As the nation settles into staying at home, forgoing a social life and, more practically, visits to the hairdresser and beauty salon, the Folly Flâneuse got to thinking about those fashionable landscape ornaments called hermitages, in which men (presumably women had more sense than to apply for the vacancy) lived in isolation. With ragged clothing, long fingernails, and unkempt beards, the hermits animated the landscape, whilst creating a little drama for the visitors who caught a (staged) glimpse of the recluse.
Hermits in the landscape garden have been considered at length elsewhere, so only a brief summary is necessary here. In the 18th century hermitages sat alongside grottoes, temples, belvederes and sham ruins as essential components of a voguish pleasure ground. Hermitages were created from natural materials – tufa from nearby streams, tree trunks and branches, and moss and heather for the roof. The buildings had to look as if a hermit could have built them himself, using only what he could find locally. Most were designed as rustic retreats, the name ‘hermitage’ suggesting a place where the visitor could be at one with nature and pause for quiet reflection, the word hermit being ultimately derived from the Greek for ‘solitary.’
But some estate owners went a step further and recruited ‘real’ hermits – legend has it via the classified ads in the local newspaper. In return for their basic accommodation and meals, the applicants would eventually receive a pension. But the small print insisted that they made commitments such as remaining for 7 years, not cutting their hair or nails, and making a vow of silence. Needless to say, there are few records of anyone staying the course, but many a story of the hermit being caught having a good natter in the village pub only a few weeks into his contract. Much more reliable were the (albeit rare) waxwork hermits, who seldom strayed, or the automata under the control of a hidden estate retainer.
Whether there is much truth in the hermit tales is debatable, but there were certainly plenty of hermitages. There were examples across Britain and although many have been lost because of the organic nature of their construction, there’s a particularly lovely surviving example at Brocklesby, the seat of the Earl of Yarborough in Lincolnshire. Accounts show it was constructed as part of a scheme of improvements proposed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who last visited Brocklesby in 1780 shortly before work on the shelter started.
The approach to the hermitage is through a grotto tunnel which was once decorated with fossils and curious minerals. Venturing into the dark space created a frisson of trepidation, but on coming out into the light the visitor’s spirits would rise at the sight of the pretty little rustic temple in front of them. Created out of tree trunks, gnarled branches, and rough stone, around a brick core, the little octagon is entered by an arch beautifully formed of two curving branches. The interior was decorated with rustic latticework made of entwined branches, of which traces remain, and furnished with a table made out of a ‘lump of elm disease’ (as Barbara Jones unromantically described it in her notes), a rustic seat, and four chairs each hewn out of a single piece of wood.
So was it ever home to a hirsute and terrifyingly-taloned anchorite, dressed only in rags? Rumour has it that a hermit was occasionally to be found at home, but evidence seems hard to come by. Although there was certainly a very shabby and shifty individual in residence when the Folly Fellowship visited in 1999.
Hermits may have endured their spartan surroundings, but most people were just too keen on their creature comforts to linger in root houses, which by their nature were ‘not very dry’. James Plumptre toured Yorkshire in 1799 and was enamoured with William Aislabie’s landscape garden at Hackfall, near Ripon. Hoping to be able to return and spend more time there, he wished for a cell to be built where he might ‘hermitize’. But remembering the northern weather he added the caveat ‘at least for the summer half year.’
One man who wasn’t afraid of the colder seasons was William Wordsworth, born 250 years ago this week on 7 April 1770. In the early 19th century he built a rustic shelter in his garden at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, inspired by an example he and his sister Dorothy had seen in Scotland. The ‘Moss House’ was used all year round, including as a retreat ‘for quietness on warm days in winter’. The Folly Flâneuse had intended to feature the Wordsworth Trust’s plans to create a modern day successor to the lost structure, which were at an advanced stage when the current situation escalated. Obviously, that’s all on hold but there will be further news here in due course, and a visit to see it is on the flâneuse’s increasingly long list of ‘Things To Look Forward To’.
The hermitage at Brocklesby is grade I listed in recognition of its status as a rare survivor of the genre. ‘Damp and in disrepair’ when seen by Barbara Jones in the 1970s, it has since been restored. The pleasure grounds at Brocklesby are strictly private but have historically been open to the public at certain times of the year. Once the current restrictions are lifted a call to the estate office should elicit the necessary information https://www.brocklesby.co.uk