The sociable hermit

Medieval England was full of religious solitaries. Brother Harold Palmer is among the last of the breed. After leading a reclusive life for five decades, he wants some company.

This article was published in the November 2018 issue of The Oldie.

Photo: Mark Greaves

Photo: Mark Greaves

My car bumps up a bridal path, pushing past overgrown ferns. I open one gate after another, pass a crowd of sheep, then arrive at the top of a hill. There is a cluster of buildings, a ruined wall, a very old caravan and a church. Brother Harold Palmer, whose place this is, is nowhere to be seen – until, that is, I look in the church, and find him sitting there completely still, as if transfixed.

Brother Harold has lived on this hill in Northumberland since 1971; first in a caravan, then in a house he built with the help of friends. In the decades since then he has raised enough money to build a church and four monastic cells, designed by Harold with architects Ralph Patisson and John Sanders. The church, built by two builders over seven years, won a RIBA award in 2015.

Built in a Romanesque style, the church looks like it could be 1,000 years old. The view from the cells is breathtaking: a patchwork of green fields all the way to Scotland.

After a minute or two of silence, Brother Harold gets up abruptly to say hello. He has a missing tooth, and leans heavily on a stick, but his eyes sparkle. ‘Have you come to see me?’ he asks, sounding amazed. He shows me my cell, where I will stay the night. There is a paraffin lamp (electricity only came recently) and a hatch to put food through. He asks me to keep doors closed – swallows have a habit of flying in.

Brother Harold, who is is 86, has followed the same monastic routine for more than half his life, singing plainchant and reciting prayers in a church seven times a day. His approach is described as semi-eremitical – that is, he is somewhat a hermit, but not a full recluse. He has guests fairly regularly. He gets driven by a friend to the shops. Although he may go for weeks without seeing anyone, he has a mobile phone. His singular achievement is not solitude, but the place itself, and his decades-long dedication to praying in it alone.

Harold is, I think, a little uneasy about his journalist visitor. ‘I don’t know what you are going to make of all this,’ he says. His place is certainly more sociable than I had imagined. Just as we sit down for tea, an Anglican bishop and his wife pop in with cake. Another man, Frank, also appears at the door – he has come to walk his dog.

This is an excerpt. The full article can be read in November 2018’s issue of The Oldie.