PsychoGeography #35: The hermit's home from home

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The Independent Online

My column about Peter Buxton, the hermit I knew when I was a lad (see PsychoGeography 20), garnered a massive postbag. By "massive" I mean five letters, but frankly when it comes to writing about the relationship between topography and the psyche that's effectively a papery deluge.

To recap, when I knew him in the 1970s Peter Buxton was the resident hermit of a ramshackle and bohemian cottage in a seaside Suffolk village owned by an eccentric elderly lady, Francesca Wilson. But it was said that Peter was formerly an architect at the London County Council, and had been responsible for much of the high-rise dehumanisation of the East End. Apparently, he had a kind of breakdown of conscience and then became a hermit of the classic type: reading sutras, humming ragas, eating brown rice and applying herbal poultices.

All of my correspondents had known Peter personally and added to my recollections. Val Cloake of Hanwell limned in the hermit's arrival: "The story was that the price Francesca had paid for Creek Cottage included Peter. He had helped her turn it into the hostel I knew. He also built a rather lovely shed in the garden for himself; before that he had lived in a packing case in the garden. He kept the packing case, complete with curtains and bookshelves, for times when the house was full, then he would move out of his shed and back into the packing case. This was long and narrow and he could just slide down inside it. He could even lie in it and read with the help of a nightlight. He seemed to have little need of softness or comfort. At one point Francesca received a letter from the local authority enquiring whether she was aware that she had a man living in a packing case in her garden. It really isn't the kind of thing that escapes your attention, is it?"

Lewis Kinnear of Dumfries had a different angle on this peculiar domicile: "... he'd had some sort of nervous breakdown which resulted in his ending up on the beach at Walberswick. Francesca Wilson had found him living in an old piano packing case which had washed up on the beach." But it was Robin Kirton of Newdigate, Surrey, who had the strongest reaction to the original piece, and the most poignant information to impart.

He wrote: "I read with mounting astonishment mixed with regret your column in The Independent Magazine for 14th February on the subject of hermits. Peter Buxton was a close friend and colleague in the Architects Department of the LCC. In many ways his experiences there were even less happy than the apocryphal account you have been given." I read Mr Kirton's letter with mounting astonishment as well, for here was the truth about a long dead hermit. I learned from Mr Kirton's eloquent and comprehensive account that Peter Buxton had been employed in the General rather than the Housing Division of the Department. He was not - so far as my correspondent knew - responsible for designing high rises.

Peter Buxton did, however, fall foul of the Department, when, bucking the prevailing tendency to build vast and soulless old people's homes, he designed "a truly brilliant scheme", for a home off Brixton Hill. On the scale of a traditional almshouse, the home featured self-contained bed-sittingroom units ranged around small courts. "Peter was a fine artist and his drawings were utterly seductive", so despite its conflict with the orthodox brief, his home got built. However, "hardly surprisingly it went well over budget because Peter was absolutely meticulous in his detailing and demanded and got good workmanship". It was after this that Peter was transferred to the Housing Division.

Mr Kirton continued: "Whilst I was away on leave Peter literally vanished. He had a bedsit near Kew Gardens where he had entertained my wife and myself ... It was a room at the top of a large Victorian house with sloping ceilings and complex attic spaces. He lived at floor level on cushions surrounded by books and his then-huge LP collection. His cooking was miraculous despite the minimal means at his disposal. It was my introduction to mint tea and strange cheeses. On the last time we visited he lent me the Klemperer recording of Beethoven's 9th because even his delightful landlord either didn't know, or was forbidden to tell me, where he had gone. We thought he had gone to Devon because he had said his mother lived in that part of the country."

This then was the background to the benevolent and big-bearded man who had cured my infected elbow when I fell off my moped. Who drank mint tea with me too, and who tried to talk some calm into my fevered adolescent brow. I don't know which part of the tale is the more poignant, but at least now it has a beginning as well as an end.