There’s a hermit at the bottom of my garden…

OUP, 2013 Review copy supplied by Amazon Vine
OUP, 2013
Review copy supplied by Amazon Vine

Here’s an idea for David Cameron to ponder as he wrestles with the unemployment statistics.

Mr Powyss of Marcham, near Preston, Lancashire…advertised a reward of £50 a year for life to any man who would undertake to live seven years underground, without seeing anything human: and to let his toe and finger nails grow, with his hair and beard, during the whole time. Apartments were prepared under gorund, very commodious, with a cold bath, a chamber organ, as many books as the occupier pleased, and provisions served from his own table…

This extraordinary Sits Vacant advertisement was, in fact, the standard job specification for that 18th Century phenomenon, the garden hermit. Imported from the Continent and heavily influenced by both Virgil’s Georgics (an ancient Roman manifesto for The Good Life) and the Christian eremetical tradition, the hermitage was something of a fixture in the great landscape gardens of the wealthy and powerful. It all sounds very alien to us, but the idea of an unwashed eccentric hiding in some dark and gloomy corner of your garden, the floor of his chamber paved with sheep bones and possibly the entrance involving a dark tunnel made of tree roots, seems to have sent a frisson of excitement down the spine of garden visitors. Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Moreland, in Northanger Abbey is eager to enter a grove of old Scottish firs, and “began to talk with easy gaity of the delightful melancholy such a grove inspired.”

There’s a very modern aspirational tone about the disconnect between elaborately manicured and controlled country gardens placing a living symbol of the retreat from civilisation in their darkest corners, and well-shod bonneted visitors getting off on how deliciously simple and back-to-nature they are being as the servants serve them a picnic outside an ersatz hermit’s cell. Although the details of the garden hermit craze seem bizarre to us at first acquaintance, they represent an impulse that’s still there – to order and tame our private world, but include in that process some symbol of what we’ve left behind, a sanitised version of the values we fancy we have lost. In fact, it’s arguable that the humble garden gnome is a relic of that tradition, a little nod to uncontrollable wildness and natural unpredictability. Interestingly, the gnome is now adopted ironically or associated with the lower classes, whilst the original hermitage ideal was very much the province of the wealthy.

All this makes me want to dust off my National Trust membership card and go in search of surviving hermits’ huts (there is a particularly fine one at Stourhead, apparently). If that appeals to you, you will love this book. You couldn’t have a more comprehensive list of garden hermitage sites, both ruined and restored. Gordon Campbell is a fine guide, both scholarly and whimsical, and he’s really done his homework. It sounds like a wonderful, pottering hobby for a retired couple with time on their hands.

I’m not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend this book, however. It’s not quite substantial enough to satisfy as an academic study (and rather catalogue-like at times), nor is it pictorial enough to serve as the kind of coffee-table publication you find in National Trust gift shops. I received mine as a review copy, and it’s copiously illustrated and beautifully produced. However, I’d balk at paying nearly £20 for it, I think. It has made me want to see Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which is all about garden hermits, apparently, and reconsider the humble garden gnome. As for a hermitage tour, that can go on my to-do list, along with all the jumpers I mean to knit one day, not to mention the books I have yet to read.

What's he smoking?
What’s he smoking?

4 thoughts on “There’s a hermit at the bottom of my garden…

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