Brother Tuck - a Hermit Monk
Difficult as it may be to tell, but Brother Tuck is a white monk of the Cistercian order. His thick red stockings are as brash as his matching skirts tucked knee-high into a scarlet girdle that stretches forever around his enormous girth; and his face is as round as the moon and as rosy as any small child's in the winter sunshine.
His piggy-eyes twinkle out from underneath a ring of fuzzy ginger hair that skirts warily around a shaven bald patch before he blows out his cheeks, folds his palms, closes his eyes and blesses me as sonorously as any bishop.
A few moments later, after a lark has added its own song. I ask him: 'I believe you come from the abbey of St. Mary of the Fountains near Ripon in Yorkshire?'
His eyes begin to twinkle again: 'Yes, it was becoming too crowded inside the monastery. A lot of monks had quit St. Mary's of York to come to Fountains Abbey so I decided to leave and form a cell of my own.'
'You live on your own here in the woods?'
'A cell of one suits me just fine, though I keep a few dogs for hunting.'
We sit down together under a fair and stately oak, one of many set deep in Harlow Wood. Nearby rises a spring of clear water, flowing hurriedly away, stretching across the field and down into the valley between the woods. This is the place where Brother Tuck has made his home and has called it Fountainsdale. Ideal for a hermit, the area is densely forested and criss-crossed by streams fed from the fountain spring.
'The monks of the Cistercian order usually build their abbeys far away from people, for they believe in solitude and isolation from the world, don't they?' I ask him.
'Yes, you are correct. The original founder of the order of Cistercians was an Englishman - did you know that?'
My head shakes sideways in ignorance.
'His name was Stephen Harding and he came from Sherborne in Dorset. On his way back from a pilgrimage to Rome he joined a group of hermits at Molesme and with a few other brothers moved into the woods of Citeaux. When St. Bernard brought 30 of his companions to join them, the order was founded. Stephen became prior, then abbot, and it was he who laid down the rules for the order.'
'One of the rules is that you do all of the work on the land yourselves?'
'Not necessarily. We welcome anyone who is willing to work, however humble he may be, for our life is a simple one. Everyone has to do manual work since we employ no servants. It is much simpler and easier when the abbey doesn't have to provide knights to serve the king.'
'Although you live as a hermit, is it not true that you are very friendly with Robin Hood?'
His eye suddenly brightens: 'I wouldn't say very friendly, well acquainted - yes. We had a little argument when we first met and he hasn't taken any liberties with me since. Must be three winters past since we first crossed paths - or streams to be more precise. Would you like to hear the merry tale?' he asks with a chortle, and we settle comfortably under the oak tree while I listen to Brother Tuck's story.
'The flowers were fresh and gay that morning in May, and I was contemplating by the side of the stream. Because of the many outlaws that lived hereabouts, I wore a leather coat and a cap of steel with a sword and buckler by my side - becomes me quite well, I think.
Well, this fellow comes strolling by, grand as you please, carrying a bow with a sheaf of arrows at his belt - I only learned later that he was the outlaw named Robin Hood.
'Good fellow,' the fellow greeted me, 'as you can see I am a weary man. Will you carry me over this water for Saint Charity?'
I thought I might do a good deed - not having done one for a while - so I lifted him on my back and carried him over the stream. Good deed done, I drew my long sword and ordered this cheeky fellow: 'Carry me back again, bold outlaw, or you shall have some of this!'
Speaking neither good nor ill, in fact nothing at all, Robin carried me back to the other side, the water reaching a span above his knees. But as soon as he had dropped me off his back, Robin drew his own sword and ordered me to carry him back again! Well this time, when we came to the middle of the stream, I just threw him in. 'Now choose, fine fellow, whether to sink or swim,' I told him.
I swam to a wicker wand to help me out of the water while he swam to a bush of broom. When he had climbed on to the bank he let fly with an arrow at me but I deflected it with my steel buckler. 'Shoot on, fine fellow,' I informed him. 'You will not hit me if you shoot all this summer's day.'
He shot a few more arrows without hitting me so we took to our swords and bucklers and fought with might and main. Must have been ten o'clock in the morning when we started and by two in the afternoon Robin had sunk to his knees begging for respite: 'A boon, a boon, curtailed brother! I beg it on my knee!' he cried. 'Give me leave to set my horn to my mouth and blow three blasts.'
'That I will do,' I told him. 'And I hope you blow so hard that your eyes fall out.'
He blew three blasts and fifty yeomen with bows bent came ranging over the lee.
'Whose men are these who come so hastily?' I demanded.
'These men are mine, brother,' said Robin Hood, 'and what is that to you?'
'A boon, a boon!' I cried. 'The same as I gave to you. Allow me to set my fist to my mouth and whistle three times.'
'A whistling fist can do me no ill,' he said, so I whistled three times and my fifty savage dogs came running up to me. 'Here's a dog for every man,' I told the outlaw, 'and you are matched with me.'
'God forbid that should ever be,' said Robin. 'I'd rather be matched with three of your curs than matched with thee.'
I blew a loud whistle again and all the dogs couched down in a row. 'What now fine yeoman?' I asked him.
'Come, good brother, let us agree. If you will forsake Fountainsdale every Sunday throughout the year, I will pay you a fee of ten shillings; and if you will go with me to Nottingham on every holy day throughout the year I'll provide you with new garments.'
'It seems a fair bargain,' I said, 'By Saint Charity I agree.'
And that's how I became acquainted with Robin Hood'
After a few moments he adds: 'That happened three winters past and apart from helping Robin Hood and his merry band on holy days I have never moved from this place. For there is no earl, or lord, or knight who could make me move from Fountainsdale.'
Gaining his feet with surprising agility for a big man, Brother Tuck courteously helped me to mine. After escorting me as far as the Nottingham road he wished me a safe journey home and bid me farewell.
When he turned back towards his own home, his wooded sanctuary, he strongly reminded me of a Knights Templar: as a white monk of the Cistercian order, he lived the life of hermit - one of the poor soldiers of Jesus Christ; and like the Templars who have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience - he was normally as gentle as a lamb but as bold as a lion if it came to a fight.
On reflection though, perhaps not so strong on the obedience part.