Romance in the Wilderness

This Summer, to celebrate a 50th birthday and a Silver wedding anniversary, a new hermitage has been built in the Wilderness Garden at Elton Hall in Cambridgeshire.
During the 17th and early 18th century a great tradition of building hermitages existed. Sometimes suggesting a Hermit had built the shelter below a melancholy cross using materials close to hand, this sometimes led to bizarre materials and designs. Often the building would house a hermit, a solitary individual with religious connections or a man might be employed to fulfil the role.

During the 18th century Charles Hamilton engaged a hermit on a seven-year contract for his hermitage in Painshill, Surrey. Story has it the Hermit was expected to wear a Camelot robe, not to cut his nails or hair and reside in the Hermitage with a table, chair, mat and hassock for a bed, an hourglass for timepiece and a Bible. Food came from the House but not a word was to be exchanged with the servants. In return seven hundred guineas would be paid after the seven years. Within a few weeks the hermit had swapped his beads and Bible for ale and tobacco and was dismissed after improper relations with a dairy maid. Had the hermit stuck to his part the fortune would not have been his as the Hamilton's landscapes left him bankrupt before the contract would have been completed.

Having restored several rustic buildings of this period I was delighted to be asked to design and build this new hermitage at Elton.

The materials we chose to use came from estates and landscapes with traditions of this type of building. The floor was cobbled from roundals of cedar and pine to create an aromatic atmosphere. Amongst these pale colours darker yew was introduced to create a MW pattern for William & Meredyth. This could also be interpreted as a double M for the millennium. Corsican pine slab wood was selected to form the walls, leaving an open arch for the door and gothic arches cut from huge slabs of pine. The same tree was used to form the table and chairs from a design found at Brocklesby Park Hermitage. The rafters came from Shropshire Marches, joined by a boss at the apex of the roof, which was cloaked, with a chestnut burr grown at Florence Court, which had grown against a ‘Thomas Wright’ Heather House. The zigzag hazel laths continue the M and W theme and support the traditional wheat straw thatch surmounted by a Yew Cross. Above the fire place is the rhyme,

'Through cunning with dibble,
rake, mattock and spade,
by line and by leavell,
trim garden is made.'

Thomas Trusser 1557.

At the rear of the structure a small alcove together with it's shuttered, leaded lights forms the bed. On the underside of the alcove roof it is decorated with signs of the Zodiac and will have drapes and cushions, perhaps deviating from the solitude of the hermits life but adding to the romance of the building.

           Et in Arcadia ego                                                                           David Raffle July 1999.