CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV: The good life of a hermit – glorious isolation and chatting to the roses
The Hermit Of Treig
Britain’s Beautiful Rivers With Richard Hammond
Gentlemen of the road, we used to call them — too cultured to be mere vagrants, they’d tramp around the districts doing odd jobs and sharpening knives.
Ken Smith is the last of the breed. He ceased his tramping 40 years ago, settling down beside the remote Loch Treig in a wooden cabin he built himself.
But he still thinks nothing of walking 27 miles around the foot of Ben Nevis, into Fort William to post his letters — and then 27 miles back.
Filmmaker Lizzie MacKenzie, who befriended 74-year-old Ken a decade ago, has been filming him for two years. Her gentle, charming documentary, The Hermit Of Treig (BBC4), portrays a man with a touch of poetry in his soul, who is apparently immune to loneliness.
The Hermit of Treig follows 74-year-old Ken Smith who lives by himself in a wooden cabin by Loch Treig
Loch Treig is a relatively remote area in Scotland, the nearest town being Fort William
He can spend two weeks without speaking to another human being, though he has long chats to his roses — he insists they bloom better for it.
Karaoke chaos of the night:
After Prue Leith joined him for a jubilee edition of his Art Club (C4), Grayson Perry produced a microphone and serenaded her with Billy Joel’s (I Love You) Just The Way You Are. Prue looked truly appalled. Whatever you think of his pottery, Grayson can’t sing.
Ken gathers berries, which he stores in a shed to keep the birds off. He ferments wine in two-gallon jars, supping it in the evenings as he writes up the diary he has kept since the 1950s. ‘It’s nice to have the truth wrote down,’ he says.
And he is an avid wildlife and landscape photographer. Visitors might also get their picture taken, but he doesn’t do selfies. Why would he? Ken doesn’t have electricity, let alone social media.
There’s a childlike touch to this Derbyshire-born man, who left school at 15 and worked as a labourer for 20 years. He never married. One night, he was set upon by a gang in his home town and beaten so badly he suffered a brain haemorrhage.
He was unconscious for three weeks and was not expected to walk or talk again. When he did recover, against the odds: ‘I decided I would never live on anyone’s terms but my own.’
The film never pried, and left many questions respectfully unasked. Ken was deeply fond of his parents but, when they died, never struck up another relationship. MacKenzie didn’t try to find out why, and she kept herself out of the story, too.
I’d love to know why she’s so fascinated by this man’s solitary life. Could she live that way herself, and does she see him as a mentor or more of a surrogate grandfather — or neither? An undercurrent of worry disturbed this affectionate film.
Ken suffered a stroke in 2020, and both health and social services are making noises about getting him into care — but living in a town might be the death of him.
He’s content to let life take its course. His vision is fading, and so is his memory, but he’s not unduly bothered. ‘I live in a cloud world,’ he says, as though it’s not a bad place to be.
Richard Hammond take a tour around Britain’s rivers on his More4 show
Richard Hammond was tramping, too, as he followed the Severn from its source to the Bristol Channel in the first episode of his travelogue, Britain’s Beautiful Rivers (More4). He’s an effortlessly competent presenter, in the Tony Robinson mould — happy to chat to historians amid castle ruins or wade up to his armpits around a Victorian weir.
Hamster seemed more relaxed to be away from his co-stars on The Grand Tour, knowing that he can film a segment without having it mocked mercilessly back in the studio by Jeremy Clarkson and James May.
But he was happy to take the mickey out of himself. Smacking his head on the roof of the Severn Tunnel, he remarked: ‘I don’t have to duck very often: it’s a new experience for me. I’m an inexperienced ducker.’