A pot of jam and a cabbage

I returned this week to visit some of the people I interviewed last year as part of my Estuary Life book. It was the first chance each person had to look at what I had written, a scary moment for me as well as them.

I have been very aware throughout the whole project how people have trusted me to let me into their homes and lives and reveal sometimes very private feelings about their situations so it was really important to me that they would like how I had portrayed them.

Along with the manuscript I bought each person a gift. What do you buy for people who have been so generous? In the end I bought them something related to their section of the story.

Angela at the shack in the woods

Angela at the shack in the woods

Angela Welford had opened up the plotland shack that her mother, the author Lena Kennedy, had built along with her husband in the 50’s. Afterwards, over lunch with her family, friends and neighbours, they had reminisced “It’s not like the old days, then people were always popping around with a pot of jam, or a cabbage from the garden.” so Angela’s gift was easy. A pot of my special plum and mulled wine jam and a cabbage, if not from my garden, at least personally selected by me from the supermarket.

12 a parting drink

enjoying Alex’s homebrew on board his boat

Alex, the houseboat owner and former Radio Caroline D.J. wouldn’t let me leave without trying his blueberry brandy. I returned the complement with a bottle of my homemade cherry brandy.

Martin Simpson had let me stay on his houseboat at the end of my first weekend’s walk. I turned up at his luxury home on a damp Bank Holiday, dripping onto the parquet flooring and barely able to string a sentence together, I was so exhausted. He had poured me a hot bath and fed me pie and beer. He looked quite delighted when I returned the compliment and sent me a text later that evening to tell me pie was delicious.

martin looking happy with his pie

martin looking happy with his pie

All three people were thankfully happy with their part in the story. Now it’s time to brave the agents.

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.

Away to the Woods

Lena Kennedy's shack in Cliffe Woods

Lena Kennedy’s shack in Cliffe Woods

Jumped on my bike last weekend to undertake a pilgrimage to find Lena Kennedy’s woodland shack, the last remaining plotland home in what was once a thriving community of woodlands dwellings erected by enterprising East Enders wanting their own little country kingdom.

Lena Kennedy and her husband, like many others, came to Kent in the 50’s to escape the overcrowding and smogs of the East End of London, hoping for clean air and space for their children to spend their weekends. They bought a parcel of land with their limited savings, amongst the trees of Cliffe Woods and began slowly to erect their country home, first they bought a old railway carriage to live in and then slowly they began to build their little wooden shack, grow their vegetables and make friends with the other working class  families who felt that, despite the lack of mains water, sewage or other facilities, they had found their little piece of paradise.

Many of these people showed a determination and resilience which can only be admired, some cycled out from London carrying the timber to build their houses on their backs or worked extra jobs  to find the savings to buy their land.

Then in the 60’s the council declared the community of shack dwellers an unsightly shanty town and compulsorily purchased the land in order to build as Lena writes ‘small modern houses all the way over my lovely green hill.’ The shack dwellers were powerless to stop ‘this terrifying thing about to take over them all.’ Somehow Lena’s shack was spared and later, at the age of 60, when she became a best selling novelist, she wrote about her years in the shack in her autobiography, Away to the Woods.’

Early last Saturday I rode into an icy spring wind through the lanes of the Hoo Peninsula to Cliffe Woods. The woods are now tucked up behind the village and indeed the hill is as Lena feared, one big suburban sprawl of brick built mega bungalows and sprawling concrete drives. Very little remains of Lena’s lovely oaks and ash trees.

I had no idea where the bungalow was, but the plotlands, though vanished, retain their skeleton breath on the map, long gardens, regularly ordered, with little houses set well back in the plots. On View Road, I passed a wooden gate which seemed to lead onto a derelict piece of land. I would have walked by had not a glimpse of blue caught my eye. There, on what appeared to be a garden shed, tucked behind a tangle of hawthorn trees was a blue plaque, of the type which appear all over London buildings, drawing our eye to the homes of the wealthy and famous. Lena Kennedy was a prolific and successful author and this was where she came for over 30 years to write.

blue plaque at Lena Kennedy's shack

blue plaque at Lena Kennedy’s shack

The shack, tucked away in its little garden full of daffodils and primroses was still a delight all the more so because it was now overshadowed by giant multi garaged monstrous homes. How could this little shack be considered ugly and inappropriate and the buildings that had replaced it more acceptable? Our sense of what is a correct and desirable way to live is all skewed, for me, I will take the simple life in the woods every time.