architecture, eyecatcher, Folly, garden history, Grotto, hermitage, North Yorkshire

The Hermitage, Newton House, near Whitby, North Yorkshire

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).

The legend of the hermit of Eskdaleside as told on a map of 1817. ‘In this Chapel the Wild Boar took Refuge when the Hermit was kill’d by the Lords of Ugglebarnby and Sneaton, then a hunting here’. Reproduced courtesy of North Yorkshire Country Record Office, PR/ESK.

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.

The Heritage as seen on a postcard sent in 1909. Courtesy of the Dave Martin Collection.

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.

Early 20th century postcard courtesy of a private collection.

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.

Lines from ‘Peace’ by Georgia Douglas Johnson carved by local sculptor Steve Iredale on a tree which had to be felled because of ash dieback early in 2023. Discovered in the Little Beck Wood Nature reserve, en route to the Hermitage.

For the tale of the hermit and the boar see

There’s more on Littlebeck Wood nature reserve here

If you have any other thoughts or comments, please scroll down to the foot of the page to get in touch. Thank you for reading.

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8 thoughts on “The Hermitage, Newton House, near Whitby, North Yorkshire”

  1. Caroline Kernan says:

    What a fascinating story. My comment really is just about the structure that appears to run around the inside of the grotto. It looks like a feeding trough. I can tell nothing of it’s age from the image and it might have been a later addition.

    1. Editor says:

      Good afternoon Caroline. The structure is a stone bench which runs around the interior of the cavern – it is all carved out of the single block of stone, and must have taken many, many hours to complete. Quite an achievement!

  2. Colin Addy says:

    Thanks for this week’s post and all your research on the Hermitage. We’ll be adding a visit to our next trip to Whitby!
    It reminds me of a similar ‘hermitage’ at Dale Abbey, in Derbyshire. That one wasn’t constructed as a ‘folly’, if I recall correctly, but was reputed to have been the living quarters of a real monk from the nearby abbey – but no wild boars!
    Best Wishes


    1. Editor says:

      Hello Colin. The Hermitage, and the walk to it, are well worth adding on to a trip to Whitby. I don’t know Dale Abbey so will add that to my list of things to explore when next in Derbyshire, thanks.

  3. David Edgar says:

    A splendid hermitage exists at Warkworth Castle (English Heritage) in Northumberland. Out of the rock has been cut a chapel room, an inner chamber and a smaller chamber. In the first 2 the walls and ceilings are carved as fictive pillars and vaulting. It was established in about 1400 and is located on the further bank of the River Coquet. E H provides a ferryman at times.
    The castle consists of extensive ruins and an ingeiously planned majestic Great Tower, all set on a high spur of land above the attractive town of Warkworth. Its church is interesting and the original road crosses the River Coquet by means of a defendable medieval bridge.

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning David. I know Warkworth well and endorse your comments on its many wonderful buildings. The hermitage there is, as you say, on a wholly different scale and although earlier in date it was treated as a landscape feature in the 18th century when hermitages were in vogue. Many thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. Garance says:

    Many thanks for this fascinating piece. Sculptor, Stone Mason or quarry man, whoever carved out the space certainly put in a huge amount of effort for a rather more robust folly than many you introduce us to.

    I imagined hermits kept themselves to themselves, but it seems in this instance there was much seating provided for socialising.

    Though we may not get in to see the hermitage, thank you for suggestions of the ‘excellent’ Whitby Museum and Falling Foss waterfall and tea garden, which will go on my list of places to be visited. Amazing how much added value comes from your ‘excellent’ research.

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning Garance. Robust is an excellent description, I imagine it will be there for many, many years to come. A day’s jaunt to the museum, hermitage and tea garden is highly recommended.

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