Mysteries & Hidden Histories: The Peculiar History of The Ornamental Hermit

In a world so busy and chaotic as ours, many strive for a simpler existence. But if you were given the chance to spend your days in solitude, connecting with nature and reflecting on life, could you truly manage to shun the temptations of fun and frivolity? For men living in the 18th century this peaceful life was in fact an available profession... so long as you could grow an impressive beard and stay away from the local ale house.

The peculiar phenomenon of ornamental, or garden hermits is one of those fantastically mad ideas that could only be executed by the ridiculously wealthy. While today’s celebrities and billionaires flaunt expensive cars and stiff, surprised expressions, the aristocratic old wealth has long been tinged with wonderful snippets of eccentricity. Out of touch with the realities of the world and a grand country pile to play with, it would of course be tempting to build secret passages, collect a menagerie of wild animals, or even have your very own human pet. (Does this offset their hoarding of wealth? No. Do we still love it? Yes. It is a conflict to ponder.)

A crumbling tower with several little windows
Wimpole's Folly, built in the 1770s in Cambridgeshire, was designed to resemble a ruined medieval castle.

But back to the hermits. The trend first emerged during the 18th century as a curious consequence of the English Landscape Movement. Influenced by esteemed landscape architect Capability Brown (1716 - 1783), the movement saw European formality and order that had characterised country gardens for many years replaced with more painterly rolling parklands, complete with craggy rockeries, decorative bridges, verdant shrubbery and picturesque grottos in which the landowners could contemplate the burdens of life.

Rugged mock-ruins called follies were a popular choice for adding a little extra mystery to the often already ancient landscapes. So named because their cost insinuated ‘folly’ in the builder, these brilliantly pointless but lovely-to-look-at structures would commonly be built of stone, sometimes mimicking classic or exotic architecture. Naturally, the next step was to hire a little man to live there, grow a beard and occasionally express nuggets of wisdom when you pass by. Obviously.

The word hermit derives from the Latin ĕrēmīta meaning ‘of the desert’, and genuine hermits living religious seclusion have in fact existed for many centuries. These new-fangled hermits were largely part of the decor, and their duties more performative than pious. In exchange for room and board, the hermit would reside in the folly with basic amenities. Instructed to wear robes typical of a druid and not permitted to cut their hair, beard or nails, the hermit would either be invited to engage in entertaining visitors or simply to live a quiet existence of deep thought. Catching sight of these rustic figures ruminating in nature was considered a great spectacle for guests, while at the same time inferring at the host’s own wisdom and introspection.

black and white illustration of a hermit
John Bigg, 'The Dinton Hermit'.

The identities of these peculiar fellows are largely unknown, but various accounts exist in the history books. One such story is that of 18th century MP Charles Hamilton, a great devotee of the English Landscape Movement, who hired himself a resident hermit for his country seat of Painshill Park in Surrey.

Having built in his grounds a charming thatched tower raised up on a frame of gnarled tree branches, Hamilton put forward some stipulations of the job in his advertisement:

“The hermit must continue on the hermitage seven years, where he shall be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for timepiece, water for his beverage and food from the house. He must wear a camlet robe, and never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr. Hamilton’s grounds, or exchange one word with the servant.”

Although a man answered the advert and was chosen to be Hamilton’s personal recluse, the employment was cut short in just three weeks when the hermit was discovered enjoying a few tipples in the local inn. (Quite frankly, we can’t help but think this is a fate that would become a lot of would-be hermits.)

For those who could not find or afford an actual person serious enough to lead this solitary lifestyle, makeshift mannequins were a common substitute. Failing that, modest possessions such as pipes and cups would be scattered around the folly’s interior to give the impression the hermit had simply ‘popped out for a moment’.

Whimsical folly with thatched roof raised on gnarled wooden branches
The hermitage at Painshill Park in Cobham, Surrey

Extravagant, odd and entirely pointless, there is something inherently whimsical about garden hermits, but the concept of a glorified, bearded squatter isn’t for everyone for everyone, and the fashion for ornamental hermits was a fairly fleeting novelty and by the end of the 19th century the tradition for ornamental hermits had soon died out.

Due to a mix of social, political and largely financial reasons, dozens of grand, crumbling country estates throughout England were demolished during the 20th century. The grounds of many have passed into public ownership, often with stone hermitages and follies still standing - their already ruinous aesthetic having saved them from the perils of disrepair. You can visit a restored replica of Hamilton’s hermitage at Painshill Park, and admire the many other fanciful features of this stunning estate.

While we shall have to make do with mute and ignorant garden gnomes, there is at least one hermit existing in Europe. In 2017 a Belgian man named Stan Vanuytrecht was hired to live in a 350-year-old hermitage, built into a cliff above the town of Saalfelden in western Austria. With a history of dangerous trespassing, no running water, electricity or pay, we do hope that Vanuytrecht is doing okay up there, but with no reports found that his tenure coming to an end it seems that the hermit life is just right for some.


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