This stone shelter, grandly titled ‘The Hermitage’ stands in the former grounds of Newton House, a few miles from Whitby. Newton House was built in the late 18th century as the seat of Jonas Brown a Whitby ship-owner and merchant. Brown (1717-1799) is commemorated by an obelisk near the house which records that he built Newton House and tamed the surrounding wild heath to create arable land and pleasure grounds.
The early history of the cave, likes its interior, is a little murky and no contemporary account of its construction seems to exist. There’s no explanation why a hermitage was built here, although such solemn structures were a fashionable addition to landscapes at this date. The builder might have been inspired by the local ‘romantic fable’ of the Hermit of Eskdaleside, which is just a few miles from Newton House. The story goes that a monk from Whitby lived as a recluse in the woods, and one day an exhausted wild boar ran into his dwelling and expired. The monk slammed the door on the hunters who charged their way in and, furious, attacked the hermit and left him for dead. With his dying words he forgave them but imposed a penance (see the link at the end for the full story).
In the grounds of Newton House a huge boulder was scooped out to create a cavern, with a stone bench running around the interior. Across the path from the hermitage is a walled viewing platform looking down to the May Beck in the valley below. There would have been no shortage of qualified workers to excavate the Hermitage, for the area was already extensively quarried for sandstone, and to provide materials for the local alum industry, in which Brown had an interest. The Hermitage is assumed to have been part of Brown’s landscaping works, but it does not bear his name. Instead is inscribed’ The Hermitage’ and ‘G + C’ and dated ‘1790’.
Identifying the person behind the initials ‘G+C’ is not easy. The first description in print seems to be in Whellan’s History & Topography of York and the North Riding which was published in 1859, almost 60 years after the cave was created. Whellan states that the Hermitage was built by George Clubb in 1790. A year later Francis Kildale Robinson’s 1860 guide to Whitby, its abbey, and the principal parts of the neighbourhood claims that the Hermitage bears the inscription ‘George Chubb, 1790′. Robinson is incorrect as the carving does not give a full name: there are simply the deeply-incised initials ‘G + C’. Later histories rely on Robinson and perpetuate the incorrect name of Chubb – but he shall be Clubb henceforth (conclusive evidence will be provided in due course).
George Waddington (1821-1898), a Whitby antiquary, amassed volumes of notes and clippings on the area, many based on the oral histories of local residents (now in the collection at the excellent Whitby Museum). In 1880 he noted that George Clubb had been factotum to the Brown family of Newton House, and also designer of ‘the stonehouse or hermitage’. Waddington was told that the hermitage was hollowed out by one Christopher Jeffrey, and that it had housed a stone table until a ‘young beast’ ran in and destroyed it (the species of this brawny brute is not specified). The roof of the cave is home to two stone chairs, one a simple stool, but the other a rather grand, although perhaps not hugely comfortable, armchair – were they for George and Christopher (G+C) creators of the cave?
Waddington was also told that Clubb had a school in nearby Littlebeck, and this part of the story at least appears to be verifiable. Whitby parish registers note that George Clubb, a Schoolmaster who lived to be 75, was buried at St Mary’s in Whitby (of Dracula fame) in November 1812. His dates are therefore c. 1737-1812, but no other trace of the enigmatic schoolmaster/factotum/hermitage designer has yet been found.
Jonas Brown died in 1799 and Newton House remained with his descendants until 1812, before passing through a number of owners. During the Second World War the house was requisitioned and in 1967 the estate was sold to the Forestry Commission. Having been a field studies centre for some years Newton House is now a private home.
The Hermitage stands a little way from the popular natural attraction of Falling Foss waterfall (and the equally popular Falling Foss Tea Garden). It can be easily accessed from the Falling Foss car park, or there is a lovely walk from the pretty hamlet of Littlebeck to Falling Foss, with the mysterious Hermitage, and a much more recent addition, as objects along the route.
For the tale of the hermit and the boar see https://www.whitbyonline.co.uk/whitbyhistory/thepennyhedge.php
There’s more on Littlebeck Wood nature reserve here https://www.ywt.org.uk/nature-reserves/little-beck-wood-nature-reserve
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