hermitages

At Brocklesby Park, the Lincolnshire seat of the Pelham family, the hermitage (above) is of the type known as a root house. What seems to be the original furniture survives inside, including a table made from a bole (part of a tree trunk), a rustic hermit’s chair formed from branches, and four visitors’ chairs carved out of solid tree trunks.

This is the last of our intriguing hermitage pictures (from The Hermit in the Garden: Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome) which we’ve been sharing this week, during the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, to celebrate the lifting of their usual ban on garden gnomes. The book’s author Gordon Campbell argues that it’s possible that gnomes came to occupy the cultural void occasioned by the demise of the ornamental hermit. The hermit and the gnome are both human figures in the garden, and figures with historical and mythical resonances.

Image © Professor Gordon Campbell. Do not reproduce without permission.

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The view from the windows of the Hermitage. 

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Here’s another of our favourite hermitages from Gordon Campbell’s The Hermit in the Garden: Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome, which we’re sharing this week during the RHS Chelsea Flower Show  to celebrate the lifting of their usual ban on garden gnomes at this year’s event.

Dunkeld House no longer exists, but the hermitage (shown here), constructed in a neoclassical style, still stands, now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. It is, however, not quite in its original form, because in 1783 the hermitage was refashioned as a shrine to Ossian, and it is in this form that it has been restored after the unhappy pillages of the nineteenth century, when vandals set it alight (1821) and blew it up (1869) with dynamite. This hermitage features a “hall of mirrors”, concealed behind sliding panels, and revealed when a hidden handle is pulled.

Image © Professor Gordon Campbell. Do not reproduce without permission.

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Exploring some old hermitages near Sera Monastery …

The mountain behind Sera Monastery is worth a whole day of exploration to discover all of the little chapels and hermitages that are built into it, reaching from short detours off the kora right up to Utse at the top. 

Although the Lonely Planet map of Sera Monastery shows a switchback trail leading off the kora near the giant thangka wall as the way to go up, this is not the best route to take. The best way is, as always, to go where the pilgrims go. Just after a visit to the holy spring at the very back of the Sera kora the trail emerges into a pretty little grove where there is a huge boulder that has been painted with a basic map of the mountain showing the different trails to get to the different hermitages. It’s only in Tibetan, but it gives you a pretty good idea of the paths. 

From this boulder the path climbs up a dusty rock trail to a lookout (from where you can get a perfect view of the daily debates in the courtyard below) and then meanders easily to the first major building on the mountain - the Choding Hermitage. The doors are often locked here, but some monks who live in the hermitage will happily open them for you if they see you there. 

Behind and around Choding Hermitage are a couple of little yellow buildings - both small one-room chapels with some recently re-done murals and simple altars for offerings. 

Following the path onwards from these little chapels takes pilgrims past a holy spring and on to another lookout point from where the whole of Sera Monastery can be seen. But by taking this route the adventurous explorer misses out on climbing around the five abandoned hermitage huts that lie just up the hill from Choding Hermitage. There is no actual path to reach them - just the option of yak trails or a climb straight up some boulders - but it’s worth the effort to check out what it would be like to live as a hermit in one of these retreats. 

While two of the huts are totally abandoned - one has a collapsed roof and the other is missing a door - the other three show signs that people have lived there recently. I would guess that they moved out for winter because the huts aren’t very well prepared for the colder months, so perhaps if I go back in a few months I’ll find some people living there again. Most of these huts are built around natural caves, with some so tight fitting that very little light enters the room to provide warmth, while others have compensated by adding windows but then this of course allows wind to channel through the cracks and prevent the room from keeping any warmth it might get from the sun. 

Living in a hermitage hut such as these ones is common practice for older Tibetans - once they’ve reached the age where they cannot work so easily anymore many elderly people begin to prepare themselves for their next life by engaging in more religious activities, including prolonged meditation and the creation of small offerings. 

To be able to explore the inside of these huts was quite interesting to me - I’d always wondered about what exactly they were like inside. Was there a cooking area? A fire place? A bed of sorts? Was their meditation seat facing outwards or inwards? Was there space to stand up inside? This visit answered all of my questions. 

Most huts were comprised of two small rooms, one for practical use and one for devotional use. The ‘practical’ rooms were sparse, with no decorations or even furniture. One had a pile of straw on the ground, another a little fireplace oven that had been carved out of the rock, another had only some old empty tsampa bags lying around. 

In the 'devotional’ rooms though there were posters, postcards, and thangkas hanging on the walls with images of Buddhas on them, as well as handwritten prayers above the door frames. Each 'devotional’ room had a little niche where offerings were laid out, left there by former residents. I couldn’t see any actual bed space in any rooms, but each devotional room had a low meditation seat with a cushion on it, facing an inner wall of the cave. 

Despite their tiny size (and sometimes very low ceilings) none of the huts felt especially cramped, possibly because of the lack of things to fill up the room. The rooms were essentially empty of furniture and objects that might take up space, leaving the religious offerings to take center stage. 

The first two times I came this way around the mountain I missed these huts entirely - their clay and rock walls blend in almost too well with their surroundings and make them very easy to overlook. But for anyone who, like me, has an interest in the daily life of Tibetan Buddhists I’d recommend making the effort to find them, and maybe stay for a few hours in the silence of one of the caves - you’ll forget that you’re in a bustling modern city, and leave feeling at peace. 

Ermita de Piedad, cerca de Moratinos, Prov. Palencia, Spain, 2001.

Almost exactly halfway between its Spanish beginning in Roncesvalles and Santiago de Compostela (about 400 km from each) on the Camino Francés, the most popular route of the Camino Santiago, this hermitage is both typical and atypical. Typical of ermita it is on the outskirts of the town and provides a bucolic setting for contemplation. Usually, however, such structures are devoted to veneration of a specific saint. This one is more generically named for “piety,” and served as a refuge for sick pilgrims (conveniently a kilometer or so outside the town for a crude form of infection control).