Saturday, 26 January 2013

A nice place - for a frog

Cro made a reference to 'Hermits' today, and it put me in mind of the real ones that used to haunt the most desolate and isolated highways and byways of Britain, right up until roads were improved by law in the 18th century.

I am deliberately not going to look up the classic definition of a 'hermit' until I have finished writing this, just in case I ruin a good story with the truth.

All sorts of things happened as soon as the Great Roads that criss-crossed Olde England were improved for the sake of commerce and the postal service and farmers were forced to spend a week or two breaking stones to fill in local pot-holes for the sake of wealthy travellers, on pain of large fines from central government.

Hermits were replaced with their exact opposite on the loneliest and most dangerous stretches of God-foresaken road - Highwaymen. The hermits would use their local knowledge of the area in order to assist travellers, but the highwaymen would use it for other reasons. Even in the early 18th century, highwaymen were folk-heroes, and only disgraced by ruthless footpads who killed without hesitation, and could not afford to stable a horse like the more noble robbers.

Blunderbuss guns were invented to counteract robbery on the highway - short little things with wide bores which could be easily re-loaded in the dark and on a moving carriage. The reason they have splayed, bell-shaped muzzles was to make the hasty pouring of powder and shot into the barrel easier, and nothing to do with what happened when you pulled the trigger.

Just as real hermits were disappearing from Britain, a new craze spread amongst the very wealthy who had large country estates - Grotto building.

Travel became easier for those who could afford it, and not only on the roads of this country, but also right across the continent - it almost became a duty for wealthy young men to conduct a Grand Tour before they properly settled down to adult - and married - life, and any any wild oats which were sown, were sown on foreign soil, far away from all the dairymaids and housekeepers back on the estate.

When the young men returned from their mind-broadening travels, they would bring back souvenirs as we bring back photos. Cartloads of marble figures (in miniature scale for ease of transport), coins set in the lava of Mount Vesuvius, shells, minerals and crystals were all dragged back to the country seat, and pretty soon there were no display cases big enough to house the proud collections of geological specimens, accumulated over a year or two to impress friends and relations.

So they set about building artificial caves and tunnels in the spirit of the Gothick architectural revival, and set all the sparkling crystals onto their walls to be viewed in melancholic candle light, or a small aperture in the roof of a gloomy cave, to the sound of dripping water from an unseen cistern.

I have restored a couple of these 18th century grottos in the past, and was astounded to see the original bill of cost for the building of one in particular, dated 1790. Using local labour and foreign materials, the cost for this modestly-sized crystal cave was in excess of £40,000! Can you imagine how that would translate in today's money, when at the time of building it, the average wage for a builder would have been about £10 - £20 a year?

Some wealthy land-owners built plainer grottoes in the landscaped grounds of their country houses, then sat back to contemplate the view before realising that something was missing.

Wouldn't it be nice and romantic - they began to think - if we had a rustic old hermit wandering around the stone and wooden ruins of the 'new' grotto?

So they put out advertisements for suitable candidates to play the role of rustic hermits - real people with real time on their hands, to adorn and embellish their romantic idyl.

The adverts would contain provisos which forbade the 'hermit' to cut his hair, shave, wash or talk to guests, and insisted that he wander silently around the vicinity of his cave for a period of a year, to be seen from a distance by visiting guests at the house.

In return for this 24 hour a day, 365 day play-acting, the 'hermit' would receive all his meals and would - at the end of his contract - be sent away with quite a large sum of money for a vagrant - maybe £100 or so.

The trouble was that the very role attracted what was usually the wrong sort of person, and any bearded and unkempt men who could fulfil the duties to the letter, usually brought other social problems with them.

There were cases of hermits slipping out of the estate by night in order to buy alcohol, then drunkenly shouting at and accosting the guests by day, until forcibly removed by other household staff, never to return.

You just cannot get the staff these days.


  1. We have a shell grotto about 6 miles from us that was built in the 1760's .......... it took 30 years to build and cost £10,000 ....... it must be a bit smaller than yours !! Dr. Samuel Johnson was a regular visitor and he named it 'Fairy Hall'. Inside in one 'room' are seats and, talking of frogs, has FROG written above one of them in shells, a pet name of the owners wife. I've never seen any hermits but, probably, in the dead of night, one might chance upon an old tramp having a kip with a bottle of cider at his side !!!! ......... same difference. XXXX

    1. That's funny, because the title of this post is a direct quote from Dr Johnson, who said that he hated grottoes. Is your grotto somewhere near Lichfield?

    2. No ......... Hertford in Hertfordshire. How strange that Dr. Johnson said that he hated grottoes ....... perhaps our one has made it up so that it sounds better. Ours was built for John Scott who was an 18th century poet so maybe that was his bit of poetic licence !! XXXX

  2. I wonder if England's folk history is so rich due to the small space in which to store so much time.

    Grottos in America tend to be upended bathtubs with religious statues therein. Tastefully decorated, of course.

    1. I love those bathtub grottoes too - real folk art. Yes, a lot happened here over a long time, and within a small space. The weather helps as well.

  3. If you should spot another advert', and the money is right....

    1. You certainly have the right credentials for the job, but I worry about your red wine consumption.