Gardener’s world

By Dav White

A stone shelter in the grounds of Londesborough Lodge on the Crescent was once used by gardeners to store tools.

Now gated off to deter anti-social behaviour, it is described in The Streets of Scarborough by Raymond Fieldhouse and John Barrett as built in the style of a hermit’s cell.

A hermit’s cell or hermitage is a folly, a novelty popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, often found in the gardens of the wealthy and the aristocracy. It was a romantic whimsy for those who could afford pineapples (once so expensive that they were hired out by the hour, to adorn the head tables at soirées).

The upper classes would employ a member of the lower classes to dress in the white robes of a druid, don a silly hat and live at the bottom of the garden, peeping out of the shrubbery. With this curious provision, the Victorians indulged their fondness for melancholy and sobriety, though social historians admit that little is understood as to why employing an ornamental hermit would ease the doldrums.

Londesborough Lodge was the villa of the first Earl of Londesborough, who used it while taking in the North Sea air and the spring waters at the Spa. This building and the White House next door, previously known as East Villa, form an important group of buildings on the Crescent. Both the buildings and their grounds are grade II listed, protected for their special architectural and historical importance.

The idea of the hermit’s cell became popular in the 18th century and appeared in various building styles in country estates all around Britain, ranging from simple cave constructions to timber shack fabrications and out-houses.

In some cases, such as the one at Londesborough Lodge, the resident hermit didn’t exist, he was only hinted at; his abode was there but the hermit was not. A sign would read ‘Out to lunch’ or ‘Gone fishing’. In some stately gardens, hermitages had a table and chair outside with glasses, pipe and coat, suggesting the hermit was around but just couldn’t be seen. 

Some garden estates employed a member of the lower classes to live in the cell, adopt a druid’s garb and recite a poem or script of classical prose to entertain guests.

Stone circles or other ancient ruins such as castles were seen as ideal plunder for constructing hermitages as ruins had an authentic link to antiquity. Many ancient ruins were uprooted and moved to private gardens to improve their character. They were decorated with ferns, fossils and water features.

The druid’s temple in the grounds of Swinton Park near Masham is a good example of such a folly. It was built in 1821 by William Danby, who paid local workers affected by depression to construct a Stonehenge. He paid one of them to impersonate a hermit by growing his hair and beard long and wild to play the part.

This may explain why the stone circle outside Cloughton was described by 18th century antiquarian Robert Knox as a druid circle. It was on the boundary of the Whitby Strand and Pickering Lythe, near ancient woodland supplying Whitby Abbey. There are no records of the circle ever being occupied by an ornamental hermit but this didn’t stop Knox making a drawing of a victim tied to one of the stones, forever awaiting the druid’s return.

As mentioned in a previous article, classical columns were being duplicated on the porches of the new buildings of commerce. The columns of Jachin and Boaz, according to the Old Testament, stood on the porch way of the great temple of Solomon where, according to myth, they were inscribed with the information necessary to build a civilisation. As the great industrialists industrialised Britain, they seemed to want classical buildings and craved wild nature. They would build wildness in their gardens, appropriating ornamental hermitages. Both the classical architecture and hermitages symbolised civic virtue, financial success and eloquence.

“When you are sad, a garden comforts”, according to Monty Don. “When you are humiliated or defeated, a garden consoles. When you are lonely, it offers companionship that is true and lasting. When you are weary, your garden will soothe and refresh you”.

The idea of a garden retreat reputably originates from the emperor Hadrian, who allegedly made an island in the grounds of his estate. It had a chair and a simple hut so he could retreat from the pressures of running the Roman empire. The Pope has a little house in the grounds of the Vatican. Winston Churchill was said to have places where he could make oil paintings to help him ‘to stave off the black dog’, as he called his depression. Sir John Soane, the architect who designed the Bank of England and Royal Academy buildings in London, had his hermitage inscribed with the words of the Roman poet Horace: Dulce est desipere in loco, meaning ‘a little nonsense now and then is relished by the finest man’, a proverb memorably articulated by Roald Dahl’s character Willy Wonka.