It seems to me that England is full of good-natured nutters who do amazing things for their community in their own quirky ways. I got to know one such by the name of Robert Stephen Hawker when I walked into Cornwall from Devon the other day and came across the ‘Hawker’s Hut’.
Hawker was the vicar of the nearby Morwenstow village. An Oxfordian and a poet who won the admiration of the likes of Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens and Walter Scott, he was — to put it mildly — a very unusual man. He was an Anglican cleric who converted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed. When he was 19, he married the 41-year-old Charlotte. When she died in 1863, at the age of 60, Hawker went the other way, marrying his 20-year-old Polish governess, Pauline.
In between he built a remarkable, four-towered vicarage and conversed deeply and eloquently with birds. He had a ‘domesticated’ stag named Robin that often gave his callers the occasion for exercise by pinning them down to the ground. He also had several dogs and 10 cats. The dogs and cats (but thankfully not the stag) were invited to attend mass on a regular basis, possibly out of sheer necessity, as Hawker’s congregation was very often limited to just his wife. For a length of time, a little like Lord Emsworth of Blandings, Hawker also devoted a significant part of his attention to a pet pig called Gyp.
As vicars go, Hawker was most colourful. He hated black. It is said the only black he wore were his socks (presumably because they did not have the United Colours of Benetton then), and he roamed around in a claret coat, red or brown trousers, red gloves, long sea-boots, a pink brimless hat, and a yellow poncho. Such was his love for bright colours that at his funeral mourners turned up in purple.
But what made Hawker even more remarkable was what he did for shipwrecked sailors. He offered them Christian burials at a time when the practice was to leave their bodies at sea, or hastily cover them up with sand if they washed ashore. Hawker worked to prevent shipwrecks, keeping a lookout for distressed vessels and also coordinating rescue efforts. His efforts takes on more significance when you consider that most of his parishioners were smugglers and wreckers, who made a living out of stripping ships. Under those circumstances, help from parishioners was not always at hand, and Hawker continued for years the gruesome task of recovering — and burying — bodies himself.
It was to help with this that Hawker built the hut that I now approached. The hut is a National Trust property — the smallest of all NH properties, I am told — and you need to climb down a few rough steps to see it perched above a cold sea lapping at a cruel coastline that spread into the distance as far as the eye could see. There was a puddle by the door from yesterday’s rain. I opened the double doors and stepped inside.
As one of his biographers put it, Hawker had built the hut to sit “on fine days composing his poetry, and during times of storm [to] scour the grey waters for ships in distress”. He had used driftwood. It was small and compact. There was a wooden bench built into the wall on three sides. You could not stand up straight.
Since the National Trust took over the hut, it has received thousands of visitors, some of whom had chosen to etch their stories into the wooden walls. There were many drawings of hearts. One had ‘Derek loves Doreen 1992’ next to it. There was an impassioned ‘I love you Annie! x’. And then there was:
I imagined Hawker in his colourful cossack, sitting here on a stormy night, smoking a pipe of opium (he was found of that) and looking out at the raging sea while the wind whipped all around him. What would he make of the etchings, the love notes and the random visitors who came to take stock of his story? His own life, despite his compassion and all the good he had done for sailors, had ended in penury. “Very often my whole future hope hinges on the temporary acquisition of £5 or £10,” he was to write in his final years, “and very many narrow escapes have I lately had.” What a life — what a crazy, good life — his had been! Someone should write about it.