Andre Van Beest spent 12 years living in a shack in Cobham Woods in Kent until he was evicted by the council in the 1980’s. Andre’s story struck a chord with me when I first read it one rainy afternoon on a microfilm of an old newspaper in Medway Archive Centre. He had bought his land, he had caused no one any harm, he had lived there with his goats and his dog and his geese and then one day he had received a letter from the council telling him he had to go and his house had been bulldozed to the ground.
Twenty years later I faced a similar plight when I was evicted from my caravan on the marshes having fallen foul of some planning law I never knew I had to comply with. I understand how it feels to lose your home in the most graphic fashion, to literally see it vanish before your eyes.
Andre in some ways was lucky. A family living in Iwade, a small village on the Medway, heard of his troubles and offered him and his animals land and a caravan. Later Selwyn and Ernestine Lawrence took Andre under their wing. He worked on their smallholding and together they planned to build a new cabin in the woods near their home.
Andre’s desire to escape to the woods was understandable when you hear his life story. Born to a Dutch man and a women from Belgium who met in the First World War. Andre started life with the misfortune of a cleft palate which, untreated, meant he could barely speak. Left in an British orphanage he spent the Second World War down the mines as a Bevan Boy. After the war he bought the land in the woods from Lord Darnley and retreated from society.
But although Andre’s life was full of bad luck he also met with kindness. The policeman who was forced to evict him, spent the rest of his life helping him and looking out for him. When the Lawrence’s first employed Andre the policeman visited them to make sure ‘they weren’t going to take him for a ride.’ People in Iwade took food to his camp on the pretence it was ‘for the animals.’ and the Lawrence’s, when Andre died in 2001, took his ashes back to Cobham Woods and scattered them on his former home. People were willing to show kindness and care to an outsider to act unselfishly to help another
This weekend I take off on the third leg of my journey for my book Estuary Life. I am walking the marshes between Rainham and Iwade and am meeting the people who helped Andre in the last years of his life. These people, like so many others on my trip, have treated me with the same generosity and kindness they showed to the old man in the woods. They have given up their time to talk to me, they have never met me but they have offered to let me stay in their homes.
We are all so absorbed and busy nowadays but this journey has restored my faith in the goodness of people. Twenty years after Andre was evicted from the woods people will still take the time to help a stranger who crosses their path.