all I wanted to find a way to raise money for the Woodland Trust - I was brought up in the countryside, and I've got a great affection for woodland."

Before I can suggest that a fun run might have been a less perilous fundraising option, he continues. "But most of all, I wanted to try and draw attention - and I never thought anyone would be listening - to the amount of waste we produce, and the number of things we don't really need."

With winter approaching, though, Sawyer's aim to spend a year living like this seems excessive. "My view is that if winter is going to be really hard and uncomfortable, then it's going to be really hard and uncomfortable, and that's just that. If I can go to such an extreme and live like this for a year, just to highlight issues around waste, maybe ordinary people will think that they can make small changes in their own lives.

"If everyone did that we'd be in a much better situation. If we all spent 20 more minutes a week recycling, that would be a huge improvement."

After cooking up a few of the Sainsbury's sausages I have brought as my luxury items, it's 9.45pm and time to sleep. I put on every item of clothing I have brought with me and huddle in my sleeping bag, looking out at the 100-Watt stars. The ground is bumpy, and it's getting cold, but it's not entirely uncomfortable.

What's more worrying is Hugh's earlier comment that he often wakes to find some member of the animal kingdom - a fawn or a badger normally - investigating his sleeping bag. I'm not too worried about the fawn, but badgers - don't they have nasty teeth? Or is that beavers?

Anxious, I drift off, only to be woken at regular intervals by increasingly noisy bouts of flatulence from my hill-partner, which I initially mistake for an approaching animal. Maybe sharing a tent with a man who has eaten nothing but boil-in-the-bag sausage casserole for three months would not have been such a good idea after all.

The alarm clock rings at six o'clock. While I have been unable to sleep for the better part of an hour, Sawyer needs a little nudging. This oddest of lifestyles has clearly become routine. After a cup of tea and a perfunctory brush of the teeth, we pack our bags and watch a sunrise as impressive as the sunset before.

Sawyer normally gets the 7.15am bus back into London, so we barrel down the hill, watching out for ankle-twisting rabbit holes and surprised dog-walkers. We attract a couple of odd looks from fellow commuters before heading for the back of the bus.

We have a brief chat before I'm dead to the world. It's the last time I see Sawyer - he gets off at Shepherd's Bush, and I have to be woken by the driver at Victoria. By the time I make it to work, ready to be tired and useless for the day, Sawyer will have had a shower, changed into a suit and started to make things happen in the art world.

All Sawyer's colleagues, his friends and family are aware of his domestic situation and are, he says, "very supportive, and extraordinarily kind." Their support is understandable - Sawyer is an entirely admirable nutter. But he will need every ounce of their kindness in the months to come. I did this for one night, and I'm shot to pieces. Hugh's adventure lasts a year.;