Our podcast series — ‘Spaces of Solitude’ — looks at places and experiences of solitude and how these have changed over the centuries. Each episode has been curated by a member of the project research team, and topics range from gardens, cities and sanctums, to potentially perilous places like prison cells and even the human mind.

Episode One – The Sanctum

In the opening episode of our series, Hetta Howes and Barbara Taylor take us on a journey through the history of spiritual solitude. Why have people of faith chosen to be alone throughout the ages and what perils do they face in doing so? Hetta meets Hilary Powell to discuss the secluded lives of medieval anchorites and hermits, and Revd Erica Longfellow to learn about the sociable religious landscape of the 17th century. Later she speaks to James Morland about the natural world as a space for solitary contemplation, before a conversation with Brother James Koester about the fine line between solitude and loneliness in a modern-day monastic community.

Presented by Hetta Howes • Curated by Barbara Taylor •
Produced by Natalie Steed • Readings by Miles Richardson •

Episode Two – The Garden

How did gardens come to play such a key part in the history of solitude? Hetta Howes sets out to answer this question with James Morland, who moves from the idyllic but complex seclusion of Eden to the refuge of queer ecology in Derek Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage to offer a reading of gardens as spaces of escape. Laura Seymour discusses how 17th-century gardens provided a sense of liberty in the face of political furore, and Stephen Bending talks us through design versus wilderness and the opportunities that gardens have provided for women. Finally, Hetta speaks to Rosie Fyles, the Head Gardener at Ham House, about the history of collaboration in creating garden spaces.

Presented by Hetta Howes • Curated by James Morland •
Produced by Natalie Steed • Readings by Sam West •
Sound recording from An English Country Garden in July by Keith Selmes (CC Attribution License)

Episode Three – Perilous Places

Hetta Howes and James Morland continue their exploration of solitude in this episode, pondering the perilous places we sometimes enter in the search for aloneness. James introduces listeners to the graveyard poets of the 18th century, who sought out places of darkness to explore their biggest fears and deepest anxieties. Hetta then speaks to Josh Cohen about Emily Dickinson’s reclusive tendencies, the imagined wildernesses she created locked away in her room, and the ways in which, historically, seclusion and solitude could make women simultaneously conspicuous and invisible. Finally, she talks to Barbara Taylor about John Donne’s terrifying struggle with solitude in his sickroom and what we can learn from those most troubling forms of aloneness when care has disappeared.

*Correction: the poem ‘The Wilderness’ referenced in this podcast was misattributed to Emily Dickinson and is by 20th-century poet Kathleen Raine. For more on wilderness and solitude in Dickinson, see her poem, ‘Had I not seen the sun’.

Presented by Hetta Howes • Curated by James Morland •
Produced by Natalie Steed • Readings by James Morland and Sam West •

Episode Four – The City

The German sociologist Georg Simmel famously claimed that ‘one nowhere feels as lonely and lost as in the metropolitan crowd’. Hetta Howes and Charlie Williams take a walk through London to explore this classic idea of loneliness and the many ways of being alone in a city. They hear from Matthew Beaumont about the long tradition of ‘nightwalkers’, a mantle applied to vagrants, sex workers, migrants and bohemians, all searching for different opportunities in the city after dark. Hetta speaks to Leo Coleman about the development of the industrial city and the experiences of isolation that come with it, before being guided by Susheila Nasta through Sam Selvon’s classic novel of city newcomers, The Lonely Londoners.

Presented by Hetta Howes • Curated by Charlie Williams •
Produced by Natalie Steed • Readings by Miles Richardson and Burt Caesar •

Episode Five – The Cell

In this episode, Hetta Howes and Charlie Williams look at experiences of imprisonment and solitary confinement, asking how we can understand the effects of enforced isolation on the human psyche?  They speak first to Lisa Guenther, who charts the rise and rise of solitary confinement in the United States and the links between this practice and the long history of slavery. Next, they hear from Andrea Brady about the ‘Jail Poems’ of Beat Poet Bob Kaufman and the perspective they provide on imprisonment as an existential condition. And finally, Hetta speaks to Shokoufeh Sakhi about her years as a political prisoner in Iran, the work of preserving connections with the world in the face of solitary confinement, and the power of creating beauty within the prison.

Presented by Hetta Howes • Curated by Charlie Williams •
Produced by Natalie Steed • Readings by Miles Richardson and Burt Caesar •

Episode Six – On Solitary Confinement

As part of the ‘Spaces of Solitude’ series, Hetta Howes speaks to researchers Lisa Guenther and Shokoufeh Sakhi. Lisa is a Canadian philosopher and activist who works on critical prison studies; Shokoufeh is a former political prisoner from Iran who writes about imprisonment and the self. In this conversation, they discuss the histories and philosophies of solitary confinement, and the many ways that carceral solitariness is physically and emotionally experienced.

Presented by Hetta Howes • Produced by Natalie Steed •

Episode Seven – The Mind

What is the mind? Can we think of it as a ‘space’? Where might we look for the mind and what might be going on inside it when we experience solitude? These are some of the questions addressed in this episode. We hear from neuroscientist Sarah Garfinkel about the mind as an interface between brain and heart, and historian of psychoanalysis Akshi Singh about the mind as a space contained in objects that evoke memory and unlock experience. The poet and philosopher Denise Riley describes the imagined interiors of our bodies and the vulnerability of the inner voice, whilst psychoanalyst and writer Adam Philips discusses what might be happening in the mind when we can’t bear to be alone.

Presented by Hetta Howes • Curated by Akshi Singh •
Produced by Natalie Steed •

Episode Eight – On Spiritual Solitude

As part of the ‘Spaces of Solitude’ series, Hetta Howes presents a conversation between Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, and the most Revd Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury. Discussion ranges from personal experiences of solitude and silence, to ‘thin-places’ and speaking in tongues.

Presented by Hetta Howes • Produced by Natalie Steed •


Hetta Howes (City University of London), Hilary Powell (Durham University), Erica Longfellow (New College, Oxford), James Morland (Queen Mary University of London), James Koester (Society of Saint John the Evangelist), Laura Seymour (Birkbeck, University of London), Rosie Fyles (Ham House), Stephen Bending (University of Southampton), Josh Cohen (Goldsmiths University), Barbara Taylor (Queen Mary University of London), Charlie Williams (Queen Mary University of London), Matthew Beaumont (University College London), Leo Coleman (Hunter College, City University of New York), Susheila Nasta (Queen Mary University of London), Lisa Guenther (Queen’s University, Canada), Shokoufeh Sakhi (independent scholar), Andrea Brady (Queen Mary University of London), Akshi Singh (Queen Mary University of London), Sarah Garfinkel (University College, London), Adam Phillips (psychoanalyst and writer), Denise Riley (University of East Anglia), Diarmaid MacCulloch (St Cross College, Oxford), The Most Revd Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury