The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

The Hermitage at Badminton, Gloucestershire, by Thomas Wright. (Copyright - Michael Cousins)
The Hermitage at Badminton, Gloucestershire, by Thomas Wright. (Copyright - Michael Cousins)

Are you a solitary person? Do you long, Garbo-like, to be alone? Would a life of isolation suit you and offer you scope for those periods of sustained contemplation and consideration for which you’ve always yearned?

If you have, then perhaps the life of a hermit would have suited you.

Harry White dressed as a hermit at his brother Gilbert's hermitage in Selbourne.

Harry White dressed as a hermit at his brother Gilbert's hermitage in Selbourne.

There is a long history of hermitism; ‘hermit’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘of the desert’ and was first applied to religious people who forsook community living to go into the wild places and seek God. The first recognised hermit was St Paul of Thebes in the 3rd Century AD; scenes from his life appear carved on the 8th-century Ruthwell Cross in southern Scotland.

There were some eccentric early hermits – none more so than St Simeon Stylites, who in the 5th century took to living on a platform (about one square yard in area) on top of a 50-foot-high pillar at Talanissus in Syria.

Unfortunately, his withdrawal from the tumult of the world attracted great crowds to the base of his pillar. Still, he lasted there for 30 years (it’s probably best not to enquire quite how) until his death, still elevated over the world.

The idea of a solitary life spread from the deserts of the Middle East to the colder climes of northern Europe.

A hermit survived four and a half years in the cave of the Druids' Temple near Masham. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

A hermit survived four and a half years in the cave of the Druids' Temple near Masham. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

The remains of a building on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland have been tentatively identified as the remains of a hermit’s cell from the time of St Columba – though others maintain it’s just a medieval sheepfold. And we know that St Cuthbert retired from the hurly-burly of his monastic community on Holy Island to a cell on Inner Farne as at least a temporary hermit.

The Middle Ages was a time for hermits, and there were many solitary religious people who lived alone and were revered as holy.

As well as the ones who cut themselves off completely from human habitation on moorland or deep in woods, there was also a class of those who asked to be walled up adjacent to a church. These were the anchorites and anchoresses; their cells might give them a view of the church’s altar where they could see the mass being celebrated.

Two early 13th-century guides for anchoresses – called the ‘Ancrene Wisse’ or anchoresses’ wisdom and the ‘Ancrene Riwle’ (rule) – were written for all who chose to immure themselves in this way. Nearly two centuries later William Langland described the narrator of his poem ‘Piers Plowman’ as being ‘In habite as an heremite’ – dressed as a hermit.

At much the same time as Langland was writing, the riverside hermitage at Warkworth in Northumberland was carved out of the solid rock. It consists of three rooms – a chapel, sacristy and dwelling – and is approached by boat across the River Coquet. Like other hermitages, it ceased to be used at the Reformation.

Three hundred years later, though, images of the Warkworth Hermitage appeared on a Wedgwood dinner service presented in 1774 to the Catherine the Great of Russia – fittingly, the service is now in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. And why was there this image on the Empress’s plates?

Because it was fashionable; by the 18th Century, influenced by the Romantic Movement, which looked back to a simpler past, landowners would construct their own hermit’s dwellings as a picturesque addition to their estates.

William Danby at Swinton Castle near Masham was one such – though his Druid’s Temple was a cut above the norm, with its reconstruction of an entire megalithic monument. But it did include a ‘hermit’s cell’ – more of a cave, really. Danby advertised for a hermit to live in it; the deal was that he would ‘provide any individual with food, and a subsequent annuity, providing he would reside in the temple seven years, speaking to no one and allowing his hair and beard to grow.’ One man lasted four-and-a-half years before the Yorkshire winters drove him away.

At Painshill in Surrey the Honourable Charles Hamilton also built a hermit’s hut on his estate. He, too, advertised; his hermit must ‘continue in the hermitage seven years, where he should be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for his timepiece, water for his beverage and food from the house.’

That all sounds very comfortable – but he (women were not considered for the post) was also to ‘wear a camlet robe, and never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, nails or beard, stray beyond the limits of Mr Hamilton’s grounds, or exchange one word with any servant.’ The only candidate was duly appointed – and resigned after three weeks.

At Hawkstone in Shropshire the 18th-century thatched hermitage also had, briefly, a live hermit, known as ‘The Venerable barefooted Father Francis’ – but by the 19th century he’d been replaced by an automaton hermit which was set in motion by one of the estate guides.

In the 1760s the third Earl of Breadalbane, who lived near Dunkeld in Perthshire, had a cave constructed; he called it ‘Ossian’s Cave’ after the supposedly Celtic (though fake) poet Ossian.

The Earl’s advertisement for a hermit to live in it was unsuccessful, though in the 1860s the guide dressed up with a long beard of lichens and clothes of animal skins.

A similar garb was adopted by Harry White at the hermitage in the garden of his brother, the naturalist Gilbert White, at Selbourne in Hampshire.

There are plenty of 18th-century hermitages – there’s another at Badminton House in Gloucestershire, built of rough wood, branches and deer antlers, and designed in about 1750 by Thomas Wright of Durham – but there are few from later dates. There is, though, an early 20th-century anchorite’s cell, made of poured concrete, attached to the church of All Saints in North Street, York.

And on the other side of the world there’s a hermit’s cave near Griffith in New South Wales, to which Valerio Riccetti, a miner from Broken Hill, moved in 1929, because he was jilted by a barmaid. He referred to it as his ‘Garden of Eden’, and his hermitage is now a protected Australian monument. It’s a suitably eccentric end to the fascinating story of the hermitage.