My own private Idaho
Country Life UK|February 17, 2021
Originally conceived as peaceful retreats in which their owners could escape from the world, many of our surviving hermitages are located in some of the most enchanting spots in the country, observes Bronwen Riley
Bronwen Riley
I HAVE visited many hermitages in my time, but only once have I encountered a hermit inside one. He lived on a cold Romanian hillside in Transylvania, which, on the moonlit night in late December when I set out to meet him, was deep in snow. I was in the company of a band of orphaned gypsies, together with an Indologist with a brilliant smile, and we were all feeling thrilled for different reasons—although that is another story.

All I knew was that the hermit lived in a ‘small house’—which could cover any number of hermetic habitations. Might he be locked inside a cell, dwell in a cave warmed by wolves or bears, or crouch within a flimsy tent of goatskins like something out of a Byzantine icon?

When we arrived at a traditional wooden house and were offered (the Indologist and I) glasses of cherry brandy and comfortable chairs to sit upon, I felt a twinge of disappointment. However, looking around the room, I spotted one item of furniture that more than satisfied my expectations—a large coffin, in which the hermit slept.

During this period of enforced isolation, when we are daily obliged to confront the real or metaphorical coffin in the room, my thoughts have taken a reclusive turn once more. Choosing to withdraw from society is one thing, but having it imposed is quite another. If one were to retreat from the world voluntarily, what sort of dwelling might facilitate such a lifestyle? Might living in a purpose-built hermitage make lockdown any more palatable?

There is no need to travel to Transylvania to see one—agreeable as that might be—for, in Britain, we are provided with a number of homegrown hermitages to suit all tastes and locations. Our historic hermit housing stock falls into two categories and time frames: medieval, the surviving examples of which tend to be caves or cells attached to chapels or churches; and those of a picturesque, 18thcentury type, made of wood, stone or a mixture of both, in a deliberately faux-rustic or ruinated style and situated in gardens or parks.

Of the surviving medieval hermitages, the one at Warkworth, Northumberland, enjoys a most enchanting setting. Within the castle’s park and surrounded by woodland, it is rather wonderfully—accessible only by boat across the River Coquet, via a path from the castle. Of the hermits who lived here, nothing is known, but, inside the rock-hewn chapel, an inner chamber with a window and inward viewing slits may have been the anchorite’s cell. A shield carved over its entrance depicts the instruments of Christ’s passion and once bore the inscription: ‘They gave me gall for my meat and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.’ A suitably stark message for an anchorite who lived as if dead to the world and enclosed within Christ’s tomb.

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