What is a hermitage?
A hermitage can be two things. In early Christianity, a hermitage was a place where religious men lived on their own to escape the temptations of the world. These retreats were caves or small buildings in deserts, mountains, forests or on islands. In eighteenth-century landscape gardens a hermitage was also a retreat, but for its aristocratic owners to rest in on their walks. These hermitages were also used as eye-catchers in the landscape.
Hermitages were created by religious men (hermits - from erēmos, Greek for wilderness) in the days of early Christianity as a way of escaping the material world, which they believed to be full of temptation. They lived on their own and in very strict self-discipline (asceticism) on the edges of the civilised world.
The movement started in the second or third century AD in the deserts of Syria and Egypt, but spread across Europe in the following centuries.
In Britain, hermits such as St Cuthbert retreated to islands just off the coast. The physical signs of these hermitages are often gone but their memory remains. St Cuthbert lived in a small hut on Inner Farne in Northumberland between 676 and his death in 687 AD, probably on the site of the ‘Fishe’ house.
At the South Foreland Lighthouse in Kent, in the 1300s the hermit Nicholas de Legh lived in a cave where he lit a lantern every night to guide ships to safety.
In other places, a name may be all that’s left, such as at Lansallos in Cornwall, which translates as the chapel of St Salwys.
Spiritual message and social retreat
From around 1730, the hermitage started to appear in English landscape gardens, either as a moody eye-catcher or as a summer house. Designed in 1730 by William Kent (1685–1748), the Hermitage at Stowe in Buckinghamshire is very atmospheric; a reminder that there is more to life than beauty and pleasure.
Other hermitages might look rustic, but were quite comfortable. The hermitage at Kedleston in Derbyshire (built between 1761 and 1764) is an example of this. It looks roughly made, but contained a mahogany tea table.
From religious retreat to rustic relaxation
The idea of hermitages as a form of religious asceticism can feel a long way from hermitages in eighteenth-century landscape gardens. However, in both cases the underlying idea is the same: they were used to retreat from the world and to contemplate the meaning of life and death, although in the eighteenth century, this might be done with a cup of tea in hand.