What is a hermitage?

The Hermitage at Selbourne, Hampshire by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm, 1777

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.

Spiritual retreat

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.

British hermits

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.

Hermitages at our places

St Cuthbert's Chapel on Inner Farne off the Northumberland Coast

Inner Farne 

St Cuthbert lived on Inner Farne off the Northumberland coast for ten years in relative isolation. His turf-built hut has long gone, but a medieval chapel, heavily restored in Victorian times, serves as a reminder of the island’s attraction as a spiritual retreat.

A cliff top view of South Foreland Lighthouse

South Foreland Lighthouse 

The medieval hermit’s cave at South Foreland in Kent has been replaced by a majestic lighthouse, but the idea of a lantern guiding ships to safety has remained.

Detail of St Herbert's Island, Derwent Water, Cumbria

St Herbert's, Derwent Water 

Little is known of Herbert of Derwent Water, a seventh-century hermit who lived on an island in the middle of the Cumbrian lake. But Herbert and the island named after him were the inspiration for writers as diverse as William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter

Kedleston's restored hermitage

Kedleston Hall 

Recently restored, the eighteenth-century hermitage at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire sits in a Robert Adam-inspired designed landscape. Rustic on the outside, it was used as a summer house for the family to have a rest and drink tea.

A darker place to lurk inside the Hermitage with a rugged exterior stands out against the other golden temples at Stowe.

Stowe 

The hermitage at Stowe in Buckinghamshire was designed by William Kent in 1730, and invited visitors to contemplate a virtuous life and the folly of pursuing pleasure.

The Bear's Hut at Killerton, Devon

Killerton 

The bear’s hut at Killerton in Devon is a timber structure with a beautiful stained-glass window. It was used as a summer house by the family, but also served in the mid-nineteenth century as a home for Tom, a Canadian black bear brought back to Killerton by the twelfth baronet’s brother Gilbert.

Belton House on a winter's morning

Belton House 

The remains of a hermitage were uncovered in the grounds at Belton House in Lincolnshire during site excavations in 2013. Previously believed to be those of a summer house, they were instead identified as the ‘Hermitage’ designed by architect Anthony Salvin in the early nineteenth century. The excavated remains match Salvin's design.