PsychoGeography #20: When hermits walked the earth

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The Independent Online

The hermit has always been an integral part of the landscaped garden; from its earliest inception, garden architects were encouraged to incorporate grottoes into their picturesque evocations of the wild, and into these, hermits were enticed, presumably with offers of a modest stipend. However, when no real hermit was forthcoming it was also perfectly acceptable to adopt a substitute. At the "English" landscaped gardens of Forsmark in Sweden, the travel writer Linnerhielman found a grotto, with: "in its shadows a hermit, sitting with a book in his hand. He is dressed in a deep purple cloak, and has a gentle but serious expression. The figure was made of wax and later eaten by rats."

Linnerhielman was writing in the late 18th century, but the hermit remains active (or should I say quiescent?) in the modern era. Looked at in one way, the anti-road protests of the 1990s were an attempt to halt the relentless autogeddon which is grinding the English countryside beneath its steely bulk; but from another angle I think it's clear that the protestors were hermits manqués, intent on seeking out trees and burrows within which they could contemplate the eternal verities, only to find themselves winkled out by temporary security operatives on the minimum wage.

During the protracted campaign waged to prevent the construction of the Newbury Bypass, I found myself deep in conversation with a beardie dubbed Balon who'd suspended himself in a kind of sling dangling from a tripod of 20ft-long scaffolding poles. Doubtless Balon considered himself to be in Middle Earth as much as Middle England, yet there was something altogether touching about his literal suspension of disbelief, poised as his tripod was on the ratty verge alongside the B1562.

The hermit who most influenced my own life was called Peter Buxton. He lived in a curious hut which adjoined the even more curious cottage of an old friend of my father's in a Suffolk seaside village. Creek Cottage was a series of ramshackle wooden extensions bolted on to an inner sanctum of ordinary brickwork. In the extensions, bunk beds were fabricated at odd angles and inappropriate heights, many of them furnished with their own bookshelves and plant boxes. You could lie all day under an exploding eiderdown, reading and listening to the creak of weatherboarding, while the tendrils of a spider plant tickled your nose. Or else venture outside into a soused world of salt-water creeks, reed beds and sand dunes, with a derelict windmill in the mid-distance signalling the victory of elements.

The story was (and I have no idea whether or not it was apocryphal) that Peter had once been an architect at the old London County Council, and that in this capacity he was responsible for much of the high-rise dehumanisation of the East End. Eventually, driven by his conscience, Peter had a kind of epiphanic breakdown, and became a hermit. I have to say that as hermits go, Buxton was, to my way of thinking, the real thing. Long and straggly of beard and hair, face nut-brown and weatherbeaten, clothing a tatter medallion of trouser, string and Wellington boot. He cultivated an allotment, looked after the cottage, and sat in his hut, where on smooth floorboards he read sutras in front of a single nightlight.

When staying at the cottage I'd join him there, sit cross legged opposite him, receive cups of herbal tea or vegetable soup, and indulge in very quiet conversations, in the course of which - if my memory serves me right - he would retail gentle spiritual counsel. Even more significant, though, was the occasion when I came off a moped a bunch of us were larking about with on one of the stony tracks which wended down to the beach. The graze festered and then the arm began to swell. Eventually, in considerable pain, I went to consult Peter, who without demur lashed a bundle of herbage to the purulent sore. To my considerable surprise - and relief - when I woke the next morning all the pus had been leached from the wound. Now, that's what I call a hermit.

Creek Cottage's eccentric owner died a long time ago, and Peter died not long afterwards. Some say he was a victim of prospective rehousing, that he starved himself to death rather than be uprooted from his grotto. Certainly, it was as difficult to imagine him separated from his hut as it was to conceive of him as a thrusting champion of 1960s modernism. If I ever visit the village now I always walk along the sea wall and take a look at the cottage, always half hoping that it's reverted to its 1970s state of ramshackle recklessness; but no, the place is now as tidy and foursquare as any Barratt Home, and even the waxwork of its hermit has been eaten away at by the rodents of time.