Conishead Priory, as the name suggests, was a religious house, but after the dissolution it became a private home. In the middle of the 18th century it was home to Thomas Braddyll (1730-1776) who created new pleasure grounds around the Priory, including a number of ornamental features.
The pleasure ground was described at length by Thomas West in his Guide to the Lakes, first published in 1778, two years after Braddyll’s death. West wrote that the ‘late owner performed wonders’ to create ‘the paradise of Furness’, and called the park had been ‘one of the greatest in England.’ Nature had of course been generous at Conishead, which is tucked between the hills and the sea, but as West wrote, Braddyll had consulted ‘the genius of the place’ to form a ‘magnificent whole’.
Above the house, a lawn sloped up to woodland where in 1777 a young visitor found a ‘curious Hermitage, or Moss-House, where the Moss and Ivy are curled round by the curious Hand of Nature’. Sadly no contemporary images have been found, and the view above is the only known record of the building intact.
West’s extravagant praise for the delights of Conishead can be seen in a different light when we learn from a visitor in 1779 that he had played a leading role in the design. The tourist wrote that the Hermitage was an ‘exact’ copy of ones seen in France, and was ‘built and furnished under the direction of Mr West’.
Thomas West (?1720-1779) was better known locally as Father West, a Jesuit priest who had returned to Britain after the closure of the Jesuit schools in France in 1765. He settled in Furness, and as well as tending to a small catholic flock, indulged his passion for history, and became friends with the principal local families: the Braddylls of Conishead and the Cavendishes of Holker Hall. West has not previously been acknowledged as a gentleman landscape designer, but that he took keen interest in contemporary design can be seen in his published works where he compares Conishead to two great landscapes: Wooburn Farm, Philip Southcote’s pastoral landscape in Surrey, and Mount Edgcumbe, overlooking Plymouth Sound in Devon.
The Hermitage was cruciform in plan and built of rustic rough stone blocks. It consisted of two rooms – a living chamber and a chapel with a painted glass window representing the Annunciation. No records of any religious activity have been found, but it would have been a place for quiet contemplation where one could appreciate the beauty of nature: visitors commented on the ‘great variety of pleasing views’ it commanded.
On Thomas Bradyll’s death in 1776 the estate was left to his cousin, or ‘the Grandson of my Aunt Margaret’ to be precise. This was Wilson Gale (1756-1818), and under the terms of the will he took the name Bradyll. The Hermitage was kept in good repair and was visited by guests exploring the ‘delightful walks’ in the park. An 1834 guidebook to the lakes mentioned the building, but found it inauthentic as it was ‘considerably more elegant than hermits are wont to construct for themselves’. Which diverts us to the question of whether it was ever inhabited: one story told in the area is that a ‘tame lion’ was kept in the Hermitage in the early 19th century. Another local legend says that a hermit was in residence for 20 years, but there is no evidence whatsoever, and as we shall see below, hermits were in short supply in the area.
In 1843 the ‘pretty secluded retreat’ was described as ‘in perfect keeping’, but soon after this date the Conishead estate passed out of Braddyll hands. Wilson Gale Braddyll’s son and heir, Thomas, had lost money on a mining venture, and having also spent lavishly building the amazing house that survives today, he was forced to sell Conishead Priory. The estate has since had various institutional owners.
The Hermitage was intact, if overgrown, when architect and antiquarian John Flavel Curwen (1860-1932) gave a paper on it in 1902. The stained glass was gone, but he found the remains of a wooden bedstead, and on the floor of the chapel was a ‘massive cross of red sandstone, 5 feet 9 inches in length, but broken’.
The current custodian of Conishead Priory, the Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre, is slowly restoring the house and estate. In 2009 the Buddhist community commissioned Greenlane Archaeology to investigate the landscape, including the hermitage. No interior features are intact, but the truncated walls still stand, and the cruciform plan is clear to see.
In recent years a new ornament has been added to the pleasure grounds at Conishead Priory in the form of this wonderful temple.
A second, and sadly also lost, hermitage was built not too far away in 1795. The eccentric Joseph Pocklington (1736-1817) embellished an island in Derwentwater with follies, and later constructed a hermitage at his Barrow Cascade House estate on the shore of the lake.
Pocklington was keen to find a hermit to animate the new building, and offered a generous half a crown a day in payment. But as William Gell recorded in 1797, the terms were tough: ‘The hermit is never to leave the place, or hold a conversation with anyone for 7 years during which time he is neither to wash himself or cleanse himself in any way whatever, but is to let his hair and nails both on hands and feet grow as long as nature will permit them’.
Curiously, the post seems to have remained vacant.
The Hermitage at Conishead is not publicly accessible, but the Manjushri Kadampa community welcome visitors elsewhere on the estate, and it is very well worth a trip for the beauties of the architecture (old and new), the woodland and the coastline. And there’s a great cafe. https://manjushri.org
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