There was an old man that lived in the woods

A hut in the woods by Richard Webb

A hut in the woods by Richard Webb

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.

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The Man In The Woods

A hut in the woods by Richard Webb

A hut in the woods by Richard Webb

As a child I was always fascinated by the ‘Man that lives in the woods.’ Wherever you lived there always seemed to be one. Know matter how big or small or urban the wood there was always a local legend of a guy (never it seems a girl) who was living there. The camp of the ‘Man in the woods’ was always a source of fascination something to be hunted down and dared to approach. The ‘Man in the woods’ always had an element of danger of the unknown an otherworldly aura to be pitied but also somehow envied.

My childhood books were full of this character in various guises. Enid Blyton’s ‘The Children of Cherry Tree Farm.’ featured Tammylan who befriended wild animals and lived off root soup. Clearly a man ahead of his time he believed in direct action for animal rights abuses and almost ‘shook the head off,’ a local ruffian who injured a bird. BB’s ‘Brendan Chase.’ not only had Smokoe Joe who lived in a woodburners hut but also three boys who ran away from school to set up camp amongst the trees for the summer. These boys would have been men after my own heart if they didn’t pass their time killing badgers and raiding honey buzzard nests. Lucky for them they did not run into Tammylan or their holidays may have been cut short!

Our local ‘Man in the Woods’  stood outside the bakers, dressed in an assortment of clothes given to him by passing shoppers, hoping someone would by him a pasty. Someone always did. He was crazy and unkempt but harmless and something of a local celebrity, our own personal Elm Park hermit who was looked after, in rather a ramshackle way, by the local community. He was rumoured to have a camp in the woods close to my house. I searched for it but rather half heartedly, fearing perhaps that the reality would not live up to my Enid Blyton fuelled fantasy.

Now I am not the hunt once again for stories of the man in the woods as I begin to research people who choose to live in unconventional homes for my book ‘Estuary Life.’

People who live outside of the rules understandably tend to keep a low profile but I hope this year to find them, track down the yurt dwellers, hut dwellers, shack dwellers, boat dwellers, hermits and outsiders and find out what bought them here. In doing so I hope to understand my own, enduring fascination with this way of life and learn if there is still a place in the 21st century for those who chose to step outside of the rules and take to the woods